Taxonomy, or the science of identification, has existed since the very beginning of man and it may well be the oldest of all sciences. Although it is surely the most needed of the sciences, it is least rated of all of them. In fact, some people consider it somewhat unfashionable. Moreover, taxonomy is not important in the eyes of most agencies of financial support worldwide nor, even more unbelievably, of our own colleagues. To stimulate students to do taxonomic work is getting increasingly more difficult and less rewarding.
In fact, taxonomy has always been always a poorly understood science. Many people do not see it as a first class science, since they assume that the task of naming living beings is quite easy. This is indeed a dreadful mistake. Identification is never a simple process. On the contrary, it is a complex summing up of knowledge, i.e. it starts with a thorough analysis to base the synthesis that will end up in a "simple" name: the name of the species, of the genus, or of whatever. One should not mistake the task of a taxonomist with that of a priest who applies a name that has already been decided. A taxonomist never merely applies a name, but rather he draws conclusions for a name.
It is a common practice today to refer to "modern" taxonomy, but such does not exist. Taxonomy started long ago by using the most eloquent expression of the genotype, the phenotype and has progressed with the continuous and careful use of different tools. The methods remain the same with the sole difference between yesterday's and today's taxonomy lying in the tools used. They have evolved enough to enable better the understanding of how genes work on the specimens. This is done through the use of scanning electron microscopy and of the information generated by other fields of science such as, for example, ecology, cytology, genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, mathematics, etc. Then should the term modern taxonomy as opposed to old taxonomy be used? It had better not, because if this term were used, it would also be necessary to discuss modern genetics, modern cytology, modern ecology, etc., none of which really exists. What really exists is a science that has evolved through the continuous and scrupulous use of different tools, as well as of other sciences subsidies, but which will never be called modern just because it is being subsidized.
It is also important to mention that taxonomy aims at identifying species not specimens. A species is a group of individuals (specimens) that may, to a greater or lesser degree, show the ever present intra-population variability. Knowledge of polymorphism is essential for the species' circumscription. However, it is always necessary to remember that we must never identify specimens. In brief, the chief task of the taxonomist is to know the variability and separate that which is intra- from that which is inter-populational.
However, even tumbling and bumping, taxonomy will go on because it is absolutely necessary and vital. The notion of being in fashion and the absolute lack of vision of some colleagues is staggering. Nevertheless, what really matters is that without taxonomy it is impossible to know which species lived yesterday, are living today, and will have the chance to be alive tomorrow in a given area; what type of balance exists within a community that occupies an area, and why that balance dominates; what is the cost of the biodiversity of a certain area; what will happen to the biological balance of a given area if the dominant environment conditions change, etc. In conclusion, none of the above will become reality if there is no taxonomy nor taxonomists.
FAPESP, Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo, took a step of utmost importance by creating the Program BIOTA/FAPESP, Virtual Institute of Biodiversity. To recognize the importance of taxonomy within biodiversity, to recognize that there is an immediate need for the survey of the state's fauna and flora, to recognize that the state of São Paulo badly needs specialists in taxonomy, to recognize that there is an urgent need for the development of new taxonomists, is to give the world a unique example. It places Brazil far ahead by showing that science has no limits.
Carlos E. de M. Bicudo
Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo, Fapesp
Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico, CNPq
Centro de Referência em Informação Ambiental, CRIA
© BIOTA NEOTROPICA, 2004