State of affairs

Various research lines are in full development: an update.

One of our research lines consists of interviewing taxonomists, to investigate how theoretical entities like species concepts and taxonomic methods operate in practice. Arguably, something as a species concept is a living thing, as each taxonomist interprets and applies species concepts in his or her own manner. The questionnaire for the interviews has been established and has been duly tested on some guinea pigs within the research group. In particular, some interesting discussions have developed on the interaction between theoretical positions of taxonomists and their taxonomic practice. Once ethical clearance is received, the interviewing will start ‘for real’.

Next to the interviews, the project studies taxonomic disagreement in birds: which factors lie at the base of, or increase the probability of, taxonomic disagreement? Possible factors are manifold: ranging from biological factors as geography, habitat type, range overlap with closely related species, to man-related factors as economic value, charisma, visibility, and others. The challenge here is to distinguish clearly between biological causes of taxonomic problems (e.g. hybridisation), or human and epistemic causes (e.g. disagreement on speciation). For instance, if the probability of taxonomic disagreement for a group is (partly) determined by geography, this might be due to biogeographical elements leading to complex evolutionary constellations (e.g. island biogeography) or simply due to geography having an impact on the distribution of taxonomic attention.

Third, a case study is being set up focussing on taxonomic chaos in the characteristic orchid genus Ophrys. These bee-mimicking orchids, luring male bees to copulate with them for pollination, are a beloved genus of botanists across Europe, and well-studied since more than a century. However, despite all available knowledge, taxonomic chaos lingers on: some classifications recognise up to 350 species as the result of extreme splitting, while others recognise only 10 species. The objective here is to investigate where the causes of disagreement exactly lie: with species concepts, with the operationalisation thereof, with external considerations, or simply because the genus is evolutionary recent, and speciation incomplete. Elucidating the true causes of disagreement seems key towards defining possible solutions, as the best solution might vary in function of the causes.

In this case study, a reflection will also be made on the extent to which the ongoing disagreement is a problem. On one hand, some argue that this disagreement is a good thing, express hope that lumpers and splitters will remain to make their case, while on the other hand, some speculate that ongoing uncertainty on taxonomic ranks is the reason most Ophrys species are classified as ‘Data Deficient’ on the Red List of the IUCN, putting their conservation at risk.

Monthly meeting

Today, members of the project convened for the first (digital) meeting of 2021. We were happy to be joined by professor Charles Pence of the Université Catholique de Louvain, who is starting up an adjacent project in his lab on ‘Mapping and Responding to Taxonomic Disorder’. The main of the project, which is funded by the Fonds de la recherche scientifique (FNRS), is to mobilise digital humanities tools to investigate patterns in taxonomic disorder and the causes behind them. These tools mainly serve to automate the analysis of large bodies of scientific literature, so that patterns can be discovered at a broad scale, and hypotheses can be tested on representative samples. Professor Pence has invested much of his time during last years in the development of such tools, and now wants to use this project on taxonomic disorder as a test-case. We are very happy to collaborate closely in the future. This collaboration will extend the opportunity of both projects to confront broad scale pattern analysis and hypothesis testing with fine-grained biological and philosophical analysis through literature case studies and interviews.

Monthly Meeting

This Friday, 16 October, the project team convened for its monthly meeting. We discussed different research lines and had interesting discussions.

One part of the project aims to use qualitative interviews with taxonomists to confront theoretical perspectives and discussions with the actual perceptions and opinions of active taxonomists. However, such social research faces some intricate methodological difficulties. More precisely, there is a trade-off regarding how much of a conceptual framework to build before the interviews: the objective is to get insight in the perspectives and the semantics of the interviewees, so excessive conceptualisation in advance creates the risk of projecting bias in the interviews. On the other hand, too much openness limits standardisation and makes it difficult to test specific hypotheses. Our approach will be to hold an inductive exploratory round of interviews, the output of which will be used to develop a conceptual framework and specific research hypothesis, which will then be used in a larger confirmatory round. We hope to start the exploratory round by December.

A second line of research is to assess the ‘distribution of taxonomic effort’ through a digital humanities approach. It is commonly thought that certain taxa receive more taxonomic attention than others, for instance taxa that are attractive or economically important. However, there has been little quantitative assessment of this reality. By using openly available data from Encyclopedia of Life, IUCN and others, we hope to chart the distribution of taxonomic effort and link it to explanatory variables. The difficulty here is operationalisation: which metrics are both measurable and representative of taxonomic effort? How do you characterise the attractiveness of taxa, or their economic importance? This analysis will be complemented with a normative reflection on how taxonomic effort ought to be distributed in an inevitable context of limited resources.

Thirdly, we had interesting discussions with professor Charles Pence of the Université Catholique de Louvain and Mariya Dimitrova (of the academic publisher Pensoft). Prof. Pence works is the developer of evoText, a tool that is specifically developed for quantitative text analysis in the life sciences. Pensoft as a non-profit publisher works hard on rendering their output suitable for such analysis and provides various tools in complement. We are sure these will be exciting collaborations!

Stay tuned for further developments!