Posted by: Loren Coleman on May 19th, 2007
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 5489 posts on this site.
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