Event Horizon in Systematics

Richard H. Zander

Res Botanica

Missouri Botanical Garden

March 23, 2003

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Event Horizon in Systematics


This year (2003) is the 250th anniversary of Linnaeus' Species Plantarum (1753). Soon, 2008 will bring us to the 250th anniversary of Linnaeus' 10th ed. of Systema Naturae. These early dates are the starting dates for most plant and animal nomenclature for purposes of priority.


In 250 years, we systematists have either discovered or mediated the generation of billions of dollars in economic value and quality of life enhancements. With the informational revolution, 250 years of discovery provide a collection-based timeline demonstrating past environmental change with clear value in dealing with present global crises in predicting future change.


Over the past 250 years, we have agreed with Linnaeus that a central aim is to discover and name the world's biota. Any number of additional purposes informed through a multiplicity of perceived problems and methods to solve them have been attached to the Linnaean endeavor. The central activity, however, based on Linnaean nomenclature, has always been amply demonstrated as economically valuable and supportive of human needs in the long term.


Most of us are aware of a sea-change in support for systematics. This includes the dissolution or centralization of collections and collections-based programs, and the general turn to education as the primary function of institutions with systematic programs. This is happening even at the Smithsonian (see recent issue of Plant Press.)


I appreciate that short-term fixes are needed for critical problems, such as recent suggestions on Taxacom of how to tell a dean that it is a "mistake" to shut down a program because it can't be recreated easily, especially if the collections are dispersed; and the phenomenal message from NSF's Rodman to University of Nebraska about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.


I have, however, detected an "after me the global oceanic rise" phenomenon where the event horizon for present systematists is the end of the present grant, or retirement at best. This leaves posterity with not only a smoking and desolate Earth, but also an empty ethic and no effective plan in place.


A 250-year plan might help. It would involve 10 generations (at 25 work years each). I wonder what such a plan would look like, for the field in general or for your institution in particular? Instead of going forward from 1 year plans to 3 year plans, or at the most 5 or 10 year plans, we could work backward to 100 year plans and 50 year plans (four generations and two generations).


If 250 years of discovery along Linnaean lines have been valuable for humankind, and if many areas of the world and many groups of plants and animals are yet poorly explored, should not another 250 years of similar work be equally valuable? How might we plan that these years be spent, or will we leave a legacy of anomie to the next 25 generations of students?



Note: This essay was first submitted as a comment on Taxacom, a listserver for systematics, March 19, 2003.


Note: The 2003 Missouri Botanical Garden Symposium in October will concern the Species Plantarum 250 year anniversary



See also: http://www.systbot.uu.se/sp.pl/ for a similar celebration and lecture series in Uppsala in August.