General Discussions

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5. Summing up.


Taxonomists like to think that if it looks different it must be different, so it needs its own species. And, like everyone else today, they under pressure to 'perform', and this is judged mainly by their list of 'Publications', so there is a strong incentive to reclassify things. Botanists can often get away with this, as it is difficult to establish if a particular plant breeds true (or breeds at all!), and they can excuse intermediate specimens as hybrids, but animals are bred much more widely than plants, and as we have seen a single species can come in spectacularly different forms.

The new antibiotic?

Mould on animal droppings, Canadian Rockies 2004

15 years ago the Cybec Foundation endowed the Jim Willis Fellowships at the Herbarium to give young science graduates a taste of Systematic Botany before they decided whether to go on to a higher degree. For the first few years they used the classical methods, based primarily on the appearance of the plant, but then they started to use genetic techniques. At first I thought this may have been a breakthrough, but I soon realised that the new classifications were just as arbitrary as before. The fundamental problem is that it is easy to show that every individual is genetically unique, but there is no scientific basis for any of the groups, and the scientific names are all based on arbitrary decisions.

It has slowly (and often reluctantly) been accepted that all humans, regardless of colour of skin, hair or eyes, race or creed, belong to the same species, and I believe the same principle should be applied to the many variable plant and animal species, unless we have established that the various forms are clearly defined, will breed, and always breed true.

I believe that the current passion for "classifying" well-known things has gone a long way past the point of no return. There are many important problems in both botany and zoology which are receiving very little attention, and I believe we should be concentrating our efforts on these. For example:

a. We know next to nothing about the vast numbers of assorted fungi in the environment, but they play a very important role in the life cycles of many of our native plants. It is pointless storing seeds in seed banks if we do not also store the fungi which are essential to their growth, or the insects that fertilise them, But often we don't even know what these are.*

b. The Aborigines had a wealth of knowledge about the medicinal properties of our native plants, but most of this has been lost. With species dying out by the day we should be doing all we can to retrieve this information before it is too late.

As an example of what we could be missing, we are desperately in need of new antibiotics. Most antibiotics are produced by moulds, and it is conceivable that our new wonder drug could be made by a mould which grows on dingo droppings in the Simpson Desert after rain.

How are we going to ensure that we do not waste any opportunity of this type?

* We have recently realised that our guts (and even our bladders) have a vast population of bacteria, which have profound effects on the functioning of our bodies, but about which we know virtually nothing, and we should also be studying these, and their effects on our health.

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 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019