Sunday, March 6, 2011

Naming and knowing biological species

In the preface to Rob R. Dunn's book Every Living Thing, the biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson reminds us of the erroneous conception that most species on Earth are known to science. He ascertains:
Most species on Earth are not yet named. Most named species have not yet been studied.
For example, fewer than 10 percent of fungi and fewer than one percent of microorganisms are known.

Dunn tells us that “naming species is not big science.” He gives us a beautifully written account on the history of naming species. Of course, Linnaeus (of the linden tree) and his students, which he sent around the world, have not been left out in the narrative. Beyond the business of collecting and cataloging, however, there is big science—and some philosophy as well. Dunn introduces us to discoveries in regions, to which most of us don't have access: the deep sea, the deep soil and the extraterrestrial domain. In addition to finding new life forms in new places, there can still species and subspecies be discovered in the microcosm on and in our own body.

At the nano-scale, researchers are confronted with the challenge to distinguish between living species and molecular self-assemblies. And how do we name and classify something with quickly mutating individuality; something that splits into parts, re-assembles or goes endosymbiotically under cover?

Rob R. Dunn: Every Living Thing. First Edition. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2009.

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