A rose by any other name still smells and other nomenclatural matters
James_L_REVEAL at UMAIL.UMD.EDU
Sat Mar 18 07:32:00 CST 1995
In reading TAXACOM over the last two days, and now sitting quietly on a
peaceful Saturday morning with the spring flowers coming into their first
blush, I realize that I am now old.
History is always so short-lived in the memories of humans. Am I the only one
who can remember Sydney Gould and his efforts to convert the world of
botanical names to numbers in the 1950s? I was not aware of this effort at the
time, but in being introduced into the world of systematics his ideas were
presented... but yes, that was in the 1960s when systematics was taught in
ways not done at present.
And I am the only person who has ever dealt with the likes of Necker and his
uninomial system of nomenclature? True, the Linnaeans carried the day and at
present the name of Necker only shows up in the IBCN as an author who works
are rejected. Was there a reason why Necker's ideas failed more than two
Surely I can not be the only professor in academia who mentioned in systematic
classes that while species might have some basis in reality, all of the other
ranks are ranks of convenience for humans to communicate, albeit poorly, the
abstracts of relationships as we understand them at any given moment. And,
dear students, please understand that those relationships (as we understand
them) constantly change for we humans are not as yet very good is seeing into
the past and following the evolutionary history of every single individual so
as to ascertain once and for all each and every turn in the evolutionary
history of a single species in relation to all others.
Human failings do not necessarily come as a result of the following of some
ancient practice. Plants arranged by use with vulgar names was once a
reasonable and logical way to classify. It fulfilled the needs of the day. In
time, use evolve into morphological features and vulgar names into polynomials
-- that too worked for a time. But new knowledge demanded new ways of
arranging and expressing observations.
Ray and Tournefort attempted to bring a more natural arrangement of kinds into
focus only to find their efforts changed by Linnaeus who, for purely practical
reasons, abandoned all pretense of a natural system for an artifical one. To
be sure, Adanson, Durande and a host of others challenged this artifical
method and refined their views early, as did Batsch and Augier -- probably
all, save Adanson, unknown to most modern systematists. These people
challenged the Prince of Botany, and lost. In time, in England, James Smith
would be successfully overthrown by John Lindley, and Torrey would join the
efforts of Nuttall and of Eaton and cast aside those in the New World who held
to the Linnaean ways. Identifications could be done more precisely with a
more natural scheme of classification which could be expressed by a
nomenclature that established ranks.
Do you see what was set aside? Not the binomial system, not the names, not even
the circumscriptions of certain taxa, but the way one arranged plants into an
overall system of classification, and how one identified species.
If memory serves me right, the idea of botanical nomenclature, even from the
days of Aristole, was to convey an essence or concept that another could
comprehend in an exact and concise way. What we seem to be faced with today
is how to maintain the essence and still convey an every changing concept of
the relationship of one entity to another in a useful fashion.
The beauty of binomial nomenclature is that is allows one to express in a
small way the presumed first level of relationship. This particular kind (a
species) is related to other kinds all of whom belong to a group (a genus).
The beauty of the rules of nomenclature is that it permits individuals to
differ in their assumptions of that first level of relationship -- an
individual species may or may not be assigned to a particular genus, it may be
put in another genus.
To be sure, even in doing this, complex evolutionary relationships among
several different kinds can not always be eloquently expressed. One of the
failings of the present codes of nomenclature, as stated by some, is that
there are not enough ranks to adequately expression relationships among the
individual species. Yet, given the assumed levels of complexity that might
exist, how many modern systematist use all currently available? Except for a
few workers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who divided their genera into
numerous fine units, as well as their species, no one has ever taken full
advantage of all available, recognized ranks. And according to the botanical
code, one can have an infinite number!
The proposed solution to the notion that one can not possibly express all
relationships is to reduce all names of a single name, set of numbers, or
code. Will this work?
Return to history. Why did Linnaeus abandon polynomials for binomials? To be
sure there were practical reasons (indexing of names, and there use by the
uninformed (students and universities did not make Linnaeus a wealthy person,
persons of station did, namely those who wish to talk about plants in a more
simple and less complex way), but there was also the fact that as new
discoveries were made each would require polynomials of already established
names to be altered. What Linnaeus did was come upon a simple and effective
way of stablizing names of organisms so that as new information was learned,
already existing names did not require alteration.
Where Gould failed is that in assigning numbers he based his numbers on
persumed relationships (ah yes, that human failing again) so that the numbers
had to change as relationships were altered. Again, the problem of the
polynomial. By assigning names, numbers or codes in a truly random fashion
this could be eliminated. But, even in doing this, as already pointed out, we
are faced with the ever present problem of differences in opinion generally
expressed as "lumpers vs. slippers."
And there is the problem of new knowledge. Even with random names, numbers or
codes, what will we be doing with them -- arranging them into higher ordinal
groupings. In short, we will continue to classify. Furthermore, without some
reasonable way of classifying objects, how can anyone know if something is
known or unknown?
The ugly spector of identification intrudes upon nomenclature.
The reason we have names is to classify and identify. Remember the three basic
tenets of taxonomy: identify, name and classify. All three are handmaidens, no
one more supreme than the other. Each must be orderly.
I must be getting old. The great debate that happened when Linnaeus proposed
his method was not about his nomenclature -- those who disagreed such as
John Hill, Philip Miller, and others simply proposed new names -- and in
fact most liked his simple, albeit artificial way to identify plants (simple
count the parts then read the descriptions and diagnoses), but where many
parted company with Linnaeus was in his classification scheme.
Few remember (my old age comes into play here) that Linnaeus did have a
natural system of classification and did arrange his genera into "fragmenta"
or what would now be called "families." Even the Prince acknowledged that at
this stage in the development of systematic knowledge, with more and more of
the world being explored, it was more important to have a means to identify
(and thus know what we know) than to judge the true relationships among what
This view was not held by Adanson, Durande and Batsch who preceded A.L. de
Jussieu's efforts to establish a more natural system of classification, nor
the efforts of the like of Augier, Coffin and others who promoted natural
systems before John Lindley and John Torrey. What these rebels did was
acknowledge that relationships expressed by the sum of features was more
fundamental than associations artifically created by a few.
If the goal of modern systematics is to expressed relationships then use
language and systems of classification to do just that. It does and will
come at a cost. It requires knowledge of the group, to be sure, but it must
also require scholarship. And that means one must look back and see what was
done in the past, check types, review the literature, find those obscure names
and long ignored and forgotten authors, and by the proper and knowledgeable
use of the codes put it all together. And, by the way, how many of you
objected to the concept of NCUs at the last botanical congress? What I hear
all too often is "I want to study biology, not nomenclature" and to that I
respond then you also want to avoid scholarship in your science.
A rose, by any other name, may smell just as sweet, but without a means of
providing a common understanding of the words "rose", "smell" and "sweet" we
have no understanding at all.
Jim Reveal (MARY)
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