provisional nomenclature, better nomenclature

Robert Robbins rrobbins at GDB.ORG
Sun Mar 26 23:39:34 CST 1995

I have been watching the nomenclatural debate with some interest, since my
personal interests lie in comparative genetics and I am hopeful that
lessons from taxonomic nomenclature might be of some use now that (nearly)
total knowledge of (at least some aspects of) entire genomes becomes
possible.  In particular, I have been arguing (fairly ineffectively, I
might add) that geneticists should recognize that, so long as out
knowledge is only partial, any system of nomenclature must be incomplete
and ultimately replaced.  Therefore, one goal of provisional nomenclature
is that it should be designed so that it can be replaced without creating
too many nasty synonymies (not a big problem for computers) or homonymies
(hell on wheels for everybody).

I closed a recent paper with the following bit.  Since I offer up more
than 100-year-old insights from botanical taxonomy to bolster my point, it
seems not unreasonable to share that with this group:


    In 1867, de Candolle recognized the conflict between provisional
and final naming in botanical taxonomy:

   There will come a time when all the plant forms in existence will
   have been described; when herbaria will contain indubitable
   material of them; when botanists will have made, unmade, often
   remade, raised, or lowered, and above all modified several hundred
   thousand taxa ranging from classes to simple varieties, and when
   synonyms will have become much more numerous than accepted taxa.
   Then science will have need of some great renovation of its
   formulae. This nomenclature which we now strive to improve will
   then appear like an old scaffolding, laboriously patched together
   and surrounded and encumbered by the debris of rejected parts. The
   edifice of science will have been built but the rubbish incident to
   its construction not cleared away. Then perhaps there will arise
   something wholly different from Linnaean nomenclature, something so
   designed as to give certain and definite names to certain and
   definite taxa. That is the secret of the future, a future still
   very far off.

   In the meantime, let us perfect the binomial system introduced by
   Linnaeus. Let us try to adapt it better to the continual, necessary
   changes in science, ... drive out small abuses, the little
   negligences and, if possible, come to agreement on controversial
   points. Thus we shall prepare the way for the better progress of

    Geneticists first need to achieve a Linnaean-like comprehensive,
formal approach to genetic nomenclature. Then they could do far worse
than to heed the advice of de Candolle and recognize that present
nomenclature is mere scaffolding, sure to be supplanted when known
genes number in the hundreds of thousands and full sequences are
available for many species.


By the bye, the de Candolle quote is from Nicolson, DH, 1991, A history of
botanical nomenclature, Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 78:33-56.

ÿÿ    provisional nomenclature, better nomenclature                          R

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