Chris Humphries’ Blog

Another Biogeography Weblog

Letter to Linneus

The winds of change that have come about since you lived 200 or more years ago have seen some rapid advances in the subjects of systematics and taxonomy.

Do you remember those days of late summer when violent thunderstorms came about? Did it ever occur to you to consider what the composition of the lightning might have been? Well, it is stuff called electricity and its capture and the ways of manipulating it, have been exploited to the max and so the start of the 21st century, has been called the age of information technology. The composition of lightning is infitessimaly small particles called electrons, which have the ability to flow along metal.

That discovery took a while coming with such famous scientists as Volta, Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. They eventually realized that that electricity was a natural force which could be captured. They also discovered that various substances such as rubber and plastic – solid compounds that could be collected from plants or oil from inside the earth – would not conduct electrons. Therefore, the electrons could be captured in such a way so as to put wires made of copper or zinc through non-conducting rubber and plastic. The technology was very powerful and from about 1800 to 1880 electricity became better understood. Since the capture of electricity there have been many tools built that utilize the energy in electricity, heat, light, sound and vision. So, with the invention of electric lights, heat generators, the ability to record music, voices and sounds and even to make and project moving pictures through television has allowed the world to become a very rich place since your time. Theatres, Musical Halls, Clubs can all work in the dark with great effect and resolution through amplification of sound, light and vision.
But, that is not all, the 20th century has seen great strides in the development of radio, the travel of sound through space and from any spot on the globe to any other spot on the globe. Earth is like a ball in space that travels around the sun in one year and spins on its own axis every 24 hours. We can even hear sounds from other galaxies these days and see the galaxies through powerful telescope and radio systems. But, to my mind, the greatest achievement of the 20th century is the development of powerful electronic systems called computers . Today, everyone in the western world has a computer or access to one and things are greatly improving in the less wealthy parts of the world in South America, India and Africa. By the end of this century I predict that everyone will have access to a computer and will have the prospect of gaining infinite knowledge through an integrated network and the ability to communicate with anyone in the world as long as you know their email address.

Now with a man of your imagination you can see what this means for systematics and taxonomy. No longer will we need to keep our information on index cards or volumes of paper but be able to store the information electronically in things called databases. Databases keep information in very tidy filing systems so that the first main effect has been to allow all names to be recorded in one place, and for the development of dedicated websites on the network for all kinds of information, from medicinal plants to every known insect. Anyone should, in theory, be able to access any of the databases and get the precise information they require from the international source. But that is not all, since your time there have been many efforts made to improve on the way we sort out groups of related organisms. You were the great pioneer behind the binominal nomenclature system that is still pride of place today, but the ways groups within groups are now sorted out is by their natural relationships. There has been a succession of methods of how to determine what can be called a natural group from overall similarity to genealogy, the latter being currently in vogue. There was a brilliant entomologist called Willi Hennig who lived in Germany and, who devised a whole method called Phylogenetic Systematics. Many others have contributed to his technique and now we have very powerful computerized techniques to sort out so-called natural groups. I would cite people such as Steven Farris and David Swofford who have worked on cladistic techniques and have provided us with the software to undertake electronic analyses on our modern computers. My portable computer is so light I can take it with me anywhere. I am often seen undertaking natural group analysis whilst riding the train from my house to my office in the middle of London. The only reason I go uptown to work these days is to see the actual specimens of the groups of plants upon which I work, and to browse our library for previous published analyses or for determining the correct names of things. You will be pleased to know that you still figure highly in these endeavours especially since the publication of a fabulous book by the Linnean Soiety of London called “Order out of Chaos” by a very unassuming character called Charles Jarvis. If you were alive today you would have it as bedside reading, the book being such a wonderful homage to your craft.

So my distinguished fellow I can say that you are alive and well in all of the best known and all known museums and botanical gardens. Rest in peace Carl you are still one of the greatest scientist we have ever had and your work has great place in the 21st century. I hope you enjoy reading this collection of essays as much as the contributors have had in writing them.

Christopher John Humphries
The Natural History Museum, London, England.


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