I gave a lecture today in my first-year Evolution course about the importance of good taxonomy to other fields of biology. Tales of biocontrol successes and failure, and bioprospecting for new cancer drugs, and discovery of useful wild crop relatives, and environmental impact assessment, and ecotourism (yes, even whale-watching depends on accurate species identification) have a way of connecting students to this much-maligned discipline of ours. I don’t think for a second that this lecture, or this course, has transformed many of those students into budding taxonomists, but I like to think that at least some of them will leave the course with a greater appreciation of the field, and of other disciplines of biology. And, maybe, one or two of them might wander down the stairs to the lab to see what we do, and how they might become a part of that.
Diversity is critical in keeping a field of science healthy and innovative. For every rubber-boot field biologist, we need a lab-coat molecular biologist. For every grad student pushing buttons on machines, we need somebody outside with binoculars. Because, although they may not realize it now, and although we sometimes like to hide in our silos and snipe at each other, we all need each other to figure out the Big Questions of life on earth.
So, in that windowless classroom full of future scientists today, I was talking about taxonomy and biodiversity inventories, not just to the Environmental Biology majors who want to spend their careers outside looking at mammals or beetles or moss, but to the Life Science majors who see a career in the biotech lab, and to the few Food Science or Nutrition students who took the course as an elective. And I hope that, five years from now they’ll still be able to appreciate why a phylogenetic tree is such a powerful image in the study of biology, and why the names of species are the key to a huge filing cabinet full of information about life, and why other flavours of biology matter.
I went back to the lab after class and spent some time talking to Stephanie about some new species she was describing, to Heather about her thesis proposal in fly taxonomy, to Meagan about how we might be able to incorporate some DNA sequence data into her ecological project on arctic flies, and to Christine, who continues to process her rich samples of insect diversity in urban and rural green spaces. It’s refreshing to hop between the silos of taxonomy and ecology, of organismal biology and molecular analysis. We need to do that more often.
I’ve known some very good molecular people over the years who look down on natural history as an archaic pursuit. I’ve known some excellent taxonomists who have no interest in ecology. I’ve known some field biologists who think that nothing useful ever came out of a lab filled with pipettes and PCR machines. I feel sorry for them all. We should all wander into each others’ worlds every now and then. Pick up a few words of each others’ scientific languages. We might learn something. That’s why a lot of us are scientists, isn’t it?