Leuven workshop on ‘Taxonomic Disorder’

The name Orestias elegans refers to both a species of pupfish and orchids. Such ‘hemihomonymy’ (when a plant and an animal share a Linnaean name) poses obvious problems when storing data connected to these groups and making it available for users searching for data by species name. This way, it poses a challenge to bioinformaticians and database managers. It also poses a challenge for scientists searching, retrieving and using these data. Similarly, homonymy could make legal documents with species names ambiguous, and in this way hinders the work of conservationists and trade regulators. Finally, it may confuse amateur naturalists that use observation databases hoping to find a location to spot a species they haven’t ticked off their list yet. The case of O. elegans illustrates that the problem of taxonomic disorder is a complex one with causes, implications and potential solutions spread out over areas that are the research subject of different fields. One of the main aims of our research project was to bring together insights from the different scientific disciplines relevant to taxonomic disorder, and put them to work to understand and resolve such problems.

Such interdisciplinary work is hard, not in the least because it requires knowing what’s going on in a range of different fields of research. The only way to do it, then, is to gather specialists from different fields to work together. So this is  precisely what we did; we invited experts from different fields for an interdisciplinary workshop on taxonomic disorder. With WORMS database manager Leen Vandepitte, phytopathologist Jolien Venneman, philosopher/historian Joeri Witteveen, evolutionary biologist/governance proponent Frank Zachos, taxonomist Thierry Backeljau, conservationist Peter Paul van Dijk, and systematist/species eliminativist Brent Mishler as well as all project members and various other attendants present, we had a remarkably heterogeneous group. This mix worked great though – whereas taxonomists and philosophers are supposed to be notoriously quarrelsome when it comes to research on (the nature of) biological species, we had two very productive days of discussions without quarrels and fundamental agreement about various core themes.

Photo taken at the Institute of Philosophy in Leuven with all workshop participants.

One such theme was that ‘taxonomic disorder’ is probably not the most accurate term for the subject of our research. Disagreement in taxonomy is likely to be productive in many cases, and even when it isn’t, it is unlikely that associations with illnesses or ‘the breakdown of peaceful and law-abiding public behaviour’ are desirable. Instead, Peter Paul proposed ‘taxonomic turbulence’. While not perfect either – it doesn’t cover uncertainty, for example – the connotations are friendlier and the alliteration makes it sound a lot more pleasant.

Another theme that met with full agreement among participants was that ranking taxa often requires an executive discussion. This lies at the basis of much taxonomic turbulence, and is nearly impossible to eliminate if we want to stick to using species as a special rank. If we do stick to using species, it was proposed, the second best option would be to be very transparent about ranking decisions: which concepts is used to delimit species, what method is used to operationalize this concept, and which thresholds are used for ranking decisions. This way, even if calling something a species doesn’t always mean the same thing, at least readers will know what is meant by calling that particular group a species. Some even argued that such transparency should come in the shape of preregistration of taxonomic research, and we’re planning to write a paper on that subject soon. A final recurring theme was that a large part of what makes taxonomic turbulence hard to resolve, is that it is caused and maintained by sociological factors. It seems pretty clear that the Linnaean system is imperfect and lies at the basis of much taxonomic turbulence. However, changing the system or dropping it is very difficult because it is rooted deeply in the research traditions and heritage of taxonomy. Our optimistic takeaway from this is that our own research methods, which focus on sociological factors, are the right way to go for this project.

New paper: Why resolving taxonomic disorder is important

A new paper is out in the special issue on taxonomic disorder & list governance in Organisms, Diversity and Evolution. This one illustrates the consequences of taxonomic disorder with examples from a range of different taxa, and shows how list governance could have avoided these consequences. Here’s the abstract, the paper should be free to download for everyone:

“Species lists are widely used in legislation and regulation to manage and conserve biodiversity. In this paper, we explore the issues caused by the lack of an adequately governed and universally accepted list of the world’s species. These include lack of quality control, duplicated effort, conflicts of interest, lack of currency, and confusion in the scientific use of taxonomic information. If species lists are to fulfill their role efficiently, then the governance systems underlying their creation must keep pace. Fortunately, modernization of species list governance is now possible as a result of advances in biodiversity informatics and two decades of experience working to create the backbone of a global species list.”

Project weekend in Oignies-en-Thiérache

Between september 12 and 14, we’ve planned a 3-day joint meeting of the FWO project and Charles Pence’s FNRS project. The meeting will take place in Oignies-en-Thiérache, a quiet village in the middle of the Viroin-Hermeton natural park that is home to a range of rare species. It’ll be the perfect location to make rapid progress on some of the project’s research lines, and observe some of the biodiversity we spend our working days thinking about. Watch this space for updates about the work we’ll have done there!

New publications on the governance of taxonomic lists.

Together with other members of the IUBS Working Group on the Governance of Taxonomic Lists, Stijn has published a new paper in ‘Organisms, Diversity and Evolution’. The paper sets out how users of a global taxonomic list can be involved in managing this list without compromising the integrity and independence of this list. The paper, which will be part of a special issue on the governance of taxonomic lists, is free to access here.

This table from the paper summarizes the roles users and taxonomists should play in the listing process. We argue that if users stick to these roles, they can influence the listing process without compromising the scientific integrity and legitimacy of the list.

Stijn also contributed to the introduction to the special issue, which is freely accessible as well. Check it out here for a clear introduction to the problem of taxonomic disorder, and why governance of species lists could help resolving it.

Charles Pence’s Project on ‘Conceptual Uncertainty in Biodiversity and Taxonomy’

Charles Pence, who works (almost) across the road at Louvain-La-Neuve and has been a close collaborator in our research on taxonomic disorder, will be running a research project on ‘Conceptual Uncertainty in Biodiversity and Taxonomy’ starting from 2021 on. Charles’ project will analyze the taxonomic literature and look extensively at how taxon concepts and taxonomic names are used outside the scientific literature. You can read more about Charles’ project in his blog post about it.

While Charles’ project and this FWO project have different aims and methods, there are also clear overlaps with what we are trying to do: investigate how problems in taxonomy affect biodiversity conservation, and how this may be resolved. So there’ll surely be lots of interesting avenues for working together!

New publication: ‘Against natural kind eliminativism’

Stijn Conix & Pei-Shan Chi

It has recently been argued that the concept of natural kinds should be eliminated because it does not play a productive theoretical role and even harms philosophical research on scientific classification. This paper argues that this justification for eliminativism fails because the notion of ‘natural kinds’ plays another epistemic role in philosophical research, namely, it enables fruitful investigation into non-arbitrary classification. It does this in two ways: first, by providing a fruitful investigative entry into scientific classification; and second—as is supported by bibliometric evidence—by tying together a research community devoted to non-arbitrary classification. The question of eliminativism then requires weighing off the benefits of retaining the concept against its harms. We argue that the progressive state of philosophical work on natural kinds tips this balance in favour of retaining the concept.

Vincent Cuypers joins the project!

From september 2020 on, Vincent Cuypers will join the project as a PhD student based primarily at Hasselt University. With an undergrad in philosophy and a MA in Sustainable Development, Vincent is well equipped to take on the interview-part of the project.