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.


Christopher Taylor said...

Hear, hear.

Raymond Hoser said...
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