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ALGAE > Volume 8(2); 1993 > Article
ALGAE 1993;8(2): 83-90.
Continuity, an Essential Ingredient of Modern Taxonomy
Paul C. Silva
University Herbarium of California, Berkeley
Taxonomy is the field of biology that attempts to classify organisms into a hierarchical structure of categories. It is not a science, but art that involves subjective interpretation of innumerable objective data. it is a never-ending synthesis, attempting to find differences and similarities among individuals, populations, species, genera, and higher taxa in whatever field they may lie-morphology. phenology, metabolism, descriptive biochemistry, ecology, or molecular genetics. New data continually allow us, even force us. to revise the taxonomic structure. The hierarchical arrangement of the taxa, by which an individual belongs to a vertical series of categories and shares all of the characters attributed to those categories that stand above it, embodies high predictive value. If an individual can be assigned to a taxon on the basis of one or more outstanding characters, numerous other characters can be predicted. When we consider the great morphological, physiological, and genetic diversity expressed by more than a million species of organisms, we see that our taxonomic structure is built on relatively few data held together by an enormous amount of extrapolation and generalization. The goal of taxonomic is not merely to provide names for all organisms. Of foremost importance is the use of the taxonomic structure as a framework to which is attaches, at appropriate places, all biological information, from whatever source, whether organismal or molecular. The reliability of retrieval of this biological information depends on the accuracy and completeness of the taxonomic framework. Biological information depends on the accuracy and completeness of the taxonomic framework. Biological information is being accumulated at a rate that is greatly disproportional to the rate at which the taxonomic framework is being expanded and strengthened. Much of this information, obtained at a high cost, will be worthless if it is attached to incorrectly named or unnamed organisms. New techniques useful int he discrimination of taxa and in postulating phylogenetic relationships among taxa are being developed at a rapid rate. Some newly discerned characters, especially those determined by using electron microscopy, are useful in making taxonomic decisions at the level of order and class without affecting circumscriptions of families, genera, and species. Molecular genetics provides data useful in fine-tuning the taxonomic framework, but it is pointless to attempt to fine-tune a framework that is flawed and grossly incomplete. The weakness of the taxonomic framework of marine algae is obvious to all floristic workers. Very few genera have been monographed on a world-wide or even regional basis and such large genera as Ceramium, Laurencia, Polysiphonia, Dictyota, Sargassum, Ulva, and Enteromorpha remain nightmares. While the glamor of new technology has an almost fatal attraction for administrators, fund dispensers, professors, and students, ways and means must be found to insure that the alpha-taxonomy necessary to provide a meaningful context for sophisticated research is not neglected, Students are being trained to pursue sophisticated research in the absence of a basic biological education, a portent of disaster. Without meaningful context for sophisticated techniques become ends rather than means and their manipulation can produce nothing more than unsupported hypotheses, such as phylogenies of particular parts of the genome. To insure that taxonomy remains a continuum of data organization, the development of new technology must not be allowed to outpace traditional methodology to the extent that the connecting threads are broken. Administrators must be educated in the essentiality of alpha-taxonomy. Students whose interests and abilities lie in descriptive rather than experimental fields should not be disadvantaged. Traditional taxonomy, including its esoterica, which most contemporary scientists ridicule but which are essential to proper interpretation of taxonomic history as well as to communication among contemporary taxonomists, must be passed from one generation to another.
Key words: continuity, taxonomy, biological information

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