The scientific catalog of life. A Conversation with Quentin Wheeler

In the following pages, you can read the interview that gave us Quentin Wheeler in its original version. Those who wish to read the edited version in Spanish can find it in the following link.

How bad is the situation facing our biodiversity today?

Extremely bad.  To be fair, rates of deforestation have slowed from some earlier projections and there is much wider recognition among the public that biodiversity is in trouble and ought to be conserved.  These are signs of hope.  While the precise number of species going extinct is not known — largely because we do not know what species exist to begin with — it is estimated to be in excess of 20,000 species per year.  Some would argue that the number is much higher.  The concern, of course, is not simply the number of species being lost, but which species are being lost.  That, too, is unknowable without an inventory.

Why is it so important to complete an inventory of the world's species? In this sense, what role do taxonomists play in the protection of biodiversity?

There are several reasons that completing an inventory of earth’s species is both important and urgent.  The short answer is that we cannot efficiently or effectively save what we do not know exists.  Sure, we can set aside tracks of land and monitor selected species such as top predators and dominant trees, but that tells us little about the thousands of other species at any particular site and how well they are doing.  We do not know the effects of eliminating this or that insect or fungus from a habitat nor introducing non-native species, yet we are doing both at an alarming rate.

This suggests the first of several reasons to complete an inventory:  creating a baseline of the species that are the elements of ecosystems and collectively of the biosphere.  Without such a baseline we are powerless to detect invasive species, measure the rate of extinction, or permit ecologists to study functions of ecosystems in depth.  And without a baseline, we cannot set the best conservation goals or measure our successes and failures meeting them.

While my life depends on ecological services like everyone else, and those services depend on the right networks of species functioning as ecosystems, I am passionate about two other reasons for an inventory.  First, is to reconstruct the history of life on earth.  While astronomers continue to discover earth-like planets, in all likelihood Earth is the one and only planet on which we will be able to explore the origin and history of a biologically diverse world.  As an entomologist, I am personally curious to understand the story that explains the breathtaking diversity of insects, millions of kinds of them.  And as a human, I am curious to understand, too, what makes us human.  Why are we as we are?  The answer, perhaps surprisingly, lies in studying other species.  Everything we flatter our selves as being uniquely human are instead modifications of attributes that existed in ancestral primate species.  Our large brain case, our upright gate, and so forth are all modified versions of ancestral traits.  And supposedly unique mammal characters were likewise modified from even earlier quadrupeds and so on, and so on, all the way back to the first, common, single-celled ancestral species.  We can never fully understand why we are as we are without an inventory of all life forms and a reconstruction of the history of transformations that brought us about.

Second is biomimicry.  Species have been adapting in the struggle for existence for as long as life has existed on earth.  This represents 3.8 billion years of trial-and-error experimentation that has resulted in hundreds of millions of clues for better, more efficient, and more sustainable structures, designs, materials, and processes.  We need only discover species and observe them in order to open a vast archive of proven ideas for doing things differently and better.  Because few species leave a fossil record behind, when a species disappears, so too does all it could have taught us.  If we have described species and preserved specimens, observations, recordings, and tissues in museums, however, we can continue to study and learn for centuries after a species is extinct.  And for those that survive, we know where to go in Nature to study them in their natural habitats.

It is worth stating, too, that an inventory of species opens them up for wider enjoyment.  If you are able to identify the animal or plant you are looking at and use its name to retrieve information about its ecology, behavior, relationships, and geographic distribution, it becomes available for deeper enjoyment and inspiration.  Just think of the great works of art, literature, and music inspired by by other species!   We might survive on Earth decimated of its biodiversity, but it would not be so beautiful and wondrous as the planet we know and love.

Why does taxonomy lack the prestige and public support it deserves?

This is an excellent question and one that is not simply answered.  Numerous factors have been and are at play.  What I can tell you is that the answer does not lie in science; no science is more relevant, rigorous, or necessary as taxonomy.  Key elements are found instead in the politics and sociology of science.  There is a bias within the biological sciences for experimental work.  Anything that is not experimental is derided as “merely descriptive” or, worse, “stamp collecting.”  My response to this is twofold.  First, what is wrong with descriptive science?  Mapping the surface of Mars and the Human Genome Project were both merely descriptive, yet no one questioned their value.  More to the point, modern taxonomy is not descriptive but rather based on layers of testable scientific hypotheses.  What separates science from non-science is whether a claim about the world is testable.  Experiments are accepted as science because they can be independently repeated, testing their outcomes.  The more vulnerable a claim about the world is to being shown wrong, the more rigorously scientific it is.  The strongest hypotheses, therefore, are all-or-nothing claims.  I can say that “All swans are white,” but no matter how many millions of white swans I observe, I cannot prove that statement to be true.  Observing a single black swan, however, I can falsify the claim.  That is rigor.  And that is exactly the kind of hypotheses embedded in taxonomic descriptions from the unique combinations of features that distinguish species to the evolutionary novelties shared by groups of species descended from a common ancestor.  All insects have six legs.  All angiosperms produce flowers.  It only takes one exception to falsify such claims, a level of rigor rarely met by experiments.

