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April 7, 2012

"Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels fastest who travels alone."   Rudyard Kipling

First off, this isn't a post about Laphriini. If I had to give it a title, I would call it "The Importance of Picking the Right Group to Work On." Or, more specifically, the right-sized group. Or something like that, for as you will see I will wander more than a bit, and would like to keep a tad in reserve as a surprise. In short, it's an essay, and if you want to know what I have to say, you'll need to follow the path where it leads.

I just turned 60 a few months ago--which is that age where you think a lot about what you've done and still hope to do. And in thinking I've realized that there wouldn't be enough time in five lifetimes to do what I'd originally thought possible with asilids in just this one, at least without essentially becoming a machine and boring myself to death. The Asilidae is a huge group. There are many North American genera I've never even seen specimens of in a museum, much less in the field. Even for the Laphriini, it would have taken me a lifetime to collect every species I've covered. And that's just collecting them as adult flies with a net. If I'd wanted to collect larvae and rear them through that alone would take several lifetimes more.

I've always had a secret envy of people who in their spare time worked on small, well-defined groups, with limited distributions. For example, in the middle of the last century Mont Cazier worked on apiocerids--a small strange group of flower-feeding flies that superficially look a little like asilids. In his entire life he only published three papers on them--but two were of book length. The catch of course is that you have to live where your critters occur; Cazier spent his summers in Arizona, and apiocerids are distributed throughout the southwestern deserts. It's of little use to anybody and especially to yourself to work on a group that's found so far away you'll be lucky to ever see a member alive. You might be able to do this if you work in a museum, but even so it's a fool's game. Nothing is really complete or satisfying unless you can easily relate structure to behavior, behavior to habitat, habitat to distribution, and all of the previous to some sort of story of evolutionary development.

The point I'm hoping to make in this essay is that if you want to accomplish anything satisfying, it's essential you work on a small group, by yourself, as an avocation. That may seem counter-intuitive. So I need to say a few words regarding the difference between a job and an avocation. A job is an assignment you are paid to do. The people who are giving you the money usually have very specific tasks they want you to tackle, if not outright, then by conforming fairly rigidly to a given approach. The tasks or the approach might be activities you are comfortable with, or no; but your comfort level is beside the point--your bosses and their bosses are working to get paid, just as you are, and for obvious reasons the tasks they assign you are geared to procuring money. Now in organizations where the justification is ostensibly to serve the public good, this money-grubbing is usually pretty well cloaked in idealistic garb, at least to outsiders, but is none-the-less alive-and-well. In short, if you work for pay, you are not your own man--your reward is the cash and not the action itself; and this is true whomever you may work for, whether it be a large business, a university, or (I speak here from long experience), yourself.

If you reflect on this you must unavoidably come to the conclusion that "Science," considered as an individual method and technique of systematically approaching investigations, is incompatible with work for money, for the simple reason that if you are paid, whomever is paying you is in the driver's seat, and you are not. That is, your ultimate aim (whatever you may claim) is to get money, and not to contribute to a body of knowledge. Now in rare instances this can be good; if your employer, for example, just assigns you money, to do with as you will, and then essentially disappears until you provide him with results. Now I'll admit that occasionally happens. But it is rare. More to point, in the University and now largely also in the Museum system, you are expected to both obtain money through writing grants, and to publish your findings in refereed journals. Successfully completing both activities is dependent on saying and doing what your peers would like to hear and see done--which in most cases is in turn what they think will best serve them in their quest for more recognition, prestige, and, need I say it--money. In other words, they are at the wheel, and, aside from the money you all equally presumably would like to acquire, their goal has nothing to do with your happiness or satisfaction on the one hand, or, should it conflict with their prime directive, the advancement of Science on the other.

I'm not complaining; this is as it should be. The world is not really that complicated. The best in general one can hope for in a job is both to be well paid and to be moderately comfortable performing one's duties. The dream that you can be paid well to investigate some aspect of natural history, and follow your inquiries where they might lead, as best suits both your temperament and the relations between various aspects of what you are investigating, is just that: a dream. This is especially true today, and applies with double force to anything to do with straight taxonomy.

