Tuesday, June 05, 2012

of taxonomies II (the tangled banks)

“… John Wilkins, around 1664, started to [divide] the universe in forty categories or classes, these being further subdivided into differences, which was then subdivided into species. He assigned to each class a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example: de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element fire, a flame.

… Beauty belongs to the sixteenth category; it is a living brood fish, an oblong one.

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of […] a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled 'Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge'. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into:
(a) belonging to the emperor
(b) embalmed
(c) tame
(d) sucking pigs
(e) sirens
(f) fabulous
(g) stray dogs
(h) included in the present classification
(i) frenzied
(j) innumerable
(k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
(l) et cetera
(m) having just broken the water pitcher
(n) that from a long way off look like flies.”

Jorge Luis Borges, from The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.

Earlier this year the International Botanical Society decided that in order to be officially recognized (by people) as a plant, you no longer have to wait two years to get a Latin name and description, and print publication. As of January 1st, an English name and description will now do fine, according to the new International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. This goes for fungus and algae too, and is mainly an effort to try to stay ahead of the mass extinctions we’ve been bringing about. A “dead” language is no longer quick enough to catch and hold these species for us.

Then yesterday, a week or so after Carl Linnaeus 305th birthday, the NY Times ran an article by Carl Zimmer on this new Open Tree of Life Project (OpenTree). Basically, we’re trying to sort out everything we call living. Zimmer explains.

“Until recently, a complete tree of life would have been inconceivable. To figure out how species are related to one another, scientists inspect each possible way they could be related. With each additional species, the total number of possible trees explodes. There are more possible trees for just 25 species than there are stars in the universe.

… The first goal of the project, known as the Open Tree of Life, is to publish a draft by August 2013. For their raw material, the scientists will grab tens of thousands of evolutionary trees that are archived online. They will then graft the smaller trees into a single big one.”

Smaller trees like the beetle tree of life (BToL) and the liverwort tree of life (LiToL), for example. And, apparently, this is not to be confused with the Tree of Life Project (ToL), or Assembling the Tree of Life (AToL) which have been going on since the mid-90s.

But it’s still tricky for some things, like microbes.

“The branches of the tree of life represent how organisms pass their genes to their descendants. But microbes also transfer genes among one another. Those transfers can join branches separated by billions of years of evolution.”

related: encyclopedia of life, tiktaalik


ash said...

I couldn't believe the sentence, "There are more possible trees for just 25 species than there are stars in the universe." The living world is ever changing, bit by bit it seems.

english said...

yes, pretty mindblowing, or "mathematical!" as Finn (the human) would say. Has Ollie gotten around to checking out those Adventure Times?

These are great bike lights you sent. Thanks!