How can cybertaxonomy and digitization of collections help in taxonomic research?

Those of us who continue to be fascinated by and to focus on comparative morphology are largely using the same equipment, instruments, and methods to collect and study specimens that were used a hundred years ago.  I still travel to capital cities of Europe to study rare specimens in museums because they are too fragile to ship and not yet adequately described or imaged to answer all my questions.  We are working on a project to create a network of remotely operable digital microscopes that will allow any specimens in a museum to be studied and photographed from anywhere in the world.  This is just one example of the kinds of advances possible with existing cyber and digital technology.  We can vastly accelerate species discovery and taxonomic work  by adapting these technologies to allow taxon experts to do what they have always done, but to do it faster and more efficiently.

Every time the Top 10 list is published, we realize the wonderful diversity of life.  We also understand better the rate of biodiversity loss. How do you think this list influences media readers? I mean readers who are unfamiliar with biology, and who find those ten images in a magazine or newspaper.

I find that most people are shocked by how little we know about life on earth.  I constantly hear from reporters and readers who had no idea that new species were being discovered every day, or that we have named only two million of an estimated ten million animals and plants — and this is setting aside for the moment the bacteria and other microbes which are being studied with molecular methods because most cannot yet be isolated or cultured.

I hope that the top 10 list awakens a wonder about the diversity of life, a concern that we are losing biodiversity, and an appreciation for the importance of having experts who know all kinds of living things and of natural history museums that are the greatest repository of what we know about the diversity and history of life.

Please explain us how the list is compiled and how the ten species are chosen.

Compiling the list is an imperfect process.  Astonishingly, there is no single place where all the newly named species are collected into a database each year.  Botanists are leading the way with a more efficient annual accounting of new species and zoologists are working hard to catch up.  Still, it can take two years before all or nearly all newly named species are compiled into lists.  

Some species are nominated by journal editors and the scientists who named them each year.  I support a graduate student to comb through the scientific literature in search of unusual species, which is the primary source.  These sources combined typically result in something on the order of fifty candidate species.  This year we narrowed this list to about twenty-five that were then presented to an international committee of scientists chaired by Dr. Antonio Valdecasas of the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid.  Dr. Valdecasas’ committee makes the final decisions and is free to add other species known to them to the mix.  This results in the list of the top ten with five additional alternates in the event that we are unable to secure permission to print images or for some other reason must remove a finalist from the list.

How many species do we still have to discover in the next few years?

About 18,000 species are named each year.   This rate has been more or less constant since the 1940s while advances in travel, communications, and technology should have resulted in an accelerated rate.  Our best guess is that there are about eight million animals and plants unknown to science and we are engaged in a race to discover and describe them before they have gone extinct.

When society is confronted with the biodiversity crisis, we always have to talk about an economic cost. Do you think public authorities are really aware of it?

I do not believe that the public or our elected politicians appreciate either the scale, pace, or implications of the biodiversity crisis.  There are direct costs.  Dealing with invasive species, for example, costs the United States alone an estimated three billion dollars per year while it would have been cheaper to have taxonomically trained inspectors at ports of entry to prevent their arrival.  As we think of the possibilities of biomimicry to create a sustainable future, we realize the opportunity costs of allowing species to go extinct before we have studied them.  And our very existence, from air and water to food and medicines, depends upon the ecological services given to us by other species.  These services are threatened directly by the biodiversity crisis.  There is no greater single threat to our future or well being than the biodiversity crisis, yet we fail to take the first and necessary step of simply learning what kinds of animals and plants exist to begin with!  The costs of completing an inventory will be greatly exceeded by those of not doing one.

Why, as you said recently, is so important to discover and describe 10 million new species in 50 years or less?

What is important is that we complete an inventory of species as rapidly as possible.  Fifty years is at once ambitious and reasonable.  It would require increasing the rate of taxonomic work by an order of magnitude;  this is very easily done using existing technologies by supporting taxonomists and teams of taxonomists.  And further speed may be added with new technology.  Still, there is a lag time required to organize large-scale projects and to educate a new generation of taxon experts.  Taking all of this into account, 50 years is do-able and would equip us to face an uncertain future with knowledge.

