Everyone’s a taxonomist

I’ve just discovered (via Twitter) that 19 March was Taxonomist Appreciation Day. This was, as far as I can make out, a celebration of the important—fundamental even—contribution that biologists known as taxonomists make to our understanding of the living world. Taxonomists bring order to the biodiversity that’s all around us. Indeed, without this order and understanding, it would be more difficult to know for example which plants and animals are endangered, and to prioritize what to conserve, and where.

The most celebrated taxonomist of all was surely the eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (whose Latinized name, Linnaeus, identifies him as the taxonomic authority, L., for many plants and animals).

So what do taxonomists do? One of their important roles is to describe and catalogue all plants and animals and, in the case of plants, publish this information in compendia known as Floras as an aid to identification, like those written about the plants of the British Isles and Europe that have been studied for hundreds of years.

Other Floras are still being written. Take the Flora Zambesiaca, for example, a project started in 1960 as the taxonomic study of native and naturalised plants of the Zambezi River basin, covering the territories of Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Caprivi Strip. This is a work in progress, and there are many other parts of the world where the diversity of plants is only now being discovered and documented, particularly in the Tropics.

But taxonomists also look at the variation within species, and assess the dynamics of species distribution and evolution.

Mr Les Watson

I had my first taste of taxonomy at the University of Southampton where, as first year students or freshmen in 1967/68, we studied the diversity of flowering plants under the tuition of taxonomist Les Watson. He and another colleague Alan Myers took us to the west coast of Ireland for a field course in July 1968 where we studied the vegetation of the Burren in Co Clare.

Professor Vernon Heywood

In my final or senior year in 1970, I sat in on a plant taxonomy course given by eminent taxonomist Professor Vernon Heywood from the University of Reading (Les Watson had moved to Australia in 1968/69, and had not been replaced in the Department of Botany). I met up with Professor Heywood in 1991 at a conference in Rome where we had an opportunity to reminisce about that course.

I never expected that, one day, I would engage in taxonomic research. However, I never participated in describing or naming plant species, nor undertaking the enormous task of contributing to Floras that is sometimes considered the be-all and end-all of taxonomists’ work. I take my hat off to those taxonomists who write Floras, often relying on dried herbarium specimens of plants collected in nature. Nevertheless, in my own work, I have used herbaria on occasion, and twice spent time looking at specimens of lentil (Lens culinaris Medik.) and grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.) among the millions of herbarium sheets curated in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. My interest was in the relationships of these cultivated plants and their wild relatives.

Comparing notes in the field in the Andes of central Peru with potato taxonomist Professor Jack Hawkes (who supervised my PhD dissertation).

In 1973 I joined the International Potato Center in Peru as an Associate Taxonomist, studying the evolution of cultivated potatoes. Biosystematics, a sub-discipline of plant taxonomy, was my field, and I investigated species relationships through field experiments to understand patterns of morphological variation, through breeding experiments, and cytogenetic analysis of chromosome pairing in hybrids, among other several different approaches.

When I returned to Birmingham in 1981 as Lecturer in Plant Biology, I continued research on wild potatoes, and also several legume species. I also contributed about half the lectures to a second year module on flowering plant taxonomy.

On moving to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in July 1991, my colleagues and I delved into the taxonomy and species relationships of the two cultivated species of rice, Oryza sativa L. and O. glaberrima Steud., and the 20 or so wild species in the genus Oryza. We published quite extensively, and you you can peruse a list of rice publications (many with PDF files) here.

Just last week I met up for lunch with six retired former colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham: three plant scientists (including me), three geneticists, and a zoologist. Inevitably we began to discuss not only the administrative and organization changes that had occurred at the university (I taught there between 1981 and 1991), but how the teaching of biology had also changed, and the topics that now form a core biology curriculum.

Back in the day, whole organism biology still formed an important component of an undergraduate degree in biological sciences at Birmingham. Nowadays, and for obvious reasons, there’s much more focus on molecular biology, and recent hirings in what is now the School of Biosciences (Biological Sciences and Biochemistry merged some years back) reflect that change of emphasis.

Alas, it’s no longer possible to study at Birmingham for a biology degree with a plant sciences focus. But that’s not just a Birmingham issue; it’s nationwide. And taxonomy is perhaps the discipline that has suffered more than most. Taxonomists are just not coming through the system. Just at the time when one can argue there should be more demand for taxonomists than ever before, given the environmental changes that threaten the world’s vegetation. In some regions we may be losing species even before they have been identified. Harvard biologist EO Wilson wrote this in 2017: Our incomplete taxonomic knowledge impedes our attempts to protect biodiversity. A renaissance in the classification of species and their interactions is needed to guide conservation prioritization [1].

Now, I started this piece stating that everyone is a taxonomist. Is that a fair assumption?I think so.

