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Conservative Media Attacks New Species Discoveries

Posted by: Loren Coleman on May 19th, 2007

Mangabey

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a rather conservative newspaper in the United States, for Saturday, May 19, 2007, parrots the UK’s The Economist, reinforcing the challenge to the concept that we are in the midst of a wave of new species being discovered.

In the WSJ‘s section “Informed Reader” obviously editorialized thumbnail sketches are given of other newspapers’ recommended articles. Under “Nature,” a new article in The Economist is mentioned. Entitled “Species Inflation May Infect Over-Eager Conservationists,” (I was unable to upload The Economist article itself), the WSJ notes that various scientists are overzealously boosting the conversation of seemingly rare animals by upgrading subspecies into species. Primatologists are guilty of “taxonomic inflation,” we are being told.

Here is the conclusion of the piece that the WSJ is “informing” the reader about:

Today, there are twice as many primate species as there were in the mid-1980s. A “suspiciously large” number of the new species have turned up in the limited group of big animals that are sometimes disparagingly referred to as “charismatic megafauna” — species that the public cares about (apes, not rodents). One reason is that by fragmenting animal groups, the number of rare species increases, boosting animal-conservation claims. At the same time, having a greater number of species boosts the chances that a habitat can pursue a legal designation as a protected area.

In the long run, the drive to classify more animals into their own species category could harm conservation efforts rather than help them, by diluting the perception of scarcity. For example, if there are only two species of elephant, African and Indian, losing one of them grabs headlines. But if the African population were subdivided, the loss of a single species wouldn’t have the same impact. “Evolution often fails to produce the clear divisions that human thought in general, and the law in particular, prefers to work with,” says the newsweekly. “It therefore behooves taxonomists to be honest. If they debase their currency, it will ultimately become valueless.” The Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2007

Below is my commentary on this The Economist/WSJ challenge to new species discoveries:

What is occurring is a classic theoretical battle between lumpers and splitters, not a fight of conservationists vs non-conservationists, not a war of Greens vs non-Greens, although “Species Inflation May Infect Over-Eager Conservationists” appears eager to convince you of that. The splitters are making their points lately, with more scientific evidence for a diversity of species.

The advent of DNA technology has produced enormous advancements in genetic level analysis of subspecies into species, because the markers are being newly discovered and becoming clearer every day. On a simplistic plane, this conservative media attack sounds like the typical “everything new is bad” argument.

Old school taxonomy based most species vs subspecies distinctiveness on phenotype (overall appearance) versus genetics and behavioral differences. Relooking at subspecies and discovering species, with a new eye, is showing some animals that were formerly classified as subspecies are more widely separated than at first recognized.

There are many species out there, yet to be discovered. It is a status quo point of view to think otherwise.

The Economist/WSJ stances almost sounds as if it fosters the slippery slope to mistruths, in which, if we support their view, declaring some subspecies are species is “diluting the perception of scarcity,” and therefore these findings should be editorially hidden. Does not science and truth suffer in such a political expunging of the reality of the situation?

As opposed to being an enlightened article, “Species Inflation May Infect Over-Eager Conservationists” turns out to be another limited political consideration of the reality that new species – megafauna and otherwise – are being discovered daily, due to the rapidly increasing exploration of our World – on both macro and micro levels.

The Economist article, in essence, is an argument for remaining in the Dark Ages of Taxonomy.

++++

Is this a good recent example of a new discovery that apparently The Economist/WSJ would have us ignore?

The new monkey – shown at the top – was discovered in Tanzania and announced in May 2005. It was at first called the highland mangabey, but now is known as kipunji, for it is more closely related to baboons than to mangabey monkeys. According to Science, this monkey originally was given the scientific name Lophocebus kipunji, has since had to be re-named Rungwecebus kipunji, for it was a new genus discovered. It is the first new genus of a living primate from Africa to be identified in 83 years, and the first monkey identified in the African rainforests in 20 years. And yes, it is endangered.

Loren Coleman – has written 5491 posts on this site.
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


21 Responses to “Conservative Media Attacks New Species Discoveries”

  1. Ranatemporaria responds:

    Hi Loren interesting article, its not a new issue however, not sure why its now getting the attention. This time last year I posted a link to an article on Taxonomic Inflation and species concepts from 2001, and even long before then there have been taxonomic splitters and lumpers in biology.

  2. Loren Coleman responds:

    There is no dispute that splitters and lumpers exist in the history of taxonomy.

    The question of timing in 2007 is intriguing, as it seems any chance to bring up any issue that can be re-framed politically, even from 2001, is worthy of some media attempts to do so.

    Looking at the reality of new species discoveries, whether in the field or in the lab, however, is what is truly worth of examining.

  3. things-in-the-woods responds:

    So why exactly do the economist and the WSJ think they are an authority on biological taxonomy?

    I think we should regard this in just the same light as these economists would an article in the Journal of Paleontology about the way that they should measure the global equities market.

    This is, as Loren says, clearly an article motivated by politics rather than any grasp of the scientific methods and principles involved.

    However, that is not to say that it is not an issue. The fact is that the concept of a species is not the nice neat thing that people seem to think it is. There are several ways of defining a species, each with different criteria, and even within each definition there is room for subjectivity. And this will probably always be the case because, quite simply a species is not a ‘natural kind’, it is an arbitrary (which is not to say random) way of dividing up the natural world, invented by humans.

  4. dogu4 responds:

    Gadzooks, I hate that term “species inflation”.

  5. Bob Michaels responds:

    I Am in the splitter category, each sub species, or new species will encourage more land set asides much to the chagrin of the pavers and developers,at any cost to the environment and Bio-diversity. A true Conservative is a conservationist.