How would you explain to a climate change denialist the effects of the extinction process and the destruction of the biosphere?

In my mind there is no argument against completing a species inventory.  If you deny the biodiversity crisis or that there is an accelerated rate of extinction by climate change, you should still want an inventory.  The more species that continue living, the more we can benefit from them, as through biomimicry.  So an inventory is a good investment in the absence of any environmental crisis.  And if climate change is eliminating species faster, then we benefit also by not losing what we can learn from other species.

For those who accept the scientific data that shows climate change, many do not recognize that of all the catstrophic impacts of climate change, the loss of biodiversity is the greatest threat of all.  At huge expense and great suffering we could genetically engineer crops or grow them at higher latitudes.  We could rebuild coastal cities on higher ground.  And we could harden our buildings against super storms.  But to repopulate the earth with biodiversity would require tens of millions of years.

Do you think the media are aware of the effects of the sixth mass extinction? In your opinion, what role should journalists play in raising public awareness of this tragedy?

We have very little time to create a permanent record of life on earth through a species inventory and very little time to adapt to all the implications of losing a large number of species and rapid changes in climate.  At the current rate of extinction, which is one thousand times faster than in prehistory, we will find ourselves in a full-blown sixth extinction in just 300 years.  That sounds like a long time in an age of Twitter and sound bytes, but it is not long to rethink all the things negatively impacted by a collapsing biosphere.  Humans are not prepared to even conceive what the loss of 70% of all the kinds of living things would mean.  There is nothing remotely like it in all of human history; it is literally beyond our experience.  The last time the earth suffered a mass extinction was 65 million years ago and if you doubt the seriousness of the change, ask a dinosaur.

Whether the sixth extinction comes to pass is entirely up to us.  It is not too late to conserve a great deal of biodiversity and avoid the mass extinction, but we must act decisively and we must act now.  Journalists have a tremendous opportunity to educate the public and inspire them to action and are experts at communication in a way that scientists are not. E. O. Wilson’s Half Earth Project is the best current example.  If we were to set aside 50% of the surface of the land and 50% of the surface of the oceans we could save 85% of all the kinds of animals and plants.  The earth would remain the wondrous place it is today with vibrant, diverse, and resilient landscapes, with abundant resources, and with a treasure trove of ideas with which to make human life rich and prosperous on its half of earth.  To make this happen will take a partnership between scientists and journalists to offer the sobering facts and the hope that comes with taking action.  I am optimistic that we can and will wake up to the full dimensions of the biodiversity crisis, complete an inventory of species, and use that inventory to guide us into a world in which both human civilization and biodiversity are sustained.

Sometimes when I talk to writers or educated people about the disappearance of biodiversity, I discover that their scientific knowledge is very limited. An unprecedented pedagogical effort would be essential to make these influential people understand the magnitude of the problem. What would it take to get it?

I suggest that those of us possessing knowledge of what is at stake and what can and must be done have an ethical, perhaps moral, responsibility to do all that we can do.  We must educate, but not in a way that makes people feel hopeless or powerless.  Instead, in a way that empowers people to see what is possible.  In a way that wakes people up to realize how beautiful and wondrous life on earth is, compared to life on any of the other worlds known to astronomers.  Stephen Hawking has suggested, like many cosmologists and science fiction authors before him, that the only long-term hope for humanity is to colonize other worlds.  While this is undoubtedly true on a scale of millions or billions of years, there is a reasonably good chance that we can continue to prosper on Earth if we are willing to care for it and to make room for biodiversity.  Imagine living under a glass dome on a desolate planet like Mars compared to the lush green of Earth.  Survival is possible, but to truly be alive in all its dimensions is much easier on earth if we are wise enough to conserve biodiversity.

Science literacy or, more properly, the lack of it among the general population is an enormous danger.  Ethically, every person has a right to express their voice in the incredibly consequential decisions that lie ahead.  But most environmental issues must be informed by science and this ideally requires that voters understand what is and is not science.  The basic concepts are accessible to nearly everyone, such as the difference between beliefs that are not testable and scientific ideas that are.  We need to make science literacy a requirement of public education and make every effort to explain science to the public.

Why do so many economists and politicians defend this model of technological and economic progress, totally lethal to life on the planet? I am sure that they know the warnings of the scientists, and yet they do not seem determined to highlight them in their agenda.

