The bell struck twelve.
The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently, approached. … It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.
(From A Christmas Carol in Prose; Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, by Charles Dickens.)
And so it is with emerging concepts, those concepts whose forms we can but vaguely discern at the present point in time, whose true reality lurks in the future.
As taxonomists, we have a responsibility to discern those future concepts, although they may still be invisible to most. We can save the various expressions of those concepts in search logs from being rejected from consideration for a vocabulary simply on account of their as yet infrequent appearance. In a taxonomy or thesaurus, we can provide labels that will consolidate the indexing for a concept for which researchers have not yet settled on a name. In some cases, especially with widely used vocabularies, we can perhaps determine the name by which a concept will be known on a standard basis.
This role in itself is one of the emerging responsibilities for taxonomists, thanks to the rapid advances in science and technology. In “What Next, Taxonomy?” (posted on The Taxonomy Blog on November 4, 2011), taxonomist Marlene Rockmore concludes that taxonomists need to deal with emerging technologies in a variety of ways, including collection of relevant content:
“So what next, taxonomy? What is nice to hear is that more taxonomists are surviving because their organizations understand their core roles. What’s the emerging topics and challenges – how to distribute and decentralize (localize) while having authority and control, how to collect new content on emerging, current topics, visualization, how to be more agile, how to fit in with new technologies like social media, mobile, and big data. Phew! That’s a challenge. Taxonomists have a chance to build relationships not only between terms, but with stakeholders on the way to a compelling, visualized, multidimensional content strategy. Good luck.”
This challenge has been growing in step with the rapid advances in science and technology. One example among the many advances in science is the ability of biologists to recognize new and emerging species, as well as life forms that have existed for a while but were formerly overlooked. The Live Science page Newfound Species observes:
“Science has identified some 2 million species of plants, animals and microbes on Earth, but scientists estimated there are millions more left to discover, and new species are constantly discovered and described. The most commonly discovered new species are typically insects, a type of animal with a high degree of biodiversity. Newly discovered mammal species are rare, but they do occur, typically in remote places that haven’t been well-studied previously. Some animals are found to be new species only when scientists peer at their genetic code, because they look outwardly similar to another species — these are called cryptic species. Some newfound species come from museum collections that haven’t been previously combed through and, of course, from fossils.”
Even the humble hosta has its own emergings, due in part to technological and social advances in communication.
“In past centuries, we used to talk about people “discovering” new species of plants. What this usually meant was that European, English or American plant explorers traveled to remote parts of the world and found plants that were new to them. Now, of course, we know that local people in those other parts of the world were often quite familiar with these plants all along. Many of the so-called new plants, including hostas, have been found in local paintings and documents produced long before the Westerners started poking around. In more recent times, however, with better communications, we more universally share the knowledge of different horticultural communities.”
As far as actually emerging species are concerned, evolutionary biologist Rob DeSalle of the American Museum of Natural History has indicated the continuing nature of species emergence:
“Identifying a new species as it emerges is the holy grail of evolutionary biology. … Species must be emerging someplace on earth. The best places to look would be places with lots of species, like rain forests, and islands, because isolation opens new niches.” (In “Q & A; Emerging Species” by C. Claiborne Ray, published June 17, 2003 in The New York Times)
The ScienceDaily website has a webpage dedicated to news about “new” species of plants and animals. While most of these will escape public awareness, Time Magazine has sifted through the barrage of information to identify the Top 10 New Species” of 2014. According to author Bryan Walsh, “The collection includes a dragon tree, a skeleton shrimp, a gecko and a microbe that likes to hang out in the clean rooms where spacecraft are assembled.”
Speaking of top things of 2014, and moving on to emerging technologies, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s online Technology Review has published a list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014.” The list includes such things as brain mapping, genome editing, and agile robots.
The Wikipedia article “Emerging technologies” emphasizes the role of technology convergence in the emergence of new technologies. The article mentions an acronym of particular interest to those in the information technology world:
“NBIC, an acronym for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science, is currently the most popular term for emerging and converging technologies, and was introduced into public discourse through the publication of Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, a report sponsored in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation.”
Wikipedia also has a “List of emerging technologies” containing brief descriptions of “some of the most prominent ongoing developments, advances, and innovations in various fields of modern technology.” More than two hundred emerging technologies are listed.
There are and will continue to be many new and emerging concepts in science, technology, and other fields. Taxonomies can help define the terminology for those concepts. This is perhaps most readily evident for genus-species-subspecies-etc. names, whose designation is the territory of the biological taxonomist, or the biologist temporarily acting as taxonomist. Elsewhere, taxonomists can identify predominant labels and the occasionally used synonyms, and then use that information to add appropriate preferred terms and non-preferred synonyms to a vocabulary. They can also add definitions and scope notes. The skills of the taxonomist can bring clarity to formerly mysterious concepts and nomenclature.
No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!
So don’t be scared of the ghosts of future concepts. Think of them as true spirits of the future, taking flight with the benefit of well-chosen terms and synonyms in a taxonomy or thesaurus.
Every time a new term rings true, an emerging concept gets its wings.
Barbara Gilles, Taxonomist
Originally posted December 30, 2013. Updated for 2014.