Friday, October 24, 2014

Taxonomy is more important to hunter-gatherers than to farmers

Over the past few days we had a big strategy meeting across the Australian national biological collections: land plants, tree seeds, algae, insects, land vertebrates, and fish. One thing that struck me was the following:

All collections do taxonomic research as part of their core business, that is describing new species, writing identification keys, publishing field guides, compiling lists of accepted names, etc. But whereas in the other five this research is mostly done for the purposes of informing conservation management, biosecurity and weed management, other scientific research, and the general public (e.g. native plant enthusiasts or bird watchers), fish taxonomy is the only one that really has deep-pocketed primary industry interest behind it.  The fishing industry is actually asking and paying for basic taxonomic research.

Why is that the case? Are ichthyologists simply better than botanists or herpetologists at engaging commercial partners? But if you think about it, there could be a much simpler answer: Fishing is the only food sector in which our civilisation is still pretty much at the hunter-gatherer stage.

Yes, there are some fish farms these days, but what mostly happens is that somebody casts their net into the ocean and catches a chaotic mixture of organisms. And then of course they have to know: which of these are edible? Which of these are worth the bother to process them? How do we have to process them? What are their names, so that we can sell them without frustrating the consumer? All that is really taxonomic knowledge.

In other food sectors the situation is much simpler: A farmer will not really be under any doubt that they harvest wheat after sowing wheat, or that the animal going bah on their paddock is a sheep.

If, however, we still obtained our vegetables and fruits the way we obtain our fish, we would have somebody come to the market with a big bag of stuff that they collected in the bush; they would tip it out, and then they would wonder: Is this berry edible or is it poisonous? What is the name of this weird bulb I have never seen before, and what can it be used for?  Are these two tubers the same species? What should I name this type of nut so that the buyer knows what they get?

If that were the case, we would also see more direct "industry" interest in plant taxonomy. Although of course a society operating like that relies on painful trial-and-error instead of formal scientific studies and on personal instruction instead of a four volume print flora, it still needs knowledge of plant and animal taxonomy to be much higher and more widespread across the population than our specialised farming culture.

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