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  • Systematics as Cyberscience: Computers, Change, and Continuity in Science
  • Joel Hagen
Christine Hine , Systematics as Cyberscience: Computers, Change, and Continuity in Science, MIT Press, 2008, 320 pp., $35.00, ISBN 026208371X.

Hine employs the term cyberscience to describe the pervasive use of computers in systematics, including virtual collections, tools for phylogenetic analysis, email, and other forms of electronic communication. The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has been fueled by optimistic policy prognoses that promise greater efficiency, accuracy, reliability, and reproducibility through automation. In systematics, these needs have recently been presented as a necessary strategy for solving the pressing problems of protecting and managing biodiversity. Against these optimistic predictions, Hine juxtaposes a more skeptical perspective rooted in the methods of Science and Technology Studies. Trained in both systematic botany and STS, Hine presents an account that nicely balances personal experience with critical detachment.

Systematics provides an appropriate case study to illustrate Hine's claim that cyberscience has not brought a revolution in scientific practice, but a complex mixture of continuity and change. Systematics is the most traditional of biological sciences and is inherently conservative. Collecting, naming, classifying, and storing specimens may be prosaic activities, but the classification systems taxonomists produce are vital for other biologists who must accurately identify organisms. Accordingly, systematists view their collections as irreplaceable archives that are information systems in their own right. Hine, however, argues that systematics has a long tradition of self-reflection and debate over both philosophical and practical issues surrounding classification. For nearly 50 years, some taxonomists have aggressively called for using computers to automate classification, phylogenetic analysis, and cataloging. Thus, as Hine carefully documents, there has been a complex negotiation among various systematists, their government patrons, and potential users of classification systems about how new technologies should be applied within the field.

Hine vividly illuminates the creative tension between tradition and the implementation of new technologies by the advent of online catalogs and virtual collections. These innovations provide broad public access to museum and herbarium collections, and they encourage networks among geographically dispersed institutions. However, the idea of virtual specimens runs counter to a traditional skepticism toward images in systematics. Historically, taxonomists have favored the use of dichotomous keys for identifying species and have considered the use of pictures to be a sign of amateurism. Not surprisingly, taxonomists have tended to resist the idea that virtual specimens can replace real objects. Because the responsibility for creating virtual collections and online catalogs usually falls to museum and herbarium curators, Hine argues that various strategies have developed for "co-constructing" virtual and real collections. Consequently, the virtual collection is usually presented as a supplement to the real collection of preserved specimens that retains its status as the primary archive of biological information.

Phylogenetic analysis is perhaps the best example of how deeply computers have penetrated systematics. From the early 1960s, a disparate group of researchers began developing programs to create and analyze phylogenetic trees. Because with even a relatively small group of species and characters the number of possible trees is astronomical, developing algorithms for finding the most likely tree quickly became an interdisciplinary activity attracting systematic biologists,mathematicians, and computer scientists. The advent of molecular biology and consequent growth of molecular databases further spurred this movement. However, as Hine points out, these computational methods were not simply imposed on systematists. Rather, the methods themselves were fundamentally shaped by philosophical and biological issues having little to do directly with computation. According to Hine, the rapid acceptance of computer-based phylogenetic analysis also was due to the way that it fit so neatly with the traditional reward system in science. Developing a new software package is viewed as a theoretical contribution and is often subject to peer review. Therefore, although developers may be rewarded financially, they are perhaps more rewarded by having their work cited by those who use the software for phylogenetic analysis.

Running throughout this book is the argument that the implementation of ICTs in the development of cybersciences will be highly discipline specific. Thus in her conclusion, Hine stresses important differences—and some similarities—between systematics and the much newer field of genomics. Although both fields are involved in...


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pp. 72-73
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