For the past twenty years or so if you were hired for "systematics" it was systematics in the narrow sense you were expected to do. Not taxonomy. You had to frame your research around phylogenetic techniques. Every job I can remember seeing since about 1990 has had wording to the effect that "Classical taxonomists need not apply." Now I know I will be accused of being cynical, or worse, but I believe that this emphasis on phylogenetics was more to convince your non-taxonomic colleagues that your work was "scientific," than because it was necessary, or grew out of the subject. Most university entomologists who are not out-and-out taxonomists (in other words, all of them) came to the profession with a strong background in collaborative molecular biology. They saw classical taxonomists as a 19th-century anachronism, a quaint individualistic holdover that was best quickly disposed of. In plain English, they looked down on them, resented the fame they saw as part-and-parcel of describing taxa, and wished them gone. It was hard to explain to these guys exactly what you were doing in conventional revisionary work; it was all in your head, didn't use computers, math, or statistics, and was open to the superficially plausible but unjustified charges of being both subjective and egotistic.

Cladistics and its (to my mind) over-rigid methodology probably seemed a Godsend for combating that attitude; cladists were using what to others seemed semi-unintelligible programs on what were then new-fangled computers, these programs at least used complex mathematical algorithms (even if it was to do comparatively simple tasks), there was an obfuscating jargon, and the rules buried the unavoidable subjectivity under several layers of screening.

I think this attitude by the greater scientific community also explains the rabidly of selected cladists themselves; at least many of the ones I met in the early Nineties tried to outdo their own colleagues in dumping on plain taxonomy, as if to beat their detractors to the punch; I suppose they fancied they were saving the discipline by adapting. I personally found this a huge turn-off; I am as smart as just about any entomologist who has ever lived; I reserve the right to think and do exactly as I please when it comes to what I'm interested in, and that includes not acting, if I think it is unnecessary at the time, or premature; and I believe anybody with any spunk would feel similarly.

Well, everything changes, and about a decade back systematics changed again. Now, to be hired you need to build your research around molecular phylogenetics, for the same reasons you previously had to build it around cladistics. And, truthfully, with paid work it's always been that way--that is, skewed; straight taxonomy was also far too heavily centered around museum work and comparative anatomy, to the slight of field work and comparative ethology. For example, for most groups of insects, our knowledge of comparative larval morphology at the species level--or just the most basic systematized life history information--is about where it was in 1875. I can't really speak to the time before I was born, but I'm tempted to say that organized, University "Science" has always been mostly limited to overworking the techniques that were new at the time, particularly if these techniques were associated with hardware to be acquired. To use comparative anatomy, again, as an example: it was probably greatly spurred by the development of the dissecting microscope. The correlation between cladistics and the advent of computers; and between molecular phylogenetics and the fruition of molecular biology should be evident.

Don't get me wrong. I am not against either cladistics or molecular phylogenetics. Both have a real place in the profession of "systematics," broadly considered. Both even have valid premises, for the areas they cover, and aside from how they've been misapprehended by entomologists outside of systematics, or hyped by those who should've known better. Both are even extremely interesting, in their own way. It is just that neither is taxonomy or natural history, or ever will be.

There is an old saying "The result of leisure is leisure." A corollary might be "The result of work is work." The result of paid work is always uninteresting and boring. As I said earlier, this is an unavoidable ancillary of it's other-directedness. Both getting grants and getting published depend on other's opinions. I won't elaborate much. I'll take the review process first. Reviews from people you think are qualified can be helpful; they can point out things you've overlooked. But the choice to implement a suggestion should always be your own, as should the ultimate choice to publish or not. Now they are not. It also needs saying that the choice whether to publish in general should be voluntary; papers should be a by-product or your studies, rather than the goal, or a step toward applying for a grant; if this were the case there would not be so much garbage printed. Anyway, most reviewers are in it one way or another for themselves; naturally, they would like to promote their way of doing things, which likely as not is what's in vogue, because that is what results in money, power, and position; and whether intentionally or not their reviews will reflect that bias. The result of which is that all papers are more-or-less alike; none stand out, either as egregiously poor, or exceptionally good. Reviews are a leveling force.

