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Systematics must Embrace Comparative Biology and Evolution, not Speed and Automation

Marcelo de Carvalho, Flávio Bockmann, Dalton Amorim, Carlos Brandão
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Systematists have come under a barrage of criticism because of the alleged inadequacy of the ‘traditional’ taxonomic paradigm to curb the ‘biodiversity crisis’ and expeditiously make available the products of systematic research—usually species names—to the professional biological ‘user’ community (including ecologists, physiologists, population geneticists, and conservationists). The accusations leveled on systematists range from being ‘slow’ to ‘incapable’ of furnishing these products at a rate considered (by users) appropriate, especially given that the professional systematic community is portrayed as being in stark decline while operating in a quickly deteriorating natural world. Some of the critics have proposed solutions to this ‘taxonomic impediment’ in the form of a triumvirate adjoining a unitary taxonomic cyberstructure + automated DNA barcoding + molecular phylogeny, which we consider to be nothing but a threefold miopia; one critic has even gone as far as to suggest that biologists who need systematists can circumvent this dependency by ‘doing systematics themselves’. The application of a quick-fix, ‘automated-pragmatist’ model is antithetical to a science endowed with a strong epistemological and theoretical foundation. We view the current propaganda in favor of automation and pragmatism in systematics as a distraction from the real issues confronting systematists, who must do more to impede the current trend that has ‘marginalized’ organismal biology in general. Simply increasing the rate of species descriptions, as suggested by critics, will not ameliorate the ‘crisis’—taxa that correspond to incorrect hypotheses of biological entities (i.e. that are not monophyletic) will compromise the reliability of systematic information. Systematists must therefore provide more than ‘binomials’—they must strive to produce vigorous hypotheses of comparative biology that are historical and theory-rich in order to augment the general reference system that is so critical to research in other biological sciences and conservation.

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