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Integrating outreach

Ted Nield as MCresized.jpgThis month’s feature on Wren’s Nest, Dudley, takes me back to my scientific roots – such as they are – in the Silurian.  If the nature of the age in which I did my research was onwards, outwards and upwards, my trajectory seemed inwards, backwards and downwards - into the then unfashionably fuddy-duddy regions of taxonomic palaeontology and stratigraphy.  Despite a snazzy palaeoecological thesis title, knowing what rocks are where, and what fossils they hold, has always been my thing.

Philistines assume that stratigraphy and taxonomy are simple matters, devoid of philosophical difficulty; but nothing could be further from the truth.  Even biologists have difficulty defining a species, operating at least 30 definitions - only one of which is the best-known ‘biological species’ definition, involving ‘fertile offspring’.  Palaeontologists, needless to say, don’t even have that option.

Then there’s the question of codes.  Zoologists use one, botanists another - governed by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) and the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT) respectively, twin branches of the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS).  Neither takes responsibility for species definition, however – just ensuring that every name is unique.

This presents no small problem to the wider world.  Depending on whose classification you use, the number of species classified as ‘endangered’ might be nine or 25.  Raising the number of recognised ‘species’ might encourage more hunting/poaching, while also conceivably generating more conservation funding.  Classification has real-world consequences.

In a recent comment piece in Nature1, Australian researchers Stephen Garnett and Les Christidis suggest that the time has come for the IUBS to take the matter in hand and create a taxonomic commission to establish rules applicable across all life-forms, involving other stakeholders in decision-making.  They hold up as a good example the deliberations of our own International Union, IUGS, over recognising the Anthropocene as a subdivision of geological time (to be resolved in 2020).  They applaud Earth scientists for arguing for the inclusion of anthropologists and historians among the 36 people who will decide.  ‘If species … are at least partly arbitrary’ they write, ‘deliberations must draw upon expertise beyond taxonomy’.  Lawyers should be involved too, to ensure that definitions can withstand legal challenge, and so on.

Definitions matter.  They reach out into the human realm, affecting people’s lives, political policy and action.  ‘Scientific outreach’ (for this is what this really is) must not be thought of just as a bolt-on accessory.  If scientists wish truly to embrace the public, they must hold the world close and involve it in the decisions they take.


  1. Garnett S T & Christidis L, 2017: Taxonomy anarchy hampers conservation. Nature 546 pp 25-27, 1 June. 


[email protected], @TedNield @geoscientistmag