Thursday, October 04, 2001

All(1) is not All(2)

The All Species Project hopes to identify and catalog every living species on Earth in the next 25 years. Aside from the questions one might have about the cost of such a project, or whether they have any chance of success, what does such a project imply from a general semantics viewpoint?

Organizers Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly believe that this project should present no more of a challenge than the recently "completed" Human Genome Project. However, they do acknowledge a number of possible obstacles, such as the political and economic effects of using venture capital to enter some of the poorest countries in the world and identifying hundreds or thousands of medically important species.

But what about the inherent difficulty of identifying "a species"? The project home site states that "The All Species Inventory is not a census nor a complete geographical distribution map. It counts a species with a population of one the same as one with a population of one million. This is a roster, an elemental list of all life, an inventory of all the parts." Given the fine distinctions required to separate species in some families of fauna, such as beetles or flies, how much of the list will consist of species of one? And what information will this convey?

Finally, how will they know when they have completed the project? The Human Genome Project recently announced that they had achieved their goal of "mapping" the entire human genetic structure. However, closer reading reveals that while they have identified the location of "all" the genes on the 46 human chromosomes, they still have no idea what most of them do.

What does "all" mean in this case and will the definition of that word as used by the All Species Project end up anywhere near the traditional sense that most of us would recognize?

All Species Home Page

No comments: