Thursday, August 14, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Epilogue.

Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V.

When I began this series in January, my intent was to show parallels between recent and historical conflicts in taxonomy and systematics. You may remember Raymond Hoser from the first part and "Call for Comments" post. He is an extreme example, perhaps more extreme than Townsend with his repeatedly forced rhetoric and lack of decorum. In the history of taxonomy, however, this is not unusual.

And lest you all get this opinion, let it be said that I, Z. L. 'Kai' Burington, do NOT hate Charles Henry Tyler Townsend.

I chose to exhibit him in a negative light, the sort of light that people working on tachinid flies see him in. This is only one half of the story. Contrast my take with Neal Evenhuis's treatment (Page 15 in this PDF). He calls Townsend a "man of wanderlust and mystery" and outlines his many accomplishments, including: world expertise on Diptera and calypterate flies in particular; instruction in pest control (Jamaica); co-ownership of a taxidermy and zoological specimen company; biology professor (Philippines); biological control of the cotton square weevil (Peru); discovery of the fly vector for both verruga and Oruya fever (Peru); doctorate from Washington University; honorary custodian of calypterate flies at the US National Museum; control of leaf cutting ants (Brazil) and other pests (Peru).

Evenhuis told my favorite story of Townsend today during his talk at the 8th International Congress of Dipterology, that he traveled across the Amazon in 53 days (not including stops), and arrived in Peru just in time for his 60th birthday; he popped a champagne bottle near the beach in Pacasmayo to celebrate. I can't help but admire his intense energy and fortitude.

And then I'm brought back to the reality. Townsend was an ego driven, abrasive man who died quite bitter about his recession from science. The story feels like a one-two punch of schadenfreude, but the aftertaste is more like Townsend's own bitterness. He did many great things, and he is usually remembered for his vandalous legacy and his nutty ideas. Often I see the parallels between Dr. Townsend and the late Dr. Lynn Margulis. Both had incredible expertise. Both did great work. And both had some ego-related nutty ideas which threatened their public face and careers and which leave a shadow on their contributions.

I would like to say that things have changed since Townsend. Unfortunately they have not. And I would like to blame all the personality circus acts of this saga on Townsend alone. But I cannot do that either. Coquillett refused to speak with Townsend to try to make things right. Walton, instead of contacting in private, aired his equally abrasive opinions in a public forum. Aldrich, instead of simply cutting off contact and refusing to play along, continued his angry letter sending to his former colleague. And the rest of the dipterist community didn't step forward in outcry against these antics until after the 1925 "Insider History", long after the damage was done. In short, the egos of all people involved were to blame.

Things have not changed. I am, as I said above, at ICD8 this week. This morning as I pondered these questions and yesterday's panel on the "Future of Diptera taxonomy and systematics", a colleague said this to me. He said, it's not the differences in methods, or morphology vs. molecular, or ages of the participants that are why these issues--these apparent clashes--continue. The reason they continue is the difference in personalities.

The reason why the Townsend saga got out of hand--the egos and personalities of the people involved--is the same reason taxonomy lacks unity in our current crisis.

Just before my PhD program started I was working on a short term project at a U.S. museum. At the end of the project one of the curators gave me a long and personal lecture. He said that the most important thing for my future was to be kind and generous to everyone, to promote unity, and to tamp down ego. Because, he said, selfishness and other personality flaws are to blame for our problems in taxonomy.

And the people who are most public, most obvious, the loudest, most outspoken people are often the most abrasive, unkind and ungenerous people. I cannot tell you the number of times I have yelled at my email in the past months upon finding yet another message from the ICZN-listserv. This forum, which was supposed to be for finding and giving help and discussing zoological nomenclature, has become a platform for various taxonomists (including Hoser but not limited to him) to argue and curse at each other publicly over their personal disputes. I have spoken with several people about this on Twitter. The general response is that it is going to happen and there's nothing I can do about it. The Taxacom listserv is much the same. Better to ignore it, I was told.

Yet THIS is the face we present the world and it is not a pretty face. It is the face of irrelevance. If we let people like Townsend and Hoser be what people see in taxonomy, if they see anything at all, how much longer will our science be considered science at all? How can we live up to the many challenges if there is no public unity? How will our field of work continue if there is no kindness and generosity to each other and to the next generation?

Please prove me wrong.

Monday, August 4, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part V.

IN THE PREVIOUS POST...Townsend's ego-driven quest to propagate genus names ad infinitum leads to a libelous article attacking John Merton Aldrich. The backlash of his former colleagues suggests he had worn out his welcome.

Townsend never returned to North America.

Yet, he continued his research much as he had previously, or potentially more fervently. His output between 1915 and 1925 was smaller than the earlier years, but his publication record from 1926 until 1942 (2 years before his death) nearly matches those high numbers. There was the "Synopse dos generos muscoideos da regiao humida tropical da America" (Synopsis of muscoid genera from the tropical rainforest region of America), published in 1927. The Synopsis contains a 100 page dicotomous key with 605 individual couplets, in Portuguese, and uses a system of abbreviation conceived by Townsend. It was undoubtedly as difficult to use then as it is now. Of course, no Townsend publication would be complete without at least one new genus, so he includes 87 pages of them (with several on each page).

New species description from "Synopse dos Generos" (1927). It is both in Portugese and Townsendian abbreviation. Perhaps it is thankful in this case that Townsend described a new genus for nearly every species, as all of his genera are well described in the Manual of Myiology in English (with comparable abbreviations).

And there was the long awaited Manual of Myiology, published in 12 large volumes between 1934 and 1942. If Townsend could be considered to have a Magnum Opus, this is it. It includes complete keys to families, tribes, and genera of "Oestromuscaria" (muscoid flies), descriptions of all genera, and notes on biology and morphology of the various tribes. Volumes 11-12 contained a strange digression from the earlier sections, including chapters on the Tertiary origin of the Moon from a near Oceanic continent, the origin of humans ("Hands cannot remain idle. Doubtless driftwood clubs and fistsized pebbles were their first implements."), the flight mechanics of a Cnephanamyia bot fly traveling at 400 yards per second, and very, very wrong ideas about gravity.

Cretaceous map of Pangaea (According to Townsend (1942)). Note the clearly marked "Moon" attached to Oceana, which, as Terry Wheeler pointed out, "explains those Australia-Moon sister groups."

This second to last item, bot flies traveling at Mach I, has it's own story in one of the most bizarre papers ever to be published in an entomological journal. Dr. Peter Adler mentions Townsend in his Insect Morphology course, and says only two things about him. One, that he has a very strange species concept, and two, that he clocked a bot fly traveling at 800 miles per hour. Long before I started working on tachinids I was already aware that Townsend was a strange fellow.

Townsend claimed to have observed this physical impossibility in Arizona at 12,000 ft, which he described originally in the April 1926 issue of Scientific Monthly. After recieving several comments, he wrote in response in his paper titled "On the Cphenemyia flight mechanism and the daylight day circuit of the Earth by flight" (1927) that by traveling at this speed (815 miles per hour) one could circuit the earth in less than a day, or see two days traveling east. "It is of extreme interest as affording a mark [466 mph] that should be reached within the next decade; while the more remote future holds the possibility of riding the tail of high noon or speeding on the wings of the morning halfway between the equator and either pole. It can not be denied that the double daylight-day westward circuit will attain great poularity before the single daylight day circuit is realized." 

Since the vibrating wings of a fly are very different than that of a bird or a fixed wing aircraft, he gives the fly flight mechanics its own name, the "Myiopter" groundplan. Townsend proceeds to describe this groundplan in great detail, but not before inserting some off color remarks.

"Regarding the speeds of Cephenemyia, the idea of a fly overtaking a bullet is a painful mental pill to swallow, as a friend has quaintly written me, yet these flies can probably do that to an old-fashioned musket ball. They could probably have kept up with the shells that the German big-bertha shot into Paris during the world war."

This (to use Townsend's own word) quaint idea was thoroughly debunked by Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir in 1938, who brought the speed down to a more believable but still appreciable 25 miles per hour.

In the same year, Townsend published his second paper on synonymy. The first, as you may remember, was published in Science Journal (1911) and was relatively optimistic. The 1927 "What constitutes synonymy?" paper is decidedly bitter and full of schadenfreude. I have transcribed the majority for your enjoyment:

"I have never for a moment considered [these genera] synonymous with Hilarella. Such synonymy is quite ridiculous. As to the rest of the world, no one competent to form an opinion had studied material, hence no opinion existed but rather a complete indifference. Nobody cared a snap whether these genera were synonyms or not. This forcibly illustrates what a power lies concealed in the weapon synonymy. A careful worker may erect valid genera and species. An ignorant or malicious person may publish an article stating that these valid genera and species are synonyms, and henceforth they bear the synonymic stigma. The genera public is not competent to judge of the merits of the case, and besides has troubles of its own. No one cares a snap about the matter unless he is making a special study of the group in question. The original author may publish a refutation of the synonymy. Nobody pays any attention to him, the public not being interested, and his refutation is quickly forgotten. Fifty years later, a competent worker reconizes these genera and species as valid and concludes that they have lain in the synonymy a half century. Is he technically correct in this view?
Synonymy has too long masqueraded as a court of permanent and infallible decisions. There is nothing final about synonymy[...]
The synonymic pronouncements of a single individual carry weight in exact ratio to his ability in the groups concerned. But the general public has no means of judging of his ability. If he sets himself up as a specialist and speaks with confident authority, the public accepts him at his own valuation. He is henceforth at liberty to inflict his personal opinions on a long-suffering public and to manufacture synonymy ad libitum. This is the easiest thing in the world to accomplish as long as the manufacturers escapes detection as a fraud. In fact, it may be termed systematic pastime. He is knocking everything on the head right and left as suits his fancy, while the public looks on unconcerned and practically uninterested. He is destroyed, not building, but no one cares except the original builder who notes the attempt to level to the ground his laboriously erected edifices. Yet they are not really leveled and their status is just as good as before until the synonymy in question is abundantly endorsed [...] This strong weapon synonymy is not to be left at the beck and call of every individual."

Upon hearing the above, my darling partner declared "Dear Sir: No one will ever recognize your true genius, even long after you are dead" and "You mad, Bro?". The imagery of synonymy as a "weapon", of the good taxonomists as the "original builders", of the synonymizers as "knocking everything on the head" and being "destroyed, not building", and that "no one gives a snap" shows Townsend at his low point. This was, after all, just two years past the "Insider History", and before he found a way to publish the Manual of Myiology.

In 1944, only two years after the final volume of the Manual was published, Townsend died in his home at Itaquaquecetuba. The total number of publications over his lifetime is in the hundreds, and the total count of species described is near 1500. He seemed to have burned every bridge with his former colleagues. He outlived his "bitter hatreds". Aldrich died in 1934, the "nation's greatest accumulator of dipterological information" (from Melander 1934). Coquillett had long since passed. The works of both were celebrated. 

The Townsend obituary published in Revista de Entomologia (1943) paints him in a positive light, as a great entomologist, biologist, linguist, author, farmer, hunter of beasts, and a member of numerous scientific societies. Yet, to taxonomists who work with tachinids, he is remembered most for his ego and vandalism.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part IV.

IN THE LAST EPISODE...we examined the short but pointed publication war between Townsend and Walton. Now we return to Townsend's "second bitter hatred", that of John Merton Aldrich.

 In 1914, Townsend returned from Peru and became the honorary custodian of muscoid diptera at the U.S. National Museum. He had just received his doctorate from Washington University and was working at the Bureau of Entomology. The plan was to quickly finish his Manual of Myiology, but the first volume wouldn't be published till 1934, long after he had left the U.S. Instead, Townsend was caught up in a conflict with his perceived rival, Aldrich. This can be seen in his publication output, which dropped from over 30 papers on tachinids in 1915-16 to only five in 1917, and never returned to the previous numbers.

Aldrich, also an employee of the Bureau, had recently left his job at the University of Idaho and was working in Indiana. In 1915 he published a summary of his 25 years collecting tachinid flies, which followed closely to Coquillett's 1898 revision. Townsend was not pleased; the paper ignored his many families of "muscoid" flies and condensed them all into a single family, Tachinidae.

It is interesting, though entirely unintentional I'm sure, that Townsend's "On Proper Generic Concepts" follows directly after Aldrich's paper in the same 'Annals' volume. This is yet another attempt to rally for more restricted generic concepts. Here, Townsend begins by separating all the Muscoid taxonomists into two categories, the "specialists" and "generalists". Specialists, such as Rondani, Desvoidy, and the much admired Brauer & Bergenstramm, used restricted generic concepts. Despite the many potential flaws in their work due to ignorance of internal reproductive characters, Townsend finds their work excellent. Conversely, authors such as Macquart, Schiner, van der Wulp, Walker, Bigot, and the ever hated Coquillett are all generalists, who

"attempted to apply the same broad generic concepts to the Muscoidea that they applied to the rest of the Diptera. Without going into lengthy detail, it is enough to state that their mistakes are many and often overshadow the good contained in their results. Their misidentifications of species are extremely numerous. Their wholesale confusion of distinct generic forms was the natural result of no concise generic concepts. Almost throughout, their genera are mixed-genera. They may be said to have practically lacked muscoid generic concepts, for their generic rulings were largely arbitrary and so loose as to admit numberous foreign elements. The true explaination of all this is that they possessed only the most superficial knowledge of their subject."

Townsend goes on to discuss proper generic concepts, those that do not group by "transitional species." "Groups of generic stems [as of tips of a tree] that happen to be connected throughout by transitional species can not be treated as a single genus, on account of their diverse combinations of characters." The branches have not become decimated over time due to their young age, removing the "transitional stocks".

Table from Townsend (1915) showing the pros and cons of restricted and unrestricted generic concepts.

Figure from Townsend (1915) showing two "families" of tachinids with some species used for illustration of convergence and transitional species. Older, decimated stocks would have more easily delineated genera.

