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Mapping and Responding to Taxonomic Disorder

One of my goals for the group in 2021 is to start ramping up blog posting. To that end, I want to get started introducing a new project that the lab will be running from 2021 until 2024, funded by the FNRS (Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique – FNRS)! We’ll be tackling the hotly debated role of taxonomic concepts in the unfolding biodiversity crisis.

Declining levels of biodiversity worldwide are a widely recognized emergency, one of the most significant currently facing humanity. Equally widely recognized, however, are that a multidisciplinary effort will be needed to resolve it, and that this effort has so far largely been a failure. What explanations might we offer for this persistent failure? Some answers are obvious enough: we might mention, at the very least, economic pressures arising from our dependence on fossil fuels, industrial farming, and other kinds of resource-heavy, extractive industries; political inflexibility; and lack of widespread public understanding of the consequences of biodiversity loss.

Picking up on another largely recognized theme from the philosophy of biology, however, we might also look to the role of taxonomic concepts. Crucial for our success in responding to the biodiversity crisis is a reliable inventory of biodiversity itself. We can only save groups (species, genera, and so forth) that we know to exist, whose characteristics we can define, and which we can recognize to be under threat. Construction of that kind of inventory, then, is made more complicated by a prior difficulty: what exactly is a species? Despite the obvious conceptual and practical importance of that question, it’s recognized by both philosophers and scientists that no consensus concept of “species” exists. Dozens of concepts have at least some currency in the biological literature, and we can measure these in an even larger number of ways, using different methods and criteria for species status.

This leads to an obvious question: is this “taxonomic disorder,” as it has sometimes been described, one of the reasons for which we’ve had trouble in responding effectively to the biodiversity crisis? And if it is, what kinds of solutions might be available to solve it?

The project will thus move in two phases. In the first phase of the project, we need to figure out just exactly what the extent of this conceptual diversity is. In part, this work will be building off of a project led by Andreas de Block at KU Leuven, who’s approaching the question by interviewing practicing scientists to explore the role of epistemic, social, and ethical values in their approach to taxonomy. Our project takes a complementary approach.

First, within the scientific community, we’ll build on the resources we developed in our FNRS MIS project to analyze the published scientific literature, determining in which areas (taxa, charismatic species, geographic locations), methods (molecular or morphological), or communities (amateur vs. professional taxonomists) different kinds of concepts are used.

Second – hopefully with the help of a doctoral student (or two!), for whom we’re trying to secure funding now – we hope to explore how these concepts are used outside of the scientific literature. After all, the reason that biodiversity is a multidisciplinary crisis is precisely because the concept is relevant for so many people. Politicians, businesses, NGOs, and even the general public engage with this concept – and, by definition, with concepts arising from taxonomy – in a wide variety of different contexts. Any proposed solution the conceptual uncertainty arising in this context, then, needs to have all of these voices at the table.

For the project’s second phase, then, we will evaluate different possible solutions to the problem. Next year, Stijn Conix will join the lab as a postdoctoral researcher, whose extensive network and extant collaborations with efforts from the International Union of Biological Sciences surrounding the standardization of species lists will be absolutely invaluable. Is such standardization possible, or just a pipe dream? It seems to have been pursued successfully in a few cases (such as botanical data and the construction of biological ontologies). Will these “scale” to the larger problem of taxonomy in general? We’re going to find out – and, we argue, without the preliminary work from the first half of the project, we’ll never know.