Should New Disruptive Technologies be Used for Classification in Ancient Linnaean Rankings

Interested in whether or not people see a problem with increasingly granular species being described via the use of New technology. Everyone is in favor of continued exploration, discovery and progress… but do the discoveries enabled by new technologies warrant a new rank below species? And should this mean that newly described species only be described with the benefit of the technologies available when the rank was created.


I’d be interested in your opinion… @danielatha

@stockslager You include some terms that are not familiar to me in such discussions, although I think I can surmise what you are indicating. Could you please define what you mean by “increasingly granular species” and “New technologies” and expound upon those a bit more?

There are volumes published on species concepts and speciation. It’s a topic with a huge literature and I can’t say that I am comfortable with more recent phylogenetic species concepts, nor even with some of the more traditional applications of “species” based on genitalic differences, etc. (especially in insects and other arthropods). I’ll be interested in your thoughts.

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The reason you aren’t familiar with my terms is that I’m prone to making them up!

I have zero formal training in anything that would seem to be a relevant field. I do have significant background and formal training in applying technology (science) to business processes. In the early 90s… when I first got my degree… very few executives in their 50s could understand how new technology could be applied to existing paradigms.

I remember being a 22 year old kid and pleading with executives at a fortune 500 company about allowing ordinary programmers like me to have access to email. Their fear was that access to email would result in employees spending too much time chatting with each other rather than getting anything done. So my collaboration with other programmers began with routing physical paper memos around the headquarters via in-house snail mail. When I left this company after attaining 1 year of experience as a programmer, I landed a job in the big city. Cincinnati. This was a more forward thinking fortune 500 company that already allowed their programmers to use email. I was hired as an analyst rather than a programmer. I figured this gave me a little more clout. I emailed the executives at the new company inquiring about access to the internet from my cubical. I wanted myself and my team to be able to research new programming concepts as we built software for the company. Their concern was that employees might spend too much time mindlessly surfing the web and not get anything done. It wasn’t until I was a System’s Analyst in the early 2000s that executives allowed employee access to the internet via a modern web browser. By this time, I believe they could see that we’d soon have access via our phones.

In each case, being a fairly young person, I simply believed that the executives were fools. In reality, they were brilliant and at the peaks of their careers. Still, they weren’t able to see how new technology was going to disrupt an existing paradigm.

For the first time, ordinary citizens can pretend to be field botanists by observing plants in the natural world via apps on their phones. They use macro-photography to show intricate detail of evolving organisms. They can send specimens off for matk sequencing.

The brilliant scientists ID’ing these plants for citizen observers are at the peaks of their careers. They are incredibly smart people. They are fitting these observations into a paradigm constructed in the 1700s by Linnaeus. The primary ranks of which have not changed and remain, as I understand it… kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. If we are to exist together in the modern world, with all its new technology, it might be worth considering a formal new rank below species such that ordinary citizens like me can continue fitting our observations into the original Linnaean taxonomy using their more rudimentary knowledge despite their access to modern tools. The taxa within the original Linnaean taxonomy will never reach stasis due to evolution… but the tools used to describe the taxa should be more affixed to the time at which each rank was introduced. Otherwise, newly described species that can only be confirmed to be unique via new technology might lead some to believe that evolution is still functioning at a consistent rate despite increasingly awful human land use policy.

It’s just some thoughts.

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It’s true that Linnaean taxonomy is kind of a blunt instrument for describing/naming subtle but diagnosable lineages within a nominal species, especially where populations are geographically separated and show evidence of genetic divergence due to isolation and/or local adaptation. Our tools have allowed us to go deeper and deeper into genetic variation. For some researchers, each of these lineages might best be described as a separate species. For others, the differentiation is not substantial enough to consider them separate species (maybe subspecies? That rank has become less popular in zoology.) but the lineages themselves might warrant description as something unique (e.g., “Lineage A”), although outside of the Linnaean hierarchy. The “rule” for naming-- if there is one – seems to be still in flux and it will probably vary from taxon to taxon and among the taxonomists working on different groups. Perhaps one day we will have an extension to the current Linnaean system that better captures these different forms at a level below subspecies, assuming we still use Linnaean taxonomy. Botanists currently seem to be able to capture more of this variation than zoologists in their taxonomies, although I’m not a botanist so can’t say for sure. (I’m just speaking off the top of my head here so feel free to ignore or correct me,)


It is a term for something that has been a bone of contention on the Forums for a while. When a widespread species of mushroom, for instance, is suddenly a half dozen or more species, but you can’t tell them apart without sequencing.