The above figures are interesting as evidence that Townsend's basic ideas were not poorly thought out. He was attempting methods to classify a very recent group of insects which had not been decimated (see Wonderful Life (Gould 1989)), and thus there were many apparently intermediate forms between what would otherwise be clearly recognizable genera. The problem isn't Townsend's justifications, it's the extremism of his taxonomic splitting and inflationism.

Though not explicitly named, Townsend probably considered Aldrich as a generalist, making a "great number of egregious blunders."

Between 1915 and 1924 we have little to mark the falling out between Aldrich and Townsend. In the earlier part of this 10 year period, it seems the two were communicating about their work on the genera Imitomyia and Masiphyia, and there is no direct evidence they were arguing behind the scenes. However, in 1918 Aldrich was moved from his post in Indiana to the Smithsonian, where he became the Curator of Diptera. Less than a year later, in March 1919, Townsend left D.C. for Peru and Ecuador, and later Brazil, to Iquaquecetuba, near Sao Paulo. There's some reason to suspect that Townsend left America because of professional conflicts with his "new boss", Aldrich. The "Inside History" makes it seem that he was fearful of Aldrich undoing his organizational work at the museum, as he quickly published notes on the collections soon after leaving.

What Townsend does next is a bit astounding. He published two personal correspondences from Aldrich in his 1925 History. Such a thing seems completely absurd to us now, a total breach of academic conduct and courtesy, yet, it is similar to the methods of Raymond Hoser (our contemporary, who inspired this series).

On May 8th, 1924, Aldrich sent this letter. The context is a paper he just published with colleague Webber on a tachinid species complex. He writes: "You will not like it, because we did not recognize enough genera to suit you. I am responsible for the generic arrangement, which cost me an immense amount of work and study."

Townsend replies: "Your remark is highly significant. Instead of wasting time in an attempt to extend generic limits arbitrarily where they do not naturally fall, it is far wiser to strike a generic arrangement that shall be fairly simple and easy to follow out. Restricted genera, concisely defined, attain the greatest simplicity of treatment possible."

Aldrich responds, on August 2nd:  

"It would be useless to undertake any general discussion of the limits of genera. I have, as I freely admit, much difficulty in determining them. You solve the problem by making a genus for almost every species, but you encounter precisely my difficulty when you start to group these genera into tribes. So you are no better off than I am, and I am trying to classify muscoids as nearly as possible on the same lines as other animals. I never did take any stock in your oft-repeated belief that muscoids require a different taxonomy."

And, of course, hits the nail on the head. These sorts of issues will arise, no matter what rank Townsend decides is appropriate. Better to limit taxonomic inflation than to let the field become grossly distended with monospecific genera. But of course Townsend sees this differently.

"The work of Aldrich is destructive rather than constructive. He is attempting to relegate to the synonymy as many of Townsend's restricted muscoid genera as possible, with the sole aim of vindicating his own original commitment to broad categories. It is a pity that he is so unreceptive to progressive ideas and holds so stubbornly to long-exploded concepts. He refuses absolutely to change his ideas in the light of new facts. It is evident that his work will suffer proportionately in consequence. He has a better eye than Coquillett had for muscoid characters, but he persists in ignoring important characters which Townsend has pointed out, partly from prejudice and partly from the difficulty of interpreting them."

Remember, he's writing in the third person, about a professional colleague, in a professional journal. 

The ego-train continues:

"The numerous dicta put forth by Aldrich would be interesting if true, but the trouble is that no dependence can be placed on them. They are simply the individual prejudiced opinions of a man who is unable to learn because he will not keep a receptive mind."


"Townsend harbors no animosity toward any one, for life is too short to waste in animosities. He writes this himself, standing off as a detached and impartial observer, contemplating his own work as though it belonged to another, and exposing this inside history only in the interests of fair play and a square deal."

You get the idea. He has an ego as tall as the Washington Monument, and a lack of decorum to match.

The drawn out rant finally concludes:

"Such is a brief outline of the work on muscoid taxonomy in North America to date, involving also recent work in South America. Younger students are arising, from whom we may expect much. Let the keep an open mind, for a closed mind is a fatal fault in an investigator. Let them beware of prejudices and commit themselves only to a search for truth. They, will then not be faced by the alternative of retraction, or continuance on a mistaken course."

All of this was published, March 1925, in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society.

In 1926, the Society's publication committee received a letter signed by 23 American entomologists, including John Merton Aldrich. It was published as follows:

"To the Publication Committee, New York Entomological Society.
The undersigned wish to express their great surprise and regret that you should have published in your Journal the article by [Townsend] [...] This article is in substance a bitter and uncalled for attack upon [Aldrich], a man of high standing, who is greatly respected both as a man and an entomologist. Dr. Aldrich's criticisms of Dr. Townsend's work in his studies of the Muscoidea have always been justifiable and were an honest endeavor to reach the truth. No one could do as much on this group as Dr. Aldrich has done and criticize Townsend less. Therefore we earnestly desire that you make it known in the next issue of the Journal that you greatly regret the publication of this article and extend to Dr. Aldrich your sincere apology."

With which the Publication Committee also published a reply: "[The Committee] regrets any hard feeling has been aroused and all of use feel that Townsend went too far. In fact, it seems to us that he spoiled his won case, if he has one, by indulging in personalities."

Townsend, the purported "insider historian", never returned to North America.

Concluded in Part V.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Canfield - Field Notes on Science and Nature

Just what is the best way to record and organize my research notes? I've long been interested in answering this question. On the first day of my master's degree, I started a bound notebook (I love the squared, softcover Moleskine notebooks), and used it for caddisfly-exclusive notes. In particular, the notebook filled with sketches, observations, and thoughts pertaining to my work on the genus Cheumatopsyche. When I started my PhD program, I did the same for my tachinid research. I also keep a Grinnel-style triad of field journal, catalog, and species accounts for any field work and dragonfly observations. These are less often used, as I spend most of my time in the lab looking at dead specimens under the microscope.

I had been meaning to read Field Notes on Science and Nature for several years now, and finally just got around to it. The book is a mixed collection of biologists, anthropologists, and geologists, writing about their methods of taking notes in the field (whatever "the field" might be). The individual chapters are accompanied by photographs of the actual field notes, so you get both the text explanation of methods as well as a visual example. The primary methods of these researchers range from the above mentioned Grinnel system, to more informal collections of notes and drawings, to careful logs of stratigraphy, to the completely electronic recording system of insect taxonomist Piotr Nasrecki.

However, the overall feel is less that of a textbook on field work and more artbook-slash-nature journal. Most of the chapter authors supply prose accounts of exciting field observations, particularly those working with large mammals. And the journals in themselves are both art and historical artifacts; they carry information, but are also pleasant to look at.

One theme stretching through the work that seemed most important to me was that "the field" is not necessarily out in nature. It can be, in many people's research, simply in the presence of potentially living specimens. For me, viewing specimens at the microscope is "the field", and the notebook in which I record my observations is my "field journal". Another point many authors made was that observations should be recorded as soon as possible, in a permanent method which other people can use in the future. Who knows what piece of information may be useful?

I appreciated these and other suggestions on design and maintinance of field notes, including Jenny Keller's heuristic for drawing biological specimens in the chapter "Why Sketch?". I have been illustrating genitalia for some time now, but I have no formal art training, so some of her methods were completely unknown to me.