Appa Rao collecting upland rice varieties from a farmer in the Lao PDR.

Taxonomy (and classification) is a fundamental human characteristic, something we do every day. We sort the complex world around us into meaningful categories, and we give them names. In many societies, farmers and their husbands use so-called ‘folk taxonomies’ to manage the various crops grown, and often the diversity of different varieties within a crop. I have myself talked to potato farmers in the Andes of southern Peru about their cultivation of different varieties, and why these are grown in different ways. In the Lao PDR, with my colleague Dr Appa Rao, we looked at how farmers name all their rice varieties.

Even before talking to my second year students about flowering plant taxonomy as such (and the different approaches used to study variation), I asked them to practice some simple taxonomies on themselves: males vs. females, blondes vs. brunettes, spectacle users vs. non-users, for example. These are discrete characteristics, binary, one or the other. Then we’d look at the complexity of coping with characters that vary quantitatively, such as height, length, etc.

Fortunately, there are many numerical techniques that allow us to cope with all sorts of measurements, and reduce complexity to a state that can be interpreted more easily.

The classification of different rice species based on the measurement and analysis of a range of morphological characters.

The use of different molecular markers now allows us to refine taxonomies built using morphological data. But, as I once read in a letter published in a scientific journal, a professor of taxonomy decried the lack of basic species knowledge among many students using molecular approaches. They could wax lyrical, he stated, about the value of different molecular techniques, but they had hardly looked at a living plant. That brings me back to my concern about the reduction in teaching whole organism biology.

As I say, we are all taxonomists, one way or another. Unfortunately I don’t see any scientific expansion (in the UK at least) in this particular discipline.

The situation may be different in North America. Plant sciences are still very strong in many US universities, and indeed there is a bill before Congress that promotes botanical research & sciences capacity, generates demand for native plant materials, & authorizes related federal activities.

[1] Wilson, EO (2017). Biodiversity research requires more boots on the ground. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1590 –1591

It’s all in the timing . . .

Last night, I tuned into BBC Radio 4 to listen to the news program at 10 pm expecting all the latest on the Brexit discussions from Brussels. Just before the news, I caught the tail-end of a discussion (in the program In Our Time, chaired by Melvyn Bragg) about the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).

Now, for whatever reason, a memory was pulled from the deepest recesses of my mind about someone else whose name was Gerard. Beyond that, I couldn’t recall much else. Except that, when I was a small boy, I’d heard ‘Gerard’ telling an amusing story about a man and a brick barrel. I fell asleep none the wiser.

Until this morning that is, when I called on the power of Google to provide me with answers.

I typed in ‘raconteur’ and ’empty brick barrel’, and pressed Enter. And immediately had the answer I was looking for.

Gerard Hoffnung (1925-1959)

I had been thinking about Gerard Hoffnung, artist, musician, and raconteur known for his many humorous stories and recordings.

Hoffnung was born in Germany but grew up in London, having escaped the Nazis. He trained as an artist, became an accomplished musician (the tuba), and a regular contestant on panel games broadcast by the BBC. He is best remembered perhaps for his many humorous recordings, delivered (with an excellent sense of timing that has hardly been bettered) in his inimitable, and rather fruity, style.

Among his most celebrated recordings is his bricklayer’s tale. Thus my Google search for ‘brick barrel’.

And here it is. It must date from around 1958 (when he gave a famous speech to the Oxford Union). Sixty years on, it’s as fresh as then, and when I also first heard it. I sat at my computer this morning, chuckling away, almost tears in my eyes. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Here is the full Oxford Union speech as well. The bricklayer’s tale clip is taken from this longer speech.

Sadly, Hoffnung was taken from us at an early age in 1959, having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was a one-off.

Walking with my mobile: [1] Out and about on 20 March

Until I retired in April 2010 (aged 61) I had been quite active in the previous decade, playing badminton twice a week, and swimming at the weekends. As you can imagine playing badminton was quite strenuous in the heat and humidity (>30ºC/>80%RH) of Los Baños in the Philippines (where I worked for 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute). However, when Steph and returned to the UK, to our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (about 13 miles south of Birmingham city center), I needed to find some other form of exercise.

So, almost religiously since then, I have walked an average of 2 miles a day, around 45 minutes, at about 2.8 mph. Some days I don’t go out, especially if the weather is inclement, but other days, I may walk three to four miles or more. And I have taken these opportunities to explore my ‘home’ town, visiting areas I had never visited when we lived here in the 1980s.

To some extent, the same old walks have become somewhat stale, the same routes, so I always enjoy when we decide to go further afield (by car in the first instance) and then make a long walk. The parks at two national Trust properties, Hanbury Hall and Croome Park (7 and 20 miles from home, respectively) offer good long walks and beautiful landscapes.

Walks around Bromsgrove are mostly less photographically attractive, in the main, but there is a number of interesting landmarks that are worth documenting.