They are operating on an outdated set of rules of economics.  Those rules have served us well and witnessed the rise of incredible civilizations over the past five thousand years.  Those rules have, for all of our human experience, solved our problems and time after time allowed us to rise above our limitations and challenges.  The biodiversity crisis is unprecedented in human history and it is understandable that recognizing this entirely new reality is difficult and more than a little frightening.  While the technology-economic nexus of the past based on ignoring environmental costs and simply increasing efficiency of extracting natural resources cannot save us, there is in my view great hope for a different slant on technology.

Biomimicry —studying how other species have adapted to survive — can create an entirely new generation of sustainable designs, materials, processes, and technologies.  It offers great hope and the real possibility of maintaining a high standard of human comfort but in a way that vastly reduces pollution, avoids depletion of resources, and requires a much smaller “footprint” by humans on the planet.  The right kinds of technology are very much a part of a successful future, and necessary in order that humans meet their needs on half the planet so that the other remains available to biodiversity.  I like to think of this biomimicry future as one with an evolutionary economy:  that is, an economy that is based on what we can learn from the evolution of other species and an economy that is itself every-evolving, continuing to explore Nature for biomimetic models and continually adapting new and better and more efficient ways to meet our needs.  And what is the key to this bright biomimetic future?  Taxonomy of course, the one science that makes species and what their natural history can teach us.

There are skeptics who even point out that there have always been extinctions, and that we should not worry so much. Why do you think public opinion is so anthropocentric on such an important issue?

There have always been extinctions, but through most of human history they were relatively rare.  Now they are happening a thousand times faster with predictably greater impact.  On a larger scale we can say that earth has also survived five mass extinction events before, and that is true, too.  But what those earlier mass extinctions taught us is that the life requires tens of millions of years to replenish its diversity.  That is a long, long time for humans to live in a biologically impoverished world.

While Jurassic Park was a fun movie, and while serious efforts are underway to resurrect mammoths and passenger pigeons, for all intents and purposes extinction is forever.  Avoiding extinctions is by far the most cost effective strategy to assure that human needs can be met in the future.  You do not need to be altruistic to other species to decide that conserving biodiversity makes sense; it is through access to biodiversity that our needs for survival and prosperity will be met.  An anthropocentric view is ultimately self defeating and a denial of our origins: in short, we are not apart from Nature but rather very deeply a part of Nature.  The sooner we recognize and act as part of Nature, the better.

E.O. Wilson says that his Half-Earth Project it’s a practical possibility, and it could save 80 to 90 percent of all species on Earth. Do you agree with this assessment?

I absolutely agree.  I just spent several days with a group of leading thinkers assembled by the E. O. Wilson Foundation to explore many aspects of the Half Earth Project.  I came away energized and more deeply convinced of the wisdom and effectiveness of this strategy than ever.  It is the simplest, least costly, and most likely to succeed of all the ways we might approach conserving biodiversity.

E. O. Wilson makes another statement that seems to me very revealing. He says that our lack of knowledge of biological diversity is one of the great scandals of the biological sciences. What conclusions should we draw from it?

I could not agree with Professor Wilson more.  Exploring and documenting species diversity is easy and cheap today.  No future generation will ever have access to the number and diversity of species that we have access to today and we owe it to all the generations of humans who follow us to conserve as many species as possible and to discover and document those that do not survive.  Considering how important, inexpensive, and easy an inventory would be among all great scientific enterprises, it is indeed scandalous that we ignore the needs of taxon experts and museums to get on with their work.

Copyright © The Cult. All rights reserved.

Modificado por última vez en Lunes, 03 Abril 2017 07:29
Guzmán Urrero

Tras una etapa profesional en la Agencia EFE, Guzmán Urrero se convirtió en colaborador habitual de las páginas de cultura del diario ABC y de revistas como Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, Album Letras-Artes y Scherzo.

Como colaborador honorífico de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid, se ocupó del diseño de recursos educativos, una actividad que también realizó en instituciones como el Centro Nacional de Información y Comunicación Educativa (Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte). 

Asimismo, accedió al sector tecnológico como autor en las enciclopedias de Micronet y Microsoft, al tiempo que emprendía una larga trayectoria en el Instituto Cervantes, preparando exposiciones digitales y numerosos proyectos de divulgación sobre temas literarios y artísticos.

Es autor de trece libros (en papel) sobre arte y cultura audiovisual.

En 2006, fundó junto a Javier Sánchez Ventero la revista Thesauro Cultural (The Cult), un medio situado en la frontera entre la cultura, las ciencias y las nuevas tecnologías de la información.

Desde 2015, Thesauro Cultural sirve de plataforma a una iniciativa más amplia, conCiencia Cultural, concebida como una entidad sin ánimo de lucro que promueve el acercamiento entre las humanidades y el saber científico, tanto en el entorno educativo como en el conjunto de la sociedad.


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