I recommend this book for anyone who does natural history research, because, even if you have already found your perfect method, you will appreciate the diversity of approaches to keeping notes in the field.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part III.

When we left off, in 1908, Aldrich's review of Williston's Manual of North American Diptera marked the "second bitter hatred" against Townsend. We leave Aldrich for a time and focus now on the events marking the "third bitter hatred" of William R. Walton.

That same year, Townsend began his work on the reproductive system of tachinid flies. This would lead to his doctorate in 1914 at George Washington University. A preliminary summary of this research was published in 1911. At the same time, he was taking collecting trips to Peru, and becoming increasingly disturbed by a large number of his names being relegated to synonymy. This resulted in the paper "On Muscoid and Especially Tachinid Synonymy" (June 1911).

This particular paper is not recounted in Townsend's 1925 history, but it is interesting for reasons beyond the content and timing. One, it is the first of two papers he published on the topic of synonymy, the other in 1927. And second, the journal is Science, which shows you how much that journal has changed over the past century, and how far taxonomy has fallen. At that time taxonomy was still considered a worthy and important pursuit by the majority of scientists, and a worker as prolific as Townsend was a superstar.

Aside from the mixed criticism of Aldrich and Coquillett, and praise for Brauer and Bergenstaumm, there are some opinions that seem ironic in the context of his own work. He calls for the careful examination of types, and wishes for it to lead onto synonymy. He writes,

"The statement that I am going to make now will probably astonish some people, but I can truthfully say that I would be greatly pleased to see half the generic and specific names that have been proposed in the Muscoidea safely relegated to the synonymy where they could rest undisturbed and buried forever, with no hope of a resurrection, a goodly sprinkling of my own among the number; but such a considerable reduction of names is hardly possible of realization. Looking toward a consummation of final synonymy, however, I shall hope to accomplish in the next few years some portion of the work necessary to this end, during the course of which I here pledge my word that those generic and specific names of my own making will receive the same impartial treatment at my hands as all others. My one wish in this matter is to secure certainty before putting a name into the synonymy. The making of incorrect synonymy is a much more serious taxonomic offense than proposing further names for forms already named. In the latter case the forms can always be definitely referred to by means of the names that have been bestowed upon them, but in the former case serious confusion is certain to ensue."

Indeed, it is astonishing. Without context, the writer would seem to be inclined towards synonymy and stability of nomenclature, but as Townsend's history and future shows, he is anything but.

1911 also marks the death of Daniel W. Coquillett, the man who, if you recall, was the "first bitter hatred against Townsend". Freed of Coquillett's reaction, Townsend published his "Readjustment of muscoid names" (1912), in which he claims that "dipterological nomenclature is getting a severe shaking up, and the Muscoidea comes in for their share." It was a victory dance of sorts.

Unfortunately, and possibly unbeknownst to Townsend, William R. Walton had become friends with Coquillett shortly before his death. He became, as Townsend put it in his history, Coquillett's "staunch defender".

At the November 7th meeting of the Entomological Society of Washington, Walton presented a paper "The variation of structural characters used in the classification of some muscoidean flies" (published in the Proceedings (1913)). He argued against the use of "characteristic bristles" as the main source of generic differences within calypterate fly classification, which Townsend and others had used to great effect. These include the number of hairs in lines on the thorax and the abdomen, and the apparent hairiness of the eyes. While some of these hair-based characters are conserved across lineages, others vary within species or even populations. Numbers and size of hairs can also be linked with the amount of food a larva receives during it's development, or the sex of the individual. Thus, Walton gives 4 recommendations:

"a. The erection of a genus on a single example of either is folly and should not be permitted.
b. The proposal of a new species on a single specimen or series representing only one sex is inadvisable.
c. The creation of either a genus or species on solely chaetotactic characters without a careful study of ample material is unwise.
d. The variants of a species should be conserved under species name until good and sufficient evidence is adduced prove they are otherwise. The splitting of species in the genus Lucilia as practiced by Mr. Townsend is a negative example what is here meant."

These are actually very good recommendations, still so 100 years later but especially so in the early 20th century. It was common back then to describe new species (or genera!) based on a single specimen, or on a series of one sex. For example, the male of Eucelatoria gladiatrix was originally described as Proroglutea pilligera; the female was named Xiphomyia gladiatrix. Both were from single specimens (and both by Townsend). Careful taxonomy is what Walton is asking for, and Townsend was considered to be a prime offender. He closes,

"It seems possible that the studies of the internal anatomy of these flies upon which Mr. CHT Townsend is at present working may eventually prove useful as an index to group relations. But the mass of undigested facts, near facts, and conjecture with which he is at present deluging the devoted heads of his confreres will require an immense amount of elucidation, rearrangement, and generous elimination before becoming available for use. To conclude, there is great need of careful rearings of species belonging to homogeneous groups, from known parents, for the purpose of studying variation of structure, color, and size within the species and, failing which our knowledge of the true relations of the Muscoidean flies will never extend much beyond its present meager limits."

 Townsend was quick to respond, and fired off three papers on taxonomic theory before the end of 1913. The first of these, "Criticism and Muscoid taxonomy", is a direct rebuttal to Walton's paper. Townsend appreciated Walton's dissection of variable characters, but disagreed with Walton's recommendations, especially the first. Walton is declared "a champion of Mr. Coquillett's work on muscoid flies", and that "time will fully demonstrate whatever merit that work may possess, and no one's commendation can increase its merit one whit." "Beginners" and "new students" are clearly not suited to make these judgements, and should wait until they have enough experience before they do. Townsend, in his own opinion, is the expert. Any may come and join him, there is more than enough work to be done; "no one need harbor petty jealousy of another's work." Townsend concludes, 

"It is unwise and unseemly for a beginner in a difficult subject to ridicule good work done by his predecessors. Caustic comment has no legitimate place in taxonomic literature, and solves no problems. In the minds of all right-thinking persons such comment serves no other purpose than to reflect on the commentator. I bespeak a spirit of cordial cooperation on the part of my confreres. Such spirit will be both highly appreciated and warmly reciprocated."

That is, as long as his "confreres" fall in line with his cherished taxonomic opinions. All are welcome, but know I am the ultimate authority. This line was laid out in his next paper, "A new application of taxonomic principles", which is a rambling and convoluted account of his "typic-atypic" system. I honestly can't make any sense of it, except that it seems like he is proposing a taxonomic unit between genus and subtribe. Perhaps this is an early formulation of his "natural genus" concept (see Part I for a full explanation).

The final 1913 paper, "Notes on Exoristidae" is full of the same haughty language, same mixed criticism and judgement upon other workers seen in the above 1911 paper. He praises Walton for his attention to detail and illustrations, and equally condemns Coquillett, calling the former works "constructive" and the latter works "destructive". Townsend writes,

"What is needed in the Muscoidea and especially in the Exoristidae [i.e., the subfamily Exoristinae of Tachinidae] and more nearly allied families, is an intensive study of the numerous forms thoroughly and conscientiously carried through, without bias and with that keen adjustment of character values and natural appreciation of phylogenetic relations which stamp the master zoölogist. Each one of us must strive as best he can to attain this result."

