Descriptive taxonomy is not 'old school'

Why bother describing a plant or an animal when you can analyze its DNA?

Taxonomist Quentin Wheeler addresses this question in Blank Canvas: The Case for Descriptive Taxonomy. In his article, Wheeler advocates for descriptive taxonomy and explains how dismissing this practice in the age of DNA analysis impedes our ability to understand life on Earth. He explains that it is descriptions that make it possible for conservation biologists to recognize plants and animals in the field and that those descriptions are what "make the story of evolution compelling." Perhaps this passage summarizes Wheeler's position best:

"By describing species we open their full diversity for anyone to explore, experience, and enjoy. Encountering a kind of plant or animal for the first time, being given no more than a name becomes an intellectual dead end rather than a portal to knowledge."

Wheeler illustrates this point by presenting an art gallery where paintings face the wall, and the only thing the viewer sees is a barcode on the backside of a canvas. The question he poses is, what does a DNA "barcode" really tell you about a species?



For Your Library

Wheeler, Quentin. (2018). Blank Canvas: The case for descriptive taxonomy. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 58(6): 1118-1121. https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icy067

Tania Marien