So, with this in mind, I’ve decided to begin a series of blogs, Walking with my mobile, in which I will illustrate the various walks that I make, with photos linked to the various via points added to a map for each.

Today’s walk, just over 2 miles and taking 44 minutes, was a test, as it were, of what I intend to do. I had thought of taking my Nikon D5000 DSLR camera (18-200mm) camera with me. But for a routine walk it’s rather heavy. So I decided to use my mobile phone camera.

In 2016 I acquired my first smartphone. It’s a Doogee X5pro, running Android 5.1, with 4.92MP camera, not the high resolution that is standard on much higher spec (and considerably more expensive) phones. But for the purposes of my walks, I reckon these images will be fine. See what you think.

Click on any of the via points to open an image or two. And this is what I’ll do in subsequent Walking with my mobile posts. Each red point has an image associated with it; the grey points just fill in some of the gaps in the route.


How we speak . . .

I’ve just finished reading the novel Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett, set during the late 19th century, in the Potteries of North Staffordshire. And now I have started his 1908 novel (considered his finest), The Old Wives’ Tale, that is set in the 1860s and beyond, also in the ‘five towns’.

Bennett used the local Potteries dialect sparingly throughout his novels. I came across a new dialect word while reading The Old Wives’ Tale this morning, which has perhaps taken on a new meaning nowadays: He admitted a certain feebleness (‘wankiness‘, he playfully called it, being proud of his skill in the dialect) . . . And this use of dialect came to my mind in light of something I read about recently (more of which at the end of this piece).

One author who did successfully write in Potteries dialect was William Bloor. His work has been archived at Keele University, and is available online where there’s this interesting comment: On the written page the dialect has the appearance of an arcane language, with mangled vowel sounds and harsh consonants rendering it incomprehensible to many.

You can find a list of Potteries dialect words here. Better still, listen to local Potteries author Alan Povey tell one of his Owd Grandad Piggott stories in dialect. Can you understand? I can (mostly).

Potteries dialect is much less known (and appreciated, perhaps) than Cockney (London), Brummie (Birmingham), Scouse (Liverpool), or Geordie (Newcastle upon Tyne). Today, there are probably few people in North Staffordshire who still fully speak in dialect as many did up to the 1950s. The influence of radio and television has surely brought about a standardization in the way we speak.

But what are the Potteries? They are the six (not five) towns, north to south, that comprise the City of Stoke-on-Trent: Tunstall [Turnhill], Burslem [Bursley], Hanley [Hanbridge], Stoke [Knype], Fenton, and Longton [Longshaw], and so named because they became a center of ceramic production in the early 17th century, due to the local availability of clay, salt, lead and coal.

I grew up in North Staffordshire, in the small market town of Leek (Axe in the Bennett novels), on the edge of the Staffordshire moorlands, just 10 miles to the northeast of the Potteries. Between September 1960 and June 1967 I traveled the fourteen miles every day from home to school in Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke. In Leek and the Potteries I did hear people talking in the local dialect, but rarely at school. Boys of my age had moved on linguistically, so to speak.

I don’t speak any dialect, but I clearly have an accent that, to many, sounds ‘northern’ because of the short vowel pronunciation characteristic of my speech. In this clip, I’m reading the first few paragraphs from Bennett’s The Old wives’ Tale:

But while I don’t speak dialect, I do use a few dialect words such as nesh (sensitive to the cold) or mithered (bothered). Growing up, I often heard the term of endearment, duck (used for men and women), but never used it myself.

I guess my accent and pronunciation (like anyone else) is a consequence of what I heard at home growing up. And has been modified by years of travel and living overseas. My mother was born in London’s East End, but grew up in Epsom, Surrey. She emigrated as a young woman to Canada and the USA in the 1920s. My father was a Staffordshire man, from Burton-on-Trent, but he moved away as a young man to the Cotswolds and then to sea, traveling the world as ship’s photographer. The way they spoke must have influenced me. For example, I pronounce schedule in the American way: skedule, not the soft shedule. That came from my mum, because that’s how I heard her pronounce it, something she probably picked up while in Canada and the USA.

A week ago or so, a rather interesting ‘quiz’ about British-Irish dialects appeared on Facebook (originally from The New York Times), and was widely shared. It wasn’t your run of the mill Facebook quiz. It seemed to have a purpose. Several people I know took the quiz, including my eldest brother and his wife. I took the quiz. We were all amazed at the accuracy of pinpointing where we came from,based on words we use in everyday speech. This is what my brother posted afterwards: Regarding myself – it says that I formed my language/speech style as being SW Derbyshire and SE Cheshire, which is ‘Spot-on’, Pauline’s was correct also being Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

I guess the algorithm behind the quiz used certain ‘signature’ words from different parts of the country (like nesh in my case) and gave them extra weight.