Among the "destructive" poseurs and the "creative" "master zoölogists", it is clear from Townsend's writing where he thought himself to stand.

In 1914, Walton published a scathing rebuttal to the "Notes on Exoristidae" and Townsend's opinions of Coquillett in general. He titled it "On the Work of the Late Daniel W. Coquillett and Others", but it's clear from the first sentence that the whole and entire target is Townsend. What follows is a catalog of errors, from outright mistakes in descriptions of type specimens (legs cannot be both "not yellow" and "wholly yellow"), to imagined microscopic characters and overlooked obvious characters, to the large number of Townsend names that had been rightfully sunk into oblivion.  It also contains more than a few beautiful burns, including my favorite:

"It would seem that the possession of "that keen judgement of character values and natural appreciation of phylogenetic relations," cannot preserve even a "master zoologist" from palpable error when he does take sufficient care to see what is visible."


The whole work is delightful and worth a read (free at the JSTOR link above), especially the final words:

"But I conceive these criticisms would much better be said now, while the subject of them is present to explain this position, than in some distant future, when time shall have sealed his lips and stayed his busy pen forever. His fine command of English and evident scholarship will then avail him nothing, if some surviving, or perhaps yet unborn student rise up and brand his work destructive."

Thank you, Mr. Walton, for predicting that piece of irony. We are doing just that. Indeed, my current research hinges upon fixing at least part of Townsend's destructive mess.

As far as I am aware, no more shots were fired between Townsend and Walton in public.  The 1925 history reports, "Here was born a third hatred of Townsend which became very bitter until it was fortunately dispelled a few years later." He does not record anything more.

Meanwhile, the conflict between Townsend and his US National Museum supervisor John Merton Aldrich was intensifying.

Continued in Part IV.

Monday, April 14, 2014

This is not a post about nomenclature.

This is not a post about insects, or insect genitalia, or another round in the Vandal of the Calypterates series (but the next one of that is coming, I promise!).

This is a deeply personal thing I am going to talk about, which is entirely uncharacteristic for me and what I like to post here. Sure, I get rant-y about ICZNerdery, or the latest round of "the Naturalists are Dying Out". These are all par for the course, have been since the beginning of this blog. I share my love of, say, weird caddisfly life histories and get excited about it, because that's something I enjoy doing. I try to keep more personal things off this blog because (a) I don't especially enjoy sharing personal parts of my life, (b) the name is Trichopterology, not Facebook 2.0, and (3) the personal stuff is none of your business. But I feel this is important, so I'm breaking the rules.

This is going to be a post about transpeople in science and academia. Because I'm a transwoman.

I realize this will be a shock to some people. Other people will share knowing smiles. The majority of the academics will not care, and that is the point of this post: being trans in academia, at least in the biological sciences, seems to be becoming a non-issue. And the more visible transpeople are, the more of a non-issue it will become. 

When I came out to my first colleague here at Wright State last year, I was terrified. I'm not going to repeat standard introductory conversations on transpeople and gender identity, there are a multitude of primers out there in the InterWebz. Just Google it. What I will say is that transpeople are not exactly treated well by society in general, and our tendency is to expect the worse of any social situation in which we out ourselves. 

To my surprise and relief, my colleague was accepting and has been a huge ally. I told more people I felt I could trust, and not one of them rejected me. Some of them had guessed ahead of time. Others were excited for me. The majority were interested, supportive, and quite frankly, treated me like normal. 

When I made my gender identity public to the department in early March, my anxiety was decreasing. Graduate students and faculty, with few exceptions, had positive reactions. Many knew or knew of Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist who transitioned in the late nineties. Some had personal experiences with trans or other queer people. I found friendships had actually strengthened due to my trust. 

Perhaps I live a charmed life, that my experience is special, not normal. My university includes gender identity and expression under the non-discrimination clause, which means that faculty and staff have to respect my identity, regardless of their personal feelings. My department is a close knit group of open minded ecologists and evolutionary biologists with a wide array of life experiences. In the unlikely event I am ever harassed, the university will respond quickly to fix the problem. Many transpeople cannot claim the same about their university or department. 

Yet, I cannot see how my experience is completely unique. One of the most wonderful results of my coming out was being invited to a small panel by women faculty for women graduate students. When I asked about my opportunities for finding a job as a transwoman, the faculty members responded that I shouldn't worry about it, that the real issue is the community surrounding the university, and not the university itself. I may not want to live somewhere due to the hostility of the college town, but the university should be a non-issue. These things are improving.

The recent "Queer in STEM" survey suggests that this improvement comes from visibility. When queer people are out and visible in university departments, they become role models and create an environment which makes other queer people, including graduate students, feel more comfortable and welcome. It's so easy to focus on the negative aspects of my situation. Sometimes I feel my transition is selfish, that I am "creating drama" by asking people to change their pronoun and name usage, that I am making things more difficult not only for myself but also for other people. But I also feel that by being visible I am showing other students that they don't have to feel anxious about their identities. I can be that role model. I can relay my positive experiences. In the words of the Trevor Project, "It gets better". It is getting better.

Thanks to Morgan Jackson for his advice and encouragement, and to this post by Alex Bond for getting the brain juices flowing. Stay tuned for normal programming.

Monday, January 20, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part II.

When we left off in Part I, John Merton Aldrich had just written some mixed comments about Townsend's work before 1905. 

     At this point, it's necessary to skip to an article 20 years later. Literature trains are often hard to follow, especially in the old literature. But we can see the events before 1925 play out through Townsend's eyes, in his inflammatory piece "The Inside History of North American Myiology". Myiology being the term he coins for the study of calypterate, or muscoid, flies. He writes,

"The history of this subject in the United States has unfortunately been characterized by a petty spirit of rivalry and jealousy for the past three decades. This, perhaps the most difficult subject as regards taxonomy, meriting on this very account the most concerted and amicable relations among its students, has met with the exact opposite during its development in North America."
     The entire paper is written in the third person, as if Townsend's history is being recounted by someone else. Another testament to his ego and arrogance.

      Townsend's history begins with a short list of insect taxonomists leading up to 1888, saying that "thus far there was no spirit of rivalry or jealousy on this side of the Atlantic." At that time he was a clerical assistant to C.V Riley in the Bureau of  Entomology, Washington D.C. He was very much interested in beetles and true bugs, but not true flies (Diptera). However, at the insistence of his supervisor, he took up work on the group. Later he was "grateful, for no other possible group of organisms
could have proved so fecund of interest in his [Townsend's] eyes, considered from all points of view." In 1891 he left D.C. for a university job in New Mexico. Evenhuis suggests in his biography that the glowing recommendations Townsend received from Riley may have been an early indication of his difficultness, that "Riley wanted him out of D.C."

     Townsend's first direct criticism is not of Aldrich, but of a contemporary, prolific, and recently deceased taxonomist, Daniel William Coquillett (1856-1911). Townsend writes that Coquillett had an interest in calypterate flies but

"little opportunity to indulge his desire for study of the subject. He chafed under the restriction and developed a bitter hatred of Townsend and his work; a hatred which he nursed diligently until his death, and which prohibited him even from conversing with Townsend except under circumstances of the direst necessity." 

