Norman Platnick 1951-2020

Norman Ira Platnick, by many measures the greatest arachnologist of the past century, entered the field young and with impact. This past week he left it far too early, to our heartbreak, through his unexpected death at the age of 68. He contributed to spider systematics in so many ways that it’s simply not possible to think of the field without encountering his deep influence.

In each of three broad areas — empirical spider systematics, biodiversity informatics, and systematics theory — he contributed so much that were it his sole effort, his life would now be celebrated for it. He got his hands dirty with nature, as a spider taxonomist, surpassed only by Eugène Simon in describing spider species new to science: more than 2000 species discovered. He was the careful librarian and infrastructure-builder, pulling together and organizing the literature through the World Spider Catalog, a key resource in informatics that we use day after day. He was the obsidian-sharp thinker, clarifying the logic of biological systematics, helping to lay the foundation of how we think about the structure of biodiversity. In each of these areas he was a builder and a leader, and though his self-confidence was fierce, his mission was not his own glory: he served the spiders, and the arachnologists, and those who think clearly. I never asked him, but I suspect he might have said that he served the truth.

His work affects many of us every day that we work on spiders. On such a lucky day I go online to the World Spider Catalog to find details of the literature on spider species. It’s infrastructure central to my life, like the intersection near my house whose shops sustain me. I’m sure it’s the same for other arachnologists. The catalog allows us to work fluidly, quickly, focusing on the spiders rather than struggling to trace literature. Now maintained and beautifully enhanced by Kropf, Nentwig, Gloor and their team, this amazing resource would likely not exist in digital form without Platnick’s efforts. He began the catalog in 2000 as a digital translation and update to Brignoli’s catalog, whose catalog in turn was an update to Roewer’s. By digitizing it, Norm gave it new life, making its continued maintenance feasible. Norm’s attention to correctness and detail is well known, and thus the catalog became a highly trusted reference. A small sign of its perfection: In about 2013, I wrote a script to process Norm’s HTML code, as I wanted to get lists of species and genera in a different form. Even though he wrote the HTML code by hand with a basic text editor (to my knowledge), it was so regularly formed that my script had no trouble at all parsing the file, error-free.

His work on spider species will continue to affect us for centuries. Each of his 2000 new species discovered is a permanent contribution to our knowledge of what is in this world. Through his descriptions the basic features of these species are known, but more importantly the species are now doors open to us: we know to find more and to study their bodies, lives, and interactions. They, and Norm with them, will be remembered. However much Norm may have seemed dedicated to abstract thought (e.g., the sections “Form”, “Time”, and “Space” of Nelson & Platnick 1981), he was deeply bound to concrete discoveries like those of novel species. Indeed, his strong opinions in theoretical realms may have arisen precisely out of this focus on the concrete.

Norm’s impact on systematic theory is harder for me to gauge, because there was such a diversity of voices during the years of his greatest influence. (Also, I belong to a different subspecies of cladist, and I see my school of thought descending only partly from his.) Norm’s prodigious mind, which brought him to undergraduate studies while not yet a teenager, and a Harvard PhD at 21, entered the 1970s wars in systematics with enthusiasm. His opponents may have seen his approach as more philosophical than biological, but the conceptual cobwebs in the attic of systematics had grown rather dense by the late 1970s, and it was high time to give the field a thorough cleaning. He was one of the more prominent members of a group stripping the attic to its bare wood.

The paper of his that had the most impact on me is his 1977 paper “Cladograms, phylogenetic trees, and hypothesis testing”. It provided a critical load-bearing element in my thinking about phylogenetics. In it he argues that a line on a phylogenetic tree diagram shouldn’t be taken as representing a literal lineage descending through time, but merely as a claim of a group united by recency of common ancestry, because the latter is often all we can hope to distinguish with data from visible traits. This paper stands inside me like a conscience, cautioning me about the limits of knowledge. I still tell its core lesson when I teach about integrating fossils into phylogenetics.

Norm’s theoretical writings were terse, with the directness of someone sure of his ideas and their correctness. I did not talk to him enough to know his mind well, but it seemed that he rendered judgments in stark contrasts of true and false, evidence and non-evidence, preferring the black and white logic of the tangible, the visible, the concrete character, the synapomorphy. He did not see evidence within the machinations of cloudy grey probabilistic models and statistical methods. The field of phylogenetics has largely come to embrace those clouds, and is willing to take risks Norm was not, seeing a tree diagram’s lines as descending lineages. The arc lamp of Norm’s logical scrutiny, however, still throws into sharp relief the costs we must pay in assumed generalizations.

Some of his contributions are not easily traceable, like the largest tree in the forest whose hidden roots bind and support the soil far beyond its crown. Norm gave us leadership in the way it matters most: a leadership of values. He had an uncompromising dedication to, and respect for, basic discovery, the organism, evidence, logic, and those who shared his passion. Through his research, his leadership of societies, his mentoring of early career arachnologists, he affirmed these values, even while a different suite of values, which need not have competed but which did, was sweeping the field. His theoretical inclinations may have been seen as a denial of advances in molecular and statistical methods, and to a certain extent they were, but it is more productive to see them for something else they also were: an affirmation of the value of the simple, permanent, and central discovery of what is: the organisms of this earth and their visible traits. The proclamation and exemplification of this value, through which he humbly put the organisms ahead of himself and theory, was perhaps his greatest contribution.

(For a fuller account of his life and work, see the In Memoriam posted on the AMNH website)

Edit: Updated the link to the In Memoriam on the AMNH website.