  6. Jjm3233 responds:

    To be honest I agree with your point about species discovery; but I have serious questions about which of these DNA markers actually qualify as new species and which simply show how the sub-species differ from each other. (I guess that makes me a “lumper”)

  7. greatanarch responds:

    If we start pasting political labels onto scientific positions, all possibility of rational discussion disappears.

  8. bill green responds:

    hey loren, very informative new article about a new species of monkey discovered. very interesting indeed. thanks bill green

  9. drew hempel responds:

    Hi Loren: Thanks for this commentary and these “alpha male” news sources are quite myopic — probably suffering from the “executive syndrome” as Professor Robert Sapolsky details.

  10. drew hempel responds:

    Well I guess it should have been “regressive evolution” and “recessive DNA” — here’s Schwartz’ latest challeng on the “molecular clock” model: No Missing Link?

  11. jodzilla responds:

    Species or subspecies, lumped or split, if it’s endangered it should be protected. The very idea that there is something “suspicious” about an increase in the discovery of new species is stupid. I’m tired of the idea of so-called leftwing science and rightwing science. Are we to believe that left-wing scientists are actually plotting ways to thwart big business? As if scientists don’t have enough to work to do already. Puh-lease.

  12. Daniel Loxton responds:

    Hey, Loren, that’s a useful blog entry. I think your commentary is quite correct.

  13. DavidFredSneakers responds:

    “…disparagingly referred to as “charismatic megafauna” — species that the public cares about (apes, not rodents).”

    Funny, I seem to remember the Laotian Rock Rat causing quite a stir.

    I think that the conservation of the our fellow species on this planet is increasingly becoming a bipartisan concern. Our need for mantaining the earths biodiversity is undisputed, articles like this are truly in the “Dark Ages.”

    Thankfully, I think that this point of view is truly in the minority.

  14. mystery_man responds:

    I don’t really see the new techniques of discerning differences in species as being a bad thing at all, and personally view it as a helpful way to more accurately catalogue the great biodiversity of life on Earth. By discerning the differences between animals that are superficially similar, we are really just categorizing these creatures in more detail. Taxonomy is a tricky thing and there can be debates about what constitutes a new species, but I think any technology that can help us better discern the genetic differences between animals is a good think towards furthering our understanding of the creatures we share this planet with. I think the whole process of genetic analysis of species is fascinating and I see nothing but progress here.

  15. Loren Coleman responds:

    This is NOT a message board. This area is for comments about the topic of the blog – new species, subspecies, taxonomy, and those subjects mentioned in the blog.

    Remarks on global warming and your own politics will be deleted.

    Thank you for staying on topic.

  16. Bob Michaels responds:

    Let’s take a look at the status of whitetail deer as to its subspecies. 38 are recognized between Canada and the tip of South America. Thirty of which are North American, but hold it one group states that only 16 subspecies are NA. Which is it, the consolidators or the splitters. I say let the DNA decide what constitutes a species or a subspecies.

  17. DWA responds:

    I’m tired of physicists saying Meldrum’s a quack, and suits saying taxonomy’s getting it wrong.

    What ever happened to what our moms told us?

    Mind your OWN business!

  18. Ranatemporaria responds:

    Bob,
    Unfortunately you have a similar problem with DNA analysis in that ultimately it is subjective human decision as to exactly how much genetic divergence is required to constitute re-classification (a new species). Even con-specifics, siblings and offspring have altered DNA, hence DNA recognition in crimes. The amount of variance increases, mostly, with time since initial divergence, despite this in theory a species divided into separate populations over many thousands of years could not diverge “enough”, to be genetically different species.

    Jodzilla -
    The point about conservation is that if you have a species with a population of 10,000, and is deemed sustainable, if you then split this into 10 different subspecies you may be left with 10 separate “endangered” sub species! Weather this is the right or wrong thing to do is a matter of debate.

  19. shumway10973 responds:

    I find it very interesting that the 2 newspapers mentioned have names and history of dealing with money. I also found it interesting that it is mentioned what could happen to conservation if these practices continue. I will admit that I have noticed the dividing of species myself, but with the advancements we have in dna and such things, we can more easily see slight differences between species, ones that aren’t necessarily noticeable to the naked eye. But then I guess that does bring up an important question as to “How do scientists determine separate species, when they look almost identical?”

  20. dogu4 responds:

    I think ranatemporaria makes a good point but I would add that the concept of species is a functional one and therefore inevitably subject to interpretation by both the one who chooses it as appropriate and by the listener. It’s not just about how different one set of genes is from the other, as it must function also. The idealized situation as portrayed in the modern standard model ignores an awful lot of stuff about which we’re just beginning to gain some understanding. i.e.: horizontal gene transfer, the role of virus, genetic mosaics and possible quantum electromagnetic effects.

    I think the cautionary aspect of the article in The Economist should be that human scaled constructions, both in the real and abstract, whether we’re talking about the size of a garden or the International Monetary Fund reflects how we understand the system to work, and sure enough, it DOES work by most definition, at least for a while…but not likely to work very well or in an organic and coordinated fashion as does nature whose laws are so flexible and yet simultaneously immutable and unavoidable.

    PS…nice MySpace tunes, ranatemporaneous.

  21. MattBille responds:

    Well, taxonomy is something of a mess, and frankly it always has been. There were, at one point, an alleged 86 species of brown bears in North America. Now there is one, with four subspecies.
    Defining a species, whether one relies on morphology, the biological species concept, DNA, or some mix of these, is subjective. It is nonetheless necessary. If we say all bears are the same, then we can lose grizzlies or polars or whatever and assume there’s no meaningful loss of diversity. Clearly, it’s not so.

    What does this mean? We must define species as well as we can, accepting that experts disagree and some calls are going to be wrong. Science has just got to muddle through.



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