     He claims that Coquillett's hatred was made clear in the 1897 "Revision of the Tachinidae of America North of Mexico", where Coquillett synonymized most of Townsend's genera with earlier names. This "hatred" seems to be a deep reading of Coquillett's unwillingness to correspond with Townsend, as the "Revision" does not have any spiteful comments that I can see. Yet Townsend takes a victorious view of the situation, stating "[Coquillett's] pronouncements, like the whole fabric of his work, are falling apart and away as investigation progresses in the groups he treated." Townsend claims,

"During all of this time and up to the last, Townsend harbored no animosity toward Coquillett and would have been glad at any time to converse with him on muscoid work, but found him so unapproachable that he would not even answer questions couched in the most courteous terms and offered in the most friendly spirit. The animosity of Coquillett brought a handful of animosities in its train."

     The first of these "animosities" is John Merton Aldrich. As noted in Part I, Aldrich's Catalogue has mixed comments about Townsend, both praising him for his species descriptions and chastising him for his strict following of Brauer and Bergenstaumm genera. Townsend condemned Aldrich for strictly following Coquillett's revision, calling it a "fatal mistake", that the "manifold errors" and ridicule towards Townsend were so extreme that "he felt he could not gracefully retract after [Townsend] began to point out in a wholly impartial manner the errors that had been perpetuated in the catalogue." This must have been a private correspondence, as Townsend did not publish his comments at the time.

     In 1908, the dipterist Samuel Wendell Williston published the third edition of his "Manual of North American Diptera". He had contracted Townsend for help with the Tachinidae, as Coquillett was unwilling, who took the opportunity to describe a few new genera, as he was wont to do. The same year, Townsend published "The Taxonomy of the Muscoidean Flies". In this work he quotes Williston on tachinids:

"We yet know very little about individual variation in this family, or the real value of many characters now used. The absence or presence of a bristle may be found to represent a group of species, but we should first learn how constant the character is in species. * * * Seriously, is not the stock of Tachinid genera significantly large for the present? Would it not be better to study species more before making every trivial character the basis for a new genus? --Insect life, vol. v (1892-93), pg. 238-40."

     To that, I say "hear hear!" But to Townsend, it was motivation to have a discussion on "intermediates" and "intergradants" (forms that connect genera and species, respectively). He used the abundance of intermediate forms as justification to devalue the rank of genus, writing,

"The only possibility of successfully systematizing the superfamily [tachinids, under his system], so that its myriads of forms can be designated definitely by name, lies in the recognition of genera founded upon comparatively slight characters -- slight compared with those recognized as the standard in the older and less specialized superfamilies."

     This was not quite the concept of a "natural genus" from his later years, but it does shed light onto his massive output of generic names in tachinid flies, and how he justified it at the time.

     Aldrich was undoubtedly displeased with this continued taxonomic vandalism. His growing opinions of Townsend became quite clear in his 1909 review of Williston's Manual. He writes of Townsend's involvement:

"Dr. Williston, wishing the criticism of a specialist on this difficult group, and being unable to secure the assistance of Mr. Coquillett, asked Mr. C. H. T. Townsend to prepare notes on the figures. This was unfortunate, as Mr. Townsend's ideas of genera are extremely radical; it naturally happened that his notes only serve to confuse the subject. He, however, seized the opportunity to erect a few new genera on the figures, which was the more out of place and uncalled for since he promised fuller descriptions in a forthcoming paper. Would that he had reserved his adumbrations in their entirety!"

     Later, Townsend would consider these "acrid remarks" the "birth of a second bitter hatred" towards himself. The second after Coquillett, soon to be followed by a third.

Continued in Part III.

Monday, January 13, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part I.

I've received a lot of feedback about my post about Call to Comments. Most of it has been considerate and helpful. There was one case of a sockpuppet by a certain someone, but it's no matter.

What does bother me is it seems like people are interpreting the post to be about the Spracklandus case when it isn't. I used the background of that case as an example, a dispute containing both bad taxonomy and thrown insults, something which has been happening since the beginning of nomenclature. I also used it because I find nomenclature fascinating, to the point where I lay away at night thinking about the ins and outs of the Code. And, because I love taxonomy, and history, and because the recentness of this case meant it was well cataloged. 

But I could have used any number of historical disputes, including the focus of this series, Charles Henry Tyler Townsend, or CHT Townsend for short.

I am not, unlike in Neal Evenhuis's excellent and overly kind biography of the man (found in this issue of Fly Times), going to recount Townsend's life. Instead, I'm going to focus on his controversial work with calypterate flies, and how in many ways he left things worse than when he started.

Townsend's chosen group, those true flies belonging to the monophyletic lineage Calypterata, contains common insects such as the house fly (Muscidae), flesh flies (Sarcophagidae), and blue bottle flies (Calliphoridae), as well as the less common but more horrific bot flies (Oestridae). But the most diverse calypterate group are the tachinids, estimated to be the largest group of Diptera surpassing even crane fly (Tipulidae) species numbers.

Dr. Townsend chose these flies as his specialty, particularly tachinids. By the time of his doctorate on calypterate female physiology (1914), he was pouring himself into the work that would eventually become the Manual of Myiology (1936-1941). That many volume set of keys and descriptions is still used today when dealing with the South American fauna.

Unfortunately, Townsend was unconventional or downright radical when it came to his taxonomy. Monty Wood of the Canadian National Collection, a world expert on tachinid flies, told me Townsend's work and opinions were simply an example of his ego and arrogance. The problem that set South American tachinid taxonomy back a century stem from one particular issue, his species concept, which lead to his tendency to split taxa ad infinitum.

In his history of tachinid fly classification, Jim O'Hara writes,

"The restricted genera of Townsend were based on the author’s concept of a “physiological genus”, defined as a “natural genus” comprising “all those species which can produce fertile crosses” (Townsend 1935: 38). As noted by van Emden (1945: 389–390), “the adoption of [this] principle implies the application of the generic unit to every unit considered to be a species in general zoological practice”. One can learn, explained Townsend (1935: 56), “to make a complete description of a fly genus and its genotype [type species] in one hour for one sex and an hour and a half for both sexes”. The ideal number of members within each of the categories of genus, tribe, family, suborder and order was set at five (Townsend 1935: 60–61). In practise Townsend rarely included more than one species per genus and throughout his career described 1491 genera and 1555 species (Arnaud 1958), with approximately 85% of the genera belonging to the Tachinidae."

 In other words, 95% of his genera were monospecific.

My current work with tachinids is not my first contact with Townsend's modus operandi. In one of his Insect Morphology lectures, Peter Adler of Clemson University would recount this strange methodology, saying that a difference in structure indicated a new genus, and a difference in color meant a new species. Townsend recorded all this information on index cards in a card filing system. Whenever he found something he considered new, he would reference the system, and fill out a new card. He also had a tendency to split the higher classification, leading to a grand total of 7 families and ~90 tribes of the current Tachinidae. This volume of new taxa matches what we would today consider to be taxonomic vandalism. It did not help matters that his descriptions were much like others of the day, paragraph length and lacking any illustrations. His keys, both in the Manual of Myiology and his Synopse dos generos muscoideos da regiao humida tropical da America (1927), were not much better; they are hundreds of couplets long and practically unusable, yet necessary works when wading through the vast fauna of the Neotropics.

