BRENT D. MISHLER is Director of the University & Jepson Herbaria and Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a plant systematist specializing in mosses. His main academic interest is reconstructing the phylogenetic history of organisms, and relating that to various aspects of their biology, including conservation concerns. Mishler's specific research interests can be grouped into two main areas: empirical studies of ecology, phylogeny, systematics, and development of mosses, and the theoretical basis of systematic and evolutionary biology. Empirical studies include: (1) the phylogenetic relationships of the major groups of bryophytes (including mosses) and other land plants; (2) the development of moss peristomes in relation to evolution of the group; (3) biosystematics of the diverse moss genus Tortula; and (4) the bryophyte flora of California. Theoretical studies include investigations of the nature of species and speciation, methods for phylogenetic reconstruction (with a recent emphasis on cladistic analysis of molecular data), and the relationship between development and evolution. Mishler is on the steering committee of Systematics Agenda 2000, an international research program devoted to charting the world's biodiversity.
Pressures of development, particularly in tropical countries, are causing an alarming increase in the rate of extinction, making a renaissance in systematics especially timely. Given the reasonable estimate that systematists have only discovered and named perhaps 10% of the species on earth, and the fact that only a tiny fraction of those species have been studied in any detail, there is much work to be done in a short time. Many species will go extinct before we even know them; it is no wonder that systematists feel as though they are watching a huge, diverse library burn down before a card catalog has been prepared (or before anyone has read even 1% of the books!). Loss of biological diversity is a disaster, both from an economic standpoint (How many useful organisms for food, medicine, or technology will go extinct?) and from a broader intellectual standpoint (How did the diversity of species, including Homo sapiens, come to be the way it is?). Differences among lineages (species and higher taxa) represent the legacy of biological diversification on earth. So much information may be lost, as these lineages disappear.
To get on with the urgent business of biological conservation, it is important to recognize that a phylogenetic classification of organisms is necessary first. With natural taxa, one can rationally talk about issues such as evolution, biogeography, and extinction. With unnatural taxa (i.e., artificial assemblages of unrelated populations) such issues are meaningless, and conservation efforts are hampered at best (and misguided at worst). Without knowing the relationships of populations and species, there is no practical way to conserve them. We need to set priorities.
This is because all "species" are not equal in a phylogenetic sense; conservation priorities can best be set by a consideration of the phylogenetic relationships among species. In an ideal world all species could be preserved--in this world of limited resources (time, money, and public goodwill) indices based on phylogeny must be developed to help us preserve the maximal genetic, morphological, chemical, and ecological diversity.
Fortunately, newly developed theories and methods for data gathering and analysis of phylogenetic relationships (i.e., the genealogy of species) position us on the threshold of a deep understanding of the history of the biological world, which will in turn allow a better focused approach to biological conservation. Since languages and cultures form lineages too, it is fruitful to examine whether these principles, derived from studies of biological lineages, can be fruitfully applied to them.
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