Meet the world’s most notorious taxonomist

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Susie Neilson writes: In 2005, the taxonomist Quentin Wheeler named a trio of newly discovered slime-mold beetles after George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. He believed the names could increase public interest in the discovery and classification of new species, and help combat the quickening pace of extinction. (Species go extinct three times faster than we can name them.)

He knew he was onto something when, having received a call from the White House, it was Bush on the other end, thanking him for the honor. Wheeler, now the president of SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, began attributing all sorts of provocative names to his bugs, including Darth Vader, Stephen Colbert, Roy and Barbara Orbison, Pocahontas, Hernan Cortez, and the Aztecs — he has even named 6 species after himself. Youcan call his strategy “shameless self-promotion” — Wheeler already has.

Nautilus spoke with Wheeler about his work.

What’s exciting about taxonomy?

It is the one field with the audacity to create a living inventory of every living thing on the entire planet and reconstruct the history of the diversity of life. Who else would tackle 12 million species in 3.8 billion years on the entire surface of the planet? If that isn’t real science, I don’t know what is. It infuriates me that taxonomy is marginalized as a bookkeeping activity, when in fact it has the most audacious research agenda of any biological science. [Continue reading…]

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