Other tachinid workers reacted much in the same way you would expect: they synonymized names. In particular, this was a drawn out feud between Townsend and John Merton Aldrich, a prolific Diptera taxonomist and Associate Curator of Insects at the US National Museum from 1918 until his death in 1934.

It's not clear when the argument started. By the time Aldrich published his catalog of North American Diptera (1905), Townsend had published 84 papers on true flies. This list of publications fills up 6 pages of the catalog, more than any other author. He comments on one, writing, "An attempt to interpret Van der Wulp's too brief diagnoses, without the material to throw any particular light on them; an altogether superfluous piece of meddling. The changes of generic names are both uncalled for." He also calls attention to Townsend's strict following of Brauer and Bergenstaumm genera, yet praises Townsend for his species descriptions, writing, "The specific descriptions of Townsend are conscientious and faithful, and among the most recognizable of any in the family."

There were obviously no hard feelings at this point, but over the next 20 years their relationship of shared interest would become seriously strained by Townsend's public and often unprofessional reactions to Aldrich's work, and vice versa.

Continued in Part II.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Impartiality Ethic.

     Among my many current projects, including a preliminary exam, I'm writing a novel. I was convinced by a colleague to join in the National Novel Writing Month goal back in November, and have managed to put nearly 20 thousand words into an original story. Since I write what I know, the story is about grad students, imposter syndrome, taxonomy, ICZNerdery, and natural history in a world where names have power. It will probably never see the light of day, but I did want to mention one thing. In the story, the idea of Universality of Names is taken very seriously. Since names have power, and the precision of that power is derived in part from universal usage, the process of naming is heavily regulated. There's even an analog of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which is both an arbitrator of disputes and a governing body. The Commission of that world polices the usage of names, to the point where people who do their work poorly are stripped from the books.

    The Commission of this world, does not.

      This is an important distinction, and lies at the heart of the matter I want to discuss. The Commission does not police names, it is solely an arbitrator of disputes. If the taxonomy of a particular paper is bad science, yet the names are otherwise available under The Code, it is not the place of the Commissioners to act upon it. That is, as things are now.

      In the latest edition of the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, Commissioners Yanega and Harvey published a Call for Comments about "Taxonomic Practice and the Code". Before I dive into that, let's look at why we're talking about it in the first place. 

      Taxonomy has a history of people with an itch, an itch to name things. And not just a need to name things, but to have one's own name be associated with those things forever. It comes from the formal practice of writing the name of the author and the date of the publication after a scientific name. The term "mihi-itch" is sometimes used to describe this affliction, as mihi is Latin for "mine; of me" (see Neal Evenhuis 2008 paper for a full history of the term). And they will often let the ends justify the means (including bad taxonomy).

     This is not new (cf. the bone wars of the 19th century for an extreme example), yet the recent explosion of journals and other easy routes of publication have enabled those with this "disorder". Furthermore, there's no requirement in The Code for science of any kind. The Code is "theory-free", it makes no comments on how to do taxonomy. In the introduction of the Fourth Edition, the late W.D.L. Ride writes, "The Code refrains from infringing upon taxonomic judgement, which must not be made subject to regulation or restraint." Nor is there a requirement in The Code that nomenclatural acts be peer reviewed, a relatively new academic invention. This hands-off attitude is important because, as arbitrators, the Commissioners must remain neutral in the cases they are hearing. The Code of Ethics in Appendix A states: '7. The observation of these principles is a matter for the proper feelings and conscience of individual zoologists, and the Commission is not empowered to investigate or rule upon alleged breaches of them.' All of this means that those with the mihi-itch do unwanted things that are outside the ability of the Commission to arbitrate upon.

      The impetus for this particular discussion is a case submitted by Ramond Hoser of Australia. Hoser is a herpetologist who has become infamous in taxonomy for what Darren Naish calls "taxonomic vandalism", and what I have heard others call "taxonomic inflation", or even hyperbolize as "taxonomic terrorism". The method is simple: Produce publications with a large number of nomina nova in the hope that some of them will pay out and actually be valid. In his recent paper "The Taxon Filter", Hinrich Kaiser writes, 

"...Hoser uses the Code as a ‘name-laundering scheme’: his mass-produced names go in and ‘clean’ names come out. The more names that are put through the system, the greater is the likelihood that some will by coincidence stand if science eventually produces supporting facts. None of these names have a rigorous scientific foundation..."

     So, the overall quality of work is poor. However, as long as the new names follow the letter of the Code, the names are still available. And if a few of the names which satisfy availability end up being new to science, they're valid. In which case occurred when he happened to raise cobra (Najas) subgenera in a scoop of other taxonomists in his own self edited journal. In particular, his genus Spracklandus was valid, and not just as a potential classification scheme, but in the exact manner these other taxonomists were working to publish as subgenera. Needless to say, Wallach, Wüster, and Broadly were not please, and published their own revision of the subgenera later that year. The three authors named the subgenus Afronaja, and claimed the Hoser publication was not available under the code because it was not properly published. They write,

"Although Hoser claims the existence of a printed version of his journal, we have found evidence of only one single copy, deposited in the Australian National Library (ANL). [...] On 9 May 2009, one of us (VW) recieved printed copies of all the issues of the Australasian Journal of Herpetology. Unlike the ANL copy of Issue 7, all these issues are printed on one side only, and give the appearance of having been printed on demand at the same time: all have a pair of longitudinal white lines along the midline of the entire page: issue 1 has the lines spaced about 2 mm apart but all the other issues have the lines spaced 5 mm apart, suggesting that they were printed at the same time. These lines are not present in the ANL copy of Issue 7. All the issues received by us are bound by a single large staple in the upper, left hand corner. We conclude that the Australasian Journal of Herpetology is an online publication that fails to fulfill the requirements of Articles 8.1.3 and 8.6, any printed copies are printed on demand and therefore do not constitute published work under the provisions of Article 9.7, and the electronic versions available from Hoser's website are not published under the provisions of Article 9.8."
     To make the rest of the story short, Hoser claimed the authors were frauds, saying, "the men chose not to look in the one place that the Zoological Rules said hard copies should be sent to, namely Zoological Record". (Which makes it seem like he isn't as familiar as he considers himself, since there is no provision in The Code requiring copies to be sent to the publication Zoological Record, only a recommendation.) People are now confused about which revision to use, and cobras are, as you might guess, medically important snakes. If the journal was published hardcopy, Spracklandus is available, and Afronaja is a junior objective synonym, and invalid. If the journal was not published hardcopy, "Spracklandus" is unavailable, and Afronaja is the valid name. All of this is the subject of Case 3601 Spracklandus Hoser, 2009. 