I used to know a professor who was associated with Virginia Tech. He didn't actually work at the University, but rather at a nearby small college. I won't mention his name, because he is well-known, and is now a very old man. One of the things that impressed me about this guy, was that he categorically stated that he would never publish a paper in a journal that required a review. He was vehement about this. He considered reviews as an affront. At the time I really didn't understand that attitude. But I do now. Anybody of exceptional ability, who wants their work both to reflect their personality and to last, would feel the same way.

Grants are insidious, too. I've written many grant proposals, in contexts other than systematics. In a proposal, you say you are going to do this, that, or the other, by a certain date, for a certain amount of money. Each item is not a mere intention; but rather part of a formal, legal contract. As such, it must be done, or time must be taken to convince others that it is not necessary. It is usually easier to do the former. And as things go, to increase their chances of being funded, proposals often include tasks which either the authors cannot complete in a competent manner, or in which they out-and-out do not believe. Needless to say, the fulfillment of these tasks will not add value to a project or the subsequent publication.

I was thinking about this the other day after looking over a series of papers on North American spiders. The 19th century papers were done by people like Hentz, McCook, and Emerton as avocational work; they all had a single author and were all published without review. They also were well written in engaging English; the authors managed to incorporate their enthusiasm and wonder in the text, and in the case of Emerton, it was apparent he was a genius at illustration. They all had just enough of what they needed, and none of what they didn't--as regards their makeup they were well-proportioned. In contrast to these were the later, 20th century papers. These were mostly done originally as dissertations, all reviewed, in some cases interminably long, and the illustrations while good were wooden and uninspired. In other words, they were competent but un-engaging, like they were spit out by a machine. Nothing could illustrate the differences I've alluded to better.

Unfortunately, none of this is new, or limited to entomology. The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, once said in an essay that contemporary remuneration and lasting impact were mutually exclusive--that the price of one was the absence of the other. Getting paid for systematic work is the kiss of mediocrity. Anyone who has ever done anything lasting, has either done it on their own, or over the disapproval of their peers, or perchance after-hours. It is no accident that much taxonomic work of lasting benefit has been done by retirees.

To relate this to my original thought of the appropriate size of a group. There is no working on taxonomy or comparative natural history within the system as it currently stands, unless you squeeze in the work as an ancillary to molecular phylogenetics, in your spare time. I personally think the two activities require different mind-sets and personalities, and don't mix well; in any event in an institutional setting the one will be a Sad Sister to the other, tolerated at best, and likely actively discouraged. So whether you work for a large organization or preferably for youself as an avocation, your group should be of a size that you can comfortably tackle in off hours, without being too thinly spread. For practical reasons, it should normally also be a family as well. Literature is indexed by family, and most paper titles include the family name.

Now to get down to brass tacks. The asilids as a group are too big for one person to work on, at least if you are contemplating doing species-level taxonomy. But I'm happy with the North American Laphriini, or even the North American Laphriinae, as my group. Laphria s. lat. was much too big for a PhD project. The tribe as a lifetime group is more manageable. To add to which, I live in the middle of the Northeast. Which is loaded with forest. All North American Laphriines are forest animals. So I'm happy.

One last thing. I know several people who have done quite a lot of work on their own, and I often hold them up to myself as models, of what I should try to accomplish. This is a mistake. Invariably if you look closely these people do not have a life other than their avocation. I do have a life. I might as well be married, and I have a teenage son. And other interests. And a job that requires a completely different set of skills, that need developing too. So while I'll continue to enjoy working on North American Laphriini, I'm not planning to do much else entomologically.

Meanwhile I'm praying that it's the second option in Kipling's famous quote that applies to me, and not the first.