Book Review: Barcoding Nature: Shifting Cultures of Taxonomy in an Age of Biodiversity LossScience, Technology & Human Values


Book Review

Book Review

Waterton, Claire, Rebecca Ellis, and Brian Wynne. (2013).

Barcoding Nature: Shifting Cultures of Taxonomy in an Age of Biodiversity Loss,

London: Routledge. 224 pp. $143.

ISBN 0415554799

Reviewed by: Geoffrey C. Bowker, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

DOI: 10.1177/0162243914536057

As any person errant knows, it is only in sealed air-conditioned offices or laboratories that visible nature is not an unruly profusion of life forms that is difficult to name with precision. My own world is filled with entities exhibiting a bewildering array of colors, odors, and shapes, few of which have names—and while many people have a far richer vocabulary than I do, we just cannot imagine knowing the name of everything around us.

Well that was then. The glib promise of the barcode is that I can take a tissue sample of any kind, process it through a handheld device that reads specific clusters of mitochondrial genes, and get an accurate species name for any entity on the face of the earth. The key analytic step here is choosing a clustering of the clusters in such a way that those things we call species drop out of the analysis—intraspecies variation is small and interspecies variation is large.

What’s in a name? Well, that’s a core thread of the book. Good naming might give the lay public an appreciation of the wonders of nature—it is touted as a magical device for achieving biophilia. Barcoding pioneer Paul

Hebert told the authors: ‘‘Remaking our relationship with life was based on the fact that what barcoding is going to do is make it possible for anyone like me to go out into any natural environment and read the organisms that are there for the first time. That’s remaking it . . . ’’ (p. 134). Good naming might articulate well with biodiversity policy—we could dream of choosing sites to preserve or corridors to open in the face of climate change (another magical step which ignores our global lack of

Science, Technology, & Human Values 2014, Vol. 39(5) 759-761 ª The Author(s) 2014

Reprints and permission: at Selcuk Universitesi on February 10, 2015sth.sagepub.comDownloaded from infrastructure or ambition to do anything about the losses we are listing).

Naming has always had magical qualities—indifferently for the prescientific or the scientific. Barcoding Nature is a tour de force which keeps links to biophilia and policy alive as an integral part of an ethnographic study of the barcoding project; it revisits them at the end with a tempered call to consider: ‘‘a collective-experimental ethical project, albeit one crucially informed by state-of-the-art geonomics, informatics, and taxonomy’’ (p. 177).

In-between personal and planetary enlightenment, there is the economic work of establishing barcoding as a viable scientific enterprise. The mediating register for the project is concern for our economy, as indicated by the list of life’s features from the International Barcode of Life project: ‘‘‘Life is threatened with a mass extinction event . . . ; Life provides critical ecosystem services . . . ; Life causes major economic losses linked to pests . . . ; Life creates complex molecules . . .with tremendous economic and social benefit; Life is largely unknown despite nearly three centuries of scientific endeavor’’’ (p. 133). As often in these policy adumbrations, humanity is not part of life—life is a provider of economically significant possibilities and perils. The last bullet is interesting—it provides the pivot between the global economic and the funding of the project: curiously ‘‘we’’ humans have only come to know life through Linnean naming. The policy wins for barcoding—beautifully complicated in chapter 8—have been rather more prosaic: identifying invasive carp; finding better ways to kill tsetse flies by identifying from their stomach samples the species they feed off; and identifying mislabeled fish on plates (finding overpricing practices or the selling of protected species). I wish that the authors had made rather more of the business origins of the barcode—theirs is a story of stocktaking/inventory control writ out into the bookkeeping of nature.

And in a sense it’s all about business. The apostle for biophilia and entomologist David Jantzen argues that in the developing world we must integrate ‘‘wildland’’ into the ‘‘social and economic fabric of the resident . . . ’’ (p. 73). So doing we could take the local resident who has been blithely squashing new species underfoot for generations and integrate them into the taxasphere as paid parataxonomists (p. 73)—they would do well by doing good and also achieve enlightenment. There is something perversely refreshing about wicked indigenes being inducted into a culture of care for Nature through practicing the naming rituals of

Science. However, it does—just like the barcoding project with respect to nature as a whole—evacuate complex historical lineages to create a 760 Science, Technology, & Human Values 39(5) at Selcuk Universitesi on February 10, 2015sth.sagepub.comDownloaded from story that starts right at this moment and leans to a redemptive future. The authors’ discussion of this (p. 85) is both politically engaged and beautifully nuanced. Though I did cavil at the book’ gesture to: ‘‘complex subjectivities and histories of indigenous people’’ (p. 85) without actually describing one such subjectivity or history.

While this book’s analysis is original, rich, and interesting, it could be somewhat more approachable for the wide readership it merits. Internal science, technology, and society (STS) tropes, such as heterogeneous lists could be avoided (e.g., ‘‘organisms, nucleotides, genes, primers, automated PCR machines, sequencing software, biologists of different specialties, users, and imagined publics’’). This kind of list invites the same critique as does the barcoding project—just naming lots of things doesn’t actually tell you very much. More globally, this raises the question of who this book is written for. Coming in at a list price of $143 for about 200 pages, the publishers have done their bit to keep it to a restricted readership (you can verify this from the barcode at the end of the book, though