In our chaotic, rapidly changing modern world, many of us have come to rely on science to provide sense of order. So it may be disconcerting to learn that there is no single, definitive list of all life on Earth. And there never has been.
In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we take you inside the world of taxonomy, where competing lists, rogue taxonomists and recent accusations of anarchy have revealed the messy struggle to classify the world around us.
It’s remarkably easy to name a new species. “You don’t need peer review. You can put it in a book, you can put it in a magazine, so long as you have followed the rules for naming it and it follows the right Latin,” explains Stephen Garnett, a professor of conservation at Charles Darwin University in Australia.
That new name is then accepted until somebody comes along and refutes it, or publishes another name, says Garnett. And he thinks this is a big problem, particularly for conservationists who rely on clear species definitions in their work.
Given how difficult it is to keep up with these publications, particularly if they’re somewhere obscure in a book, it means that some people are following some taxonomy, some people are following others. And you get multiple different lists of species depending on whose taxonomy is followed.
All this is hampering efforts to create one definitive list of life on Earth. A few years ago Garnett put himself at the centre of a taxonomic controversy, when he co-authored a paper in the journal Nature arguing that, “for a discipline aiming to impose order on the natural world, taxonomy (the classification of complex organisms) is remarkably anarchic”.
What ensued was a scientific spat – albeit a good-natured one – about how to go about putting some order to all these competing lists. And how to ensure that rogue taxonomists weren’t allowed to cause chaos.
To find out what happened, listen to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast.
A transcript of this episode will be available shortly.
This episode of The Conversation Weekly also features Signe Dean, science and technology editor for The Conversation in Australia. It was written and produced by Katie Flood, with assistance from Mend Mariwany. Sound design was by Eloise Stevens, and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. Gemma Ware is the executive producer.
The post “the complicated journey toward a list of all life on Earth — podcast” by Gemma Ware, Editor and Co-Host, The Conversation Weekly Podcast, The Conversation was published on 02/01/2024 by theconversation.com