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Desert Diary


Even in science, it's impossible to escape that part of human nature that leads to fiddling with the status quo. In some ways, this is admirable—but it also can be a real pain. In taxonomy, the science of classification, there tends to be a vicious cycle governed by the dichotomy of lumpers and splitters. The nearest thing in taxonomy that approaches objectivity is the species. Species are grouped into genera, genera into families, and so forth. The question is, how similar do species have to be, to be put into the same genus?

Here is where splitting and lumping come in. Splitters tend to require much similarity—relatively small differences between species cause them to be placed in different genera. Lumpers are the opposite—species are placed in the same genus unless greatly different. At any one time, either splitters or lumpers tend to be in ascendency—but whoever is in control soon overdoes it and, in reaction, the other group takes over. Unlike many cases, this is one cycle that seems destined to never reach equilibrium!
pen and ink

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.