My result pointed towards Stoke-on-Trent northeastwards past Leek into southern Yorkshire, but with a greater probability in North Staffordshire. Also spot on! Just click on the link below and try for yourself.


I had a dream . . .

Well, more of a nightmare, actually.

I dreamt that I’d been elected a Member of Parliament. For the Labour Party even. Me, an MP sitting in the House of Commons! Nothing could be further from any aspirations I ever had nor, at my age, could I now want to explore.

I can’t imagine why I would have such a dream, except that my mind must be sensitized to politics given that Brexit is rarely out of the news for five minutes these days.

However, given the parlous state of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn (increasingly anti-Semitic in some quarters of the Party), that would not be my natural home. As I mentioned in a recent post, I once voted (in the General Election of June 1970) for the Conservative Party candidate. Never again. My seat in the House of Commons could never be on the Conservative benches, a party standing accused of entrenched Islamophobia.

I also wrote recently that politics in the UK is broken. Broken by Brexit. The fissures were already there perhaps, underneath the surface. They have been blown wide open by Brexit, an issue that has split the two major parties, Conservative and Labour. It’s not an issue that lends itself to tribal loyalties, For or Against, that dominate so many of the issues that Parliament is tasked to resolve.

So the idea that I should go into politics is ludicrous, to say the least. But then again? Political gravity pulls me to the center-center left, towards the Liberal Democrats, but since the 2017 General Election the Lib Dems are no longer a force to be reckoned with. They had already been punished in the 2015 election for having gone into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 (although I personally believe they didn’t really have much choice, and did help moderate some [many?] of the more extreme Conservative aims in government). They have not shone in recent months although always supporting Remain and a People’s Vote.

But what has become clear to me during the whole Brexit debacle is that politics in the UK needs a root and branch reform. I’ve come to this conclusion because I have probably watched more than my fair share of broadcasts from Parliament.

Our way of doing politics is anachronistic. Just watch the goings-on in the House of Commons during PMQs (Prime Minister’s Questions, which are questions to the PM). I doubt many would argue that change isn’t needed. Debates and member behavior in the House of Lords are much more restrained, probably because half of the members are asleep.

The whole Westminster set up is adversarial, opposing benches of tribal MPs baying at each other. Such a set-up is not conducive to compromise – precisely what is needed at this time of national crisis brought on by Brexit. Party before country! Whatever must anyone from outside the UK think?

It’s interesting to note that the devolved legislatures in Scotland (the Scottish Parliament or Parlàmaid na h-Alba in Gaelic) and Wales (the National Assembly for Wales or Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru in Welsh) are not configured in this way, nor the Northern Ireland Assembly (if it ever meets again). Each member has an individual desk. In the House of Commons there is not enough room for all 650 MPs. Many are forced to stand during certain sessions like PMQs attended by all MPs. At other times it must be quite disheartening to be an MP. Here is Green Party MP Caroline Lucas is introducing a debate (video) last week on an issue as important as climate change to an almost empty chamber.

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, introduces a debate on climate change to an almost empty House of Commons on 28 February 2019.

And then there is the antiquated voting system, where the Speaker asks MPs to signify their support, Aye of No, before deciding whether an actual ‘hard’ vote is needed. Then MPs file through the Lobby to cast their votes. You can imagine how long this can take if there are multiple votes, one by one. Parliamentary procedures and rituals seem locked in the Medieval Period.

The Palace of Westminster (where both the House of Commons and House of Lords meet in separate chambers) is no longer fit for purpose. Indeed it is falling down around Parliamentarians’ heads and is need of an urgent (and very costly) refurbishment. Yet MPs are reluctant to abandon the ‘Westminster ship’ to decamp to temporary premises while the buildings are brought up to standard one might expect in the 21st century for ‘the Mother of Parliaments‘.

But how about moving, permanently, to a bespoke parliament building, preferably in one of the regions outside London? The Palace of Westminster could then be converted to the museum it has (increasingly) become.

And while we’re considering reforms, how about introducing proportional representation in our voting system? Yes, that would probably lead to more frequent coalitions, but unless we break the stranglehold of the main parties I fear increased lurches to the right and left of politics.

MPs’ pay is a contentious issue. Currently MPs receive a basic salary of £77,379 (plus allowances and expenses). Personally, I think that £77,000 is rather low for such an important and responsible position. Not that many MPs are currently worthy perhaps of what they actually receive or might expect in the future. However, one proviso I would insist upon, that no MP may increase his/her income through external emoluments (directorships and the like, or as newspaper columnists, for example). Politics might then attract another (and better) generation of aspiring politicians.

You may accuse me of naïvety, and I would accept the criticism. But unless and until we are willing to openly confront the issues that challenge politics today in the UK, nothing will change. We will continue to be mired in a pit of our own delusions that Westminster really is the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, the epitome of democracy.