     And whatever decision comes out of that case is irrelevant to me. Before Mr. Hoser or any of his friends descend upon my blog like locusts to grain, I work on insects, not snakes, I have no stake in this. I don't care if the subgenus is named Afronaja or Spracklandus. Whatever the Commissioners decide is fine by me. I do find Hoser's journal atrocious and taxonomic methods (or lack thereof) appalling, but my opinion on that matter is powerless. Please leave me alone, I'm just a poor grad student.

      What is relevant to me is that this case has prompted a Call for Comments by Commissioners Harvey and Yanega. This is a request for opinions from the greater community of taxonomists. The Commission receives open comments on all their cases, but this is a more general call; not about the Spracklandus case in particular, but about the historic and continued neutrality towards ethics and unwillingness to police the taxonomic community. They write,

"The question has been put before us, however, as to whether the desires of the community can compel a re-evaluation of the policy of neutrality; specifically, whether taxonomic freedom requires us to remain blind to ethical considerations, including a failure to adhere to proper standards of scientific conduct. Therefore, we seek guidance from the taxonomic community as to whether there is a perceived need for change, and we wish to solicit comments in order to ascertain a clearer picture of public opinion. We are, ultimately, at the service of the community, and if there is a consensus indicating that the community feels neutrality does not serve their needs, then we wish to be clear about it. 

[...] Basically, what we seek to know is whether the taxonomic community wants to continue dealing with these issues at their own discretion, or whether they want the Commission to be empowered to do so (or something in between); we will not do so on our own initiative."

     I love that, a perfect exposition of neutrality, and the unwillingness to wield power unless asked. The antithesis of politicians. They're asking us how they may best serve all of us. Go over and read all of it, it's short and sweet.

     So. As stated above in the bold text, I'm just a lowly grad student. They're asking for comments, but I'm not confident enough to submit my opinion to the Commission on this matter. But if I were to submit a comment, maybe it would go something like this.

     The long standing neutrality of the Commission is an important part of remaining above conflicts within the taxonomic community. A reduction in the sort of neutrality described in the Code of Ethics will mean the Commission has the possibility of becoming a 'political tool' rather than a body for impartial arbitration of conflicts. It will set a precedent in a system which is supposed to avoid making precedents. The Commissioners should continue to arbitrate only on cases brought to them, and only on conflicts covered under the Code, and should not seek out problems for which to "apply justice". Instead, taxonomists should band together in rejection of those who fail to uphold scientific ethics and good taxonomy. 

     I am a student, and I have little power. But, if I am worthy, I would hope someday to be selected to serve this community. If I am honored with that task, I would like be the sort of arbitrator described illustrated in the Call for Comments: impartial, restrained, and dedicated.

Monday, January 6, 2014

"By people who don't need them for people who can't use them."

Recently, I discovered the long awaited revision of the North American black winged fungus gnats (Sciaridae) has finally been published (Note: link is only the first page). Studia Dipterologica is a relatively obscure publications for fly nuts, so it took some digging to get a copy. In my excitement upon arrival, I scanned through the entire text, looking for the thing I was really excited about. And it's not there, there's no genus key.

A bit of background: The Manual of Nearctic Diptera remains today a masterpiece, 30 years after publication. It includes generic keys to every family of Diptera in North America, for adults and sometimes for larvae as well. And it's freely available online, too, so all the better! But even in this continuing piece d'resistance of the Canadian National Collection of Insects, there are problems. Things have changed since 1983, there are new genera, synonyms of old genera, and elevated subgenera. And some keys simply don't work very well, or are not trustworthy. This is not true for all the keys, of course. Most of them still work perfectly fine. And even for some of the ones that don't work perfectly, that's just the nature of the game for those groups. I'm looking at you, Tachinidae. It doesn't matter how well a tachinid key is designed, they're the most difficult group of flies and they are going to be difficult until the end of time.

In other cases, however, it's more a matter of updating. Black winged fungus gnats are not the easiest group of flies to identify, but there have been changes since Volume 1 of the Manual was published. What's frustrating is, the Mohrig et al revision is a very nice catalog of all the described North American Sciaridae, with updated names, descriptions, and genitalic illustrations in many cases, but there is no revised genus key. Why? Not THAT much has changed since 1983, it wouldn't be that difficult. Why didn't they include an updated key to the genera in their revision?

This reminds me of another situation.

For about two years now, I have been sitting on this key. It's an updated genus key to the keroplatid fungus gnats of North America, meant to replace a section of the Mycetophilidae in the Manual of Nearctic Diptera. It's even available online, though not exactly pretty. Last week, my adviser said, you know, you should really publish that. Emphatically, he said it. And he's right, I should publish it. But I'm not going to, not now, anyway.

Why? Three reasons:

1. I can't verify it without more research. I've used a combination of several publications, the world checklist, and intuition to build it. But I've looked at very few specimens, and I have no collection to back it up. This was the preliminary work for what was going to be my dissertation, and when I ended up working on tachinid flies instead, well... The Orfeliini is the real problem, with the previous genus Orfelia split up into a large number of what used to be subgenera. Since I don't have a good collection, I don't know if species in the World Catalog are correctly placed. There may even be genera in North America not currently in my key. And I haven't had time to follow up.

2. It needs illustrations. I could quickly and easily format the thing for ZooKeys or the CJAI, but without illustrations it's not going to be easy to use. Especially for all the 'new' Orfeliini genera. I don't have illustrations because I need specimens from all the genera to make them. See item 1.

3. I feel like I'm going to be stepping on someone's toes. I don't think anyone is working on this right now, but I can't be sure. And the key is derived, it's a synthesis; there isn't really any new stuff there, it's a combination of the MND key PLUS Lane 1951 PLUS Vockeroth 1981 PLUS the Manual of Paelearctic Diptera and others. I'm afraid someone is going to accuse me of plagiarism, or of trying to inflate my publication number, or tell me the Manual is good enough as it is, just leave it.

The title alludes to a common saying about identification keys, that they're written by people who don't need them (experts), for people who can't use them (non-experts). Yet they are incredibly useful, even in this day and age when digital HD photographs are a click of a button. Keys are the technology side of our work, they're the tools we create to make our lives easier. Not every specimen is perfect, and not every taxonomic group is nicely defined by a single, specially shared character that no other group has (cf. Tachinidae, again), it's true. Digital identification keys such as Lucid Keys allow much greater flexibility, with multiple starting points, the ability to account for character variability (e.g. lengths), and overall more characters to work with. However, in most cases, a good dichotomous key is much faster to use, in spite of the learning period.

But there seems to be some barriers to publishing keys, especially updates of older works. There's only so many ways I can split up Keroplatidae. Since the parsimonious way is the best way, and since THAT way is the way the Manual is set up, why NOT use the Manual's key as the basis? Maybe my reasons are the same reasons for no updated Sciaridae key in Mohrig et al.

So, some general questions for ya'all:

Is the reworking and synthesizing of old keys into a single, updated key for publication plagiarism?

Is the publication of revisions without dicotomous keys a trend, or is this an isolated case?

How much extra work needs to be put into an update before it becomes worthwhile to publish? Half? One-fourth? The whole shebang?

Do any of you have any keys you're sitting on, not publishing, for the above reasons or others?