LEADING ARTICLE: Learning to love taxonomy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Alone in the Garden of Eden, Adam "gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field ... And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name."

No one, not even those most imbued with civic pride for their native city, would think to compare Cardiff with prelapsarian Eden, but the Welsh capital is this week the venue for an activity with profound roots in our culture: the naming of the plants and animals. More than 100 biologists from the developing and developed world are attending an international "BioNET" workshop to devise means of naming and classifying the multitudes of nameless mites, moulds and mushrooms with which we share our planet.

We have names for most of the big, obvious animals, but we are profoundly more ignorant than Adam: at least 85 per cent of the 30 million or so species of life-forms in the world's developing countries have not been identified or named.

The process of naming and classifying the inhabitants of the living world - taxonomy - has become an unfashionable discipline in modern times, never having quite escaped the image of Victorian vicars roaming the countryside brandishing butterfly nets. Sometimes dismissed as the biological equivalent of stamp-collecting, it has been eclipsed by the glamour and excitement of modern genetics.

At the present moment, biology is riven by a dispute not on the fact of Darwinian evolution but on the mechanisms of how it operates. On the one hand are those who believe that all the answers lie in the genes, and that the fascinating diversity and variety of the natural world are simply the consequences of selfish competition between individuals for reproductive success - they want to pass on their DNA to future generations. The best-known populist for this view is the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins. In the other camp are people like Stephen Jay Gould in the United States, who believe that life is more than just the chemistry of one molecule, no matter how interesting DNA might be. The living world today was shaped, they believe, by accident and chance as much as the inexorable power of "selfish genes".

According to this view, mathematical models and laboratory experiments will not answer the questions of evolution: we have to go out into the field and study both the living world as it is today, and its history as written in fossil remains. Taxonomy, in this view, is more important than genetics.

In addition, there is a very practical reason for naming the names of life, and it is this which has brought the scientists to Cardiff. If we wish to manage our environment in a wise and sustainable way, the first necessity is to know what plants and animals there are. They represent a vast potential natural resource which could be tapped for humanity's benefit. Naming will bring not just knowledge but, wisely managed, riches as well.