Accepted Paper:

How taxonomy became experimental: redefining objectivity between laboratory and museum  


Bruno J. Strasser (University of Geneva; Yale University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores how the introduction of experimental methods in taxonomy transformed some of the key epistemic values of naturalist practice, such as the nature of objectivity and its role in the production of knowledge.

Paper long abstract:

The emergence of DNA barcoding represents only the most recent episode in a century-long transformation of taxonomy towards the use of experimental methods. This paper explores how the use of experimental methods in taxonomy, throughout the twentieth century, gave rise to deep tensions between the epistemic values of experimentalism and those of natural history. Ideas about the nature of objectivity and its role in science were particularly contested. Participants in these debates, such as E. Mayr, G.G. Simpson, A. Bodyen, or A. Sibley contributed to redefining the proper way to practice taxonomy. In particular, the adoption of experimental methods by taxonomists led to a progressive decline of subjectivist justifications of taxonomy. This paper also argues that the growing interest of naturalists in collecting experimental data from a large number of species formed the basis for an equally important transformation in the biomedical sciences. After focussing on a few model organisms, since the late 19th century, biomedical researchers now rely on a great diversity of biological materials provided by naturalists. In conclusion, this paper argues that experimentalism and natural history have converged in the late twentieth century forming a new hybrid science.

Panel W023
Shadows and lights on global biodiversity: taxonomy's revival (EN)