President’s Lecture 2021

Why is taxonomy so dull?

Dr David Williams, Principal Researcher, Natural History Museum of London.

President of the Systematics Association

November 24th 2021

Well, is it? Slowly but surely a vast amount of taxonomic work has shifted from being a largely scientific endeavour to a task driven enterprise, shifted from being about understanding organismal biology to being almost entirely about numbers in one form or another, a taxonomy driven by techniques, teams and targets.

I’m going to tell a few stories that might help illuminate this state of affairs and why it’s like it is: on Theodosius Dobzhansky’s wisdom in the 1960s to the recent discussion about why we don’t have a “global list of accepted species” and if it actually matters; on ‘integrative taxonomy’ and why it isn’t; on Wallace’s 1908 speech on receipt of his Darwin-Wallace medal to the new ‘conspiracy of silence’. Whether we like it or not, we are our past:

“What I have never directly confronted was the issue of how a modest number of men and women, a few of them clever or heroic but most of them quite ordinary, and several of them displaying serious weaknesses of character or insight, how this odd collection of people could have combined their efforts in such a way as to construct the enormous body of knowledge about life’s diversity that is our heritage today. Whatever its present imperfections, systematics has certainly progressed”

(Winsor 2001)