The danger, as I understand @stockslager 's expression of it, is that this could be used as a tool of extinction denial, as it were – that anti-conservation interests will push back against the “sixth mass extinction” narrative by claiming that all this splitting represents recent speciation and means that there is no net loss of biodiversity. “See, this one mushroom species has evolved into six – biodiversity is increasing, not declining.”


thank you… yes. that’s what I was getting at. i wouldn’t be that hyperbolic tho. it could be as simple as four diverse species in my backyard being replaced by celandine. i’ll know there was a loss, but others might reassure me that on a larger scale species numbers have remained more constant.

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If “preservation of species” is a worthwhile goal, how will we measure progress against that goal if emergent technology is relied upon to describe and substantiate new species?

Linnaeus was a religious man whose work was uninformed by evolutionary theory. His conception of species was Biblical not scientific. A species, to Linnaeus was a divinely created thing, not a product of natural processes. Most people still have that perspective or something similar in mind when they talk about species.

In fact, what appear to be species to non-technical can be part of a large, interbreeding, diverse population or metapopulation with many morphotypes within it. It can also turn out to be a bunch of evolutionarily and reproductively isolated types that are impossible to tell apart with the naked eye.

People who look at biodiversity from an ecological or evolutionary perspective have a more nuanced view of things.


There was a similar topic about technology impacting taxonomy, focusing purely on AI, though

I think, the difficulty with creating a good system is that different branches of biology may have different wants and needs for a system like that. Evolutionary biologists and geneticists might prefer a tree of life with finer nuances that better show processes like speciation, generic drift, etc. “in action”.
Field biologists such as conservationists and ecologists and probably educators as well might absolutely hate that because at some point it becomes impossible to identify anything without sequencing the DNA.
This comment by charlie describes the danger of AI in taxonomy pretty well and clearly, IMO

Nothing in this universe is ever perfect, so with such complex systems as lifeforms, there will never be a neat and concise system that accounts for every irregularity.
In my opinion, we should therefore allow separate areas of biology a bit of freedom with whatever they want to do to taxonomy to suit their needs, but that shouldn’t necessarily have to affect the way it’s used somewhere else. The Linnaean system should serve as a “backbone” with its more or less rigidly defined categories and should stay the same throughout biology (however, hopefully with more clear definitions for the different ranks at some point in the future). As for how to define the different ranks for an “optimal backbone”, I have neither the knowledge nor experience to say.

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Whether species are split or maintained as is, people that subscribe to denialist ideologies are going to find ways to misrepresent science to promote their beliefs. I think there are many valid concerns against rampant splitting, but I don’t think we need to be overly concerned with people that are going to promote pseudoscience no mater what we do.


Another way of describing it… “species” carries special meaning among those trying their best to apply science. Scientists have freedom to be more granular below species and freedom to be more aggregated above species. Those applying science are allotted one term with which to measure their success or failure. One term, whose tools to describe it should remain fixed to assess the waxing and waning of evolution in the Anthropocene. Maybe do an online poll… Ask random strangers what phylum means. Then ask them what species means. Species carries special meaning among a much broader community.


but there has been a discussion on this iNat forum - what is a species - no consensus even in this narrow group.

How does iNat know when to add new ones to the algorithm?

And what meaning would that be?

Is this what you are asking ?

100 photos and 60 obs

No, not really. Thx tho. I’ll read it.

In general usage by non-scientists and those who aren’t into nature, species is probably the equivalent to biblical kinds. If it’s obviously different and bears a unique vernacular name, it’s a different kind of organism.

You’re the second person to bring up religion. Wouldn’t have anticipated that. Why is that?

What do you base this assertion on?