Cyberscience and Systematics: A Complex Collaboration

I have been exploring the connection between herbaria and technology for some time, and only just recently found a reference to Christine Hine’s book, Systematics as Cyberscience: Computers, Change and Continuity in Science (MIT Press, 2008).  I can see why it is not frequently quoted.  This is such a fast moving field that a book that’s eight years old is really dated.  Several of the major online systematics projects of today such as iDigBio, Plant List, and Encyclopedia of Life–to name just a few–weren’t around “back then.”  But in a sense, this is what makes Hine’s work interesting.  It captures a snapshot of the relationship between systematics and digitization efforts at a pivotal point when such efforts were becoming large enough and sophisticated enough to have a real impact on the field.

Hines makes some interesting points that are still very relevant today.  One is that there is a tension between two major functions of plant systematics:  to investigate the relationships among plant species, and to provide stable taxonomic information for biologists working in other fields such as ecology.  The tension comes from the fact that the latter group wants clear-cut information and is not interested in the nuances and gray areas that are fascinating to systematists who need nuanced data.  In other words, it is difficult to provide a database that will fulfill the needs of both.  She also notes that digitization will not flourish without a major commitment of resources, hence it has political, cultural, and societal implications.  As someone in science studies, she is equipped to explore these areas in ways that reveal aspects of the situation which may be less obvious to scientists.

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