Remember that new species of leopard that was “discovered” earlier this year? Well, it wasn’t really discovered so much as recategorized as a unique species (it was originally discovered in the early nineteenth century). That’s a picture of it on the right if you don’t remember.
Anyway, there’s an Editorial in PLoS Biology arguing that we’re creating too many damn species. We’re not really “creating” them, mind you, but categorizing what were previously subspecies as distinct species. The authors of the editorial think that this is getting out of hand; they’re taking the lumping position in the lumpers vs. splitters debate. On the other side are the splitters, who can be humorously represented by C. Hart Merriam — the man who split North American brown bears into 82 species. Merriam’s overzealous taxonomic practices are supposed to be a warning of what happens when splitters take control of the species naming business.
There is actually a practical reason for this scholarly debate, and it’s all about conservation. Some argue that it’s easier to pass legislation to conserve a group of organisms if those organisms are members of a species rather than a subspecies or population. These authors disagree with that hypothesis (pdf), pointing out that for every new “species” that is deemed conservation worthy, another species will lose the protection it requires because of limited funds.
I’m waiting for Wilkins to say something intelligent about the philosophical implications of all this. Anyone else can chime in on the policy.