$pecies names

Stuart G. Poss sgposs at WHALE.ST.USM.EDU
Tue Feb 17 13:12:15 CST 1998

In response to Richard Zander, Thomas G. Lammers wrote:

> Reputable taxonomists will offer a money-back guarantee.  "If your eponym is
> reduced to synonymy, or found to be invalid or illegitimate, we will
> cheerfully refund your donation!"
> Void where prohibited.

What will all the irreputable taxonomists who are lured to the field
with the prospect of now making money at it do?  Will they help
stabilize the code by ceasing to publish poor quality work or perhaps
will they set up their own unrefereed journals, and a website to draw in
customers en masse with discounted prices, while they crank out
descriptions as quickly as possible?

What is to stop such individuals from moving from this line of thinking
to maintaining commercial collections and charging for the opportunity
to examine the holotype or perhaps even access to the original
publication itself?  What if profits could be increased by charging for
any use of the name itself?  What about that new taxon you just
described?  How might you respond when when lawyers representing one of
these "market-oriented" taxonomists claim that your newly described has
already been described and its holotype is in their commercial
collection, and that you should immediately cease and desist from using
your newly proposed name or face a lawsuit claiming your activity is
injurious to their business?  What will the scientist do to return the
money, if its already been spent field collecting and publishing?  What
if the donor decides to sue in this case?  More troubling, would his or
her institution prefer instead to settle out of court and get out of the
taxonomy business altogether to avoid the high cost of potential

There are a lot of aspects of selling names for money that could prove
extremely troubling.  For example, what should be the response of a
curator who finds himself sued for failing to respond to a large loan
request of specimens collected in part with public funds from one of
these "market-oriented" taxonomists, who in all likelihood plans to
"describe" every specimen in the collection as new.  Even with a refund
policy, he or she may have decided to use a business model patterned
after diamond miners, who go through a lot of useless effort for the one
gem that makes it worth it.  Heck, let the "reputable" taxonomists
suffer the expense of figuring out all the synonyms.  With a good lawyer
and one hell of a publication record to take with him to court would the
curator be able to defend himself?

What if they don't bother to litigate, but simply burden collections
with numerous type specimens?  Do we have the obligation to accept them?
What if we refuse, only to find commercial vendors lobbying that
particular existing existing collections no longer contain a sizeable
fraction of named types, which are instead maintained only in private
commercial collections, and that they are now better suited to handling
the infrastructure of biological nomenclature?  Will the codes
eventually require modification to ultimate provide licensing of
"taxonomists" and commercial conduct to prevent abuse (avoid
destablizing scientific nomenclature)?  Such questions sounds seemingly
silly to be sure, but one can imagine numerous possibilities once we
begin practicing our profession in pursuit of a commercially-oriented

Given our current codes and our current funding predicament, in which
many species will likely go extinct before they are described, how much
of our time will be needed to sort out the mess we may unexpectedly
create as we pursue this funding course?  Do we really want to invite
the prospect of legal resolution of such difficulties in courts of law
rather than between colleagues or before international commissions of
scientists?  Maybe those who advocated doing away with existing codes
and argued that we simply assign all species numbers were not so
unreasonable after all?  But, then like those arguing over who gets to
sell internet domain names, we can get into a discussion of who gets to
do the registration.

In my opinion, unless there are clear cut rules as to what is
acceptable, we are starting down a road that could significantly alter
our profession.  I see potential benefits to the way we as a society are
funding taxonomy now, but I also see many possible unintended
consequences once we, as a profession, begin to openly proclaim that
money is to be made by describing species.  There is nothing in the
current rules that prevents chaos.  I personally find the existing codes
of nomenclature working remarkably well, but would they do so under the
increasing influence of commercialization of nomenclature?

Certainly, it has been done in the past, but I think it is wrong to
imply that patronyms by and large arise as a quid pro quo.  On the
contrary, they arise as a recongition of a contribution to science that
occurs after the fact (ie an expedition that wouldn't otherwise have
been conducted or species not otherwise described). I hold those
providing funds in high regard for advancing the cause of scientific
discovery.  Deciding when one should equally hold the describer as
advancing the cause of scientific discovery, when it must be measured
against the potential motivation for monetary reward, makes such a
decision more troubling.  It leads to a whole line of thinking I would
prefer not to have to make in a professional context.

I think the answer for funding taxonomy is not to go down the road of
describing species for money, at least not in a way that results in this
being a sizeable source of funding.  Instead we need to make a stronger
case to the public and policy makers that taxonomy is worth supporting,
as are other essential aspects of the scientific infrastructure.  We
need to educate them about the prospects of not supporting such
enterprise.  Will they face a fully monitarized, commercially-oriented
taxonomy, if they don't?  I worry that we as taxonomists, perhaps out of
desperation, may do ourselves and science a disservice by pursing
commercial taxonomy.  Commercial considerations would inevitably become
increasingly important in exchange of scientific information at a time
when scientists need to be working together to build a taxonomy and
systematics as an integral part of big science, worthy of a significant
slice of big science budgets.

Is there really anyone out there so foolish to think that the earth will
remain habitable to humans, if we unwittingly loose too large a fraction
of the world biodiversity that supports us?  How can we tell where we
are in the biodiversity crisis without taxonomy?  My best scientific
judgement leads me to believe that we are rapidly running out of time to
find out.  We need taxonomists working ever more closely together to
develop reasonable big science support for taxonomy.  I think the future
of our profession would be more promising, if we do not proceed toward a
scientific nomenclature based on commercial considerations.
Commercialization of nomenclature will create market forces that will
tend to divide existing expertise and resources not unite them.

Stuart Poss

> At 08:42 AM 02-17-98 -0800, Richard Zander wrote:
> >Well, species concepts differ, and if splitting raises funds, what's to
> >prevent the attitude "Funding now, lumping later!"
> Thomas G. Lammers
> Classification, Nomenclature, Phylogeny and Biogeography
> of the Campanulaceae, s. lat.
> Department of Botany
> Field Museum of Natural History
> Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive
> Chicago, Illinois 60605-2496 USA
> e-mail:    tlammers at fmnh.org
> voice mail: 312-922-9410 ext. 317
> fax:                312-427-2530
> *******************************************************************
> "There are no uninteresting things;
>  there are only uninterested people."
>                                   -- G. K. Chesterton

Stuart G. Poss                       E-mail: sgposs at whale.st.usm.edu
Senior Research Scientist & Curator  Tel: (228)872-4238
Gulf Coast Research Laboratory       FAX: (228)872-4204
P.O. Box 7000                        703 East Beach Blvd.
Ocean Springs, MS  39566-7000

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