Internship at the Smithsonian: Blog 4

Blog 4: The Taxonomist’s Psyche

You might wonder, with fair justification, just what sort of madness drives someone into systematics, let alone molluscan systematics. After all, it is a field that offers no great financial rewards, nor any chance to enter the history books. Systematics as a field is far too unscientific to merit any respect from a chemist or physicist, while at the same time far too scientific to earn the respect of obscurantist philosophers or of historians who know the mores of the 18th century better than that of their own. Molluscan systematics suffers doubly so, because not only is it systematics, but it is about mollusk, these mainly marine slimy things without backbones that lack even the insect’s main selling point of being the most common phyla of animal on the planet. And all this is only in those rare cases where they have even heard of systematics—nine-tenths of the time the closest people have heard of is taxonomy, and all they know there is that it was founded by a Swede called Linnaeus a few centuries ago. So what malady, what madness, could have driven me, and others such as Dr. H, into the arms of molluscan systematics?

Every systemacist comes to the subject differently—heck, even between molluscan systemacists there is a great variety of reasons why people entered the small field. I suppose the first thing that needs to be answered is what came first, the mollusks or the systematics. Truthfully, the answer varies from molluscan systemacist to molluscan systemacist. In Dr. H’s case, it was the mollusks. He daily visited the Natural History Museum in Philadelphia as a boy, and the curator of malacology took him under his wing at a tender age. That curator was the famous malacologist R. Tucker Abbott, who encouraged Dr. H to continue with malacology even as he entered high school, studied chemistry in university, and then used his chemical knowledge to apply the then new science of molecular genetics to mollusks, which took him naturally to phylogenetics and thence to systematics. This is nearly the exact opposite of me. I entered biology via history, and indeed I still consider myself something of a historian. But while those who generally study history limit themselves to studying the past beginning a mere 6,000 years ago, I want to understand the past of the planet and life for the hundreds of millions of years that precede us. Thanks to the greatest idea that there ever has been, evolution, we know that a key to understand the past is to understand the relations between contemporary species. Naturally this led me to systematics, and thus it has forced me to begrudgingly learn about genetics and other such scientific, molecular, matters, in which I never had aptitude or interest. Once I had settled with systematics, the question became which branch of life to study, for just as no historian can say that they will specialize in the entire past, no natural historian can attempt to become expert on all the history of life. I arrived to molluscs in a bit of a circuitous path, involving romantic ideals of exploration and adventure (ideals which I still hold, and for which I have found myself everywhere from Siberia to the Himalayas), to admiration of a 19th century malacologist named William Healy Dall whose papers I read for a school project. But perhaps the most influential reason as to why mollusks is the same that was given to me by the late Prof. Boss of Harvard; mollusks are the second most common phyla of animal, with a well-preserved fossil record going back to the Cambrian, and that has given rise to a number of complicated ecological and anatomical innovations found nowhere else in nature—and they are practically unstudied. A young and studious malacologist could leave their stamp, via monographs on families, in to our understanding of the history of one of the most important groups in history in a way that just cannot be done by entomologists or angiosperm botanists.

These are just specific cases, but I can generalize a few themes that can be used to perhaps help the unconvinced that we do genuinely find pleasure in the process of cutting up snails by the dozen in order to get a few genes out of them. There is firstly a curiosity for the past, similar, if not the same, to that which drives historians into dusty parish archives and archaeologists into the punishing sands of the Sahara. This appreciation of the importance of the past to make sense of the present is widely understood amongst those who study humanities—after all, what modern philosophy student does not have to grapple with two and a half millennia ideas formulated in the Pnyx—hopefully a humanities student reading these words might be able to extrapolate their love of the human past to the natural past, and glimpse why we systemacists do what we do. There is also a love of the creatures we are studying—not as individuals, but as a class. You cannot study a phyla at a length before learning all of the fascinating minutiae which they hold. In malacology that might be appreciation of a radula, or of those odd worm-like Aplacophorans. But regardless, every group has the specifics that make the study of the whole worthwhile. Yet at the same time there is an appeal to a deeply scientific nature in systematics, with its quantitative genetic traits, and its ability to discover empirical truths in way that a historian or philosopher can never do. Thus systematics can offer, from the perspective of someone of a particularly odd nature, a lovely mixture of science and history.

This post has a bit rambling, and that is because it has been the most personal one yet. Instead of relating straight facts I have attempted to convey to those who are not systemacists why someone would become one. I have tried to explain it to the point of view of a student who has never cared for science, and for one who has never understood why people need anything save equations. I have no doubt failed to convene the full reasons why I, let alone anyone else, does systematics, but I hope I have given a rough idea.

Blog 1 The Taxonomist’s Office:

Blog 2 The Taxonomist’s Work:

Blog 3 The Taxonomist’s Tales: