Thursday, April 24, 2008

Technological Twists on Taxonomy

Browsing through Nature, I came across a book review by Kevin Kelly on "Systematics as Cyberscience: Computers, Change, and Continuity in Science" by Christine Hine. In his review Kelly takes a look at why taxonomy has been so slow to adopt the new tools provided by information technology.

"Taxonomy, the science of identification and classification of new species, has been one of the slowest disciplines to adopt computers. When most other scientists routinely use these number crunchers to detect patterns within large sets of data, why have taxonomists only recently started to use them?

The reasons are many. Foremost has been the subtle variation among closely related species, which makes quantification of their traits difficult. No computer program can outdo the highly refined judgements of a taxonomic expert who can classify from nuanced alterations even the smallest organism. Consequently, new species are identified and described in a manner that would have been familiar to Charles Darwin 150 years ago.

Second, much taxonomic information has been, and remains, parochial. The expertise required for classifying fly parasites has little in common with that for fungal species or whales. Taxonomic information occupies niches — niche being the exact biological term for these narrow confines. Specialized niches of information with their own protocols challenge computerization.

Third, the low priority given to taxonomy has meant it is perennially underfunded. High-powered computation and software come low on the list after the meagre needs of traditional taxonomy are (barely) met.

Despite these hurdles, the related field of systematics (exploring relationships between organisms over time) is rapidly transforming itself as computation becomes integral. In Systematics as Cyberscience, sociologist Christine Hine investigates the effects of computers and communication technology on the taxonomic community."

Read more ... (Sorry, no Open Access).

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