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John Iverson, middle left, on a recent research excursion in The Bahamas

Taxonomy in anarchy? Not so fast, EC biologist says

March 15, 2018

Earlham Professor of Biology John Iverson has joined hundreds of biologists from around the world in opposing a proposal  to radically overhaul the way in which animals and plants are named and defined.

A proposal by two Australian scientists, published last year in Nature, argues that traditional approaches to classifying biodiversity are seriously undermining conservation efforts. They argue that unlike other scientific disciplines where hypotheses are proposed and tested free of external governance, taxonomic hypotheses should be subject to uniform guidelines and international governance.

Under the new proposal, opponents say, non-scientists with a stake in the consequences of taxonomic change — such as lawyers, anthropologists, and sociologists — would compose an international governing body charged with minimizing disruptions that arbitrary or poorly justified taxonomic changes can cause to conservation efforts.

“Imagine if someone recommended that we establish a new governing body whose job it was to assess whether the works of artists were actually art,” Iverson says. “We taxonomists would argue that it would be absurd to think that something qualifies as art only if so recognized by some small group of persons.  Just as it is up to the audience of art users to decide the artistic value of a given artistic endeavor, it is up the scientific community as a whole to determine whether an act of taxonomy does or does not have merit.”

Both sides of this debate agree that biodiversity conservation requires robust taxonomic research, and that lack of this research is severely impacting conservation. However, taxonomists believe that lack of external governance is not a cause of this crisis.

Iverson is a leading national voice on reptile ecology and has led research teams of students since 1978 to study turtles (in Nebraska, Florida and Indiana), and iguanas (in the Bahamas). He has co-authored 54 peer-reviewed publications involving 37 Earlham students. 

RELATED STORY: Four decades of research in the Bahamas

His work has been supported by more than $1 million in grants by the National Science Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, International Iguana Foundation, and Earlham-sponsored professional development funds, among other sources.

— EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success.

Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at 765-983-1256 and



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