U.S. Federal Government Taxonomy Standard RFC

James H. Beach jbeach at EAGLE.CC.UKANS.EDU
Wed Sep 2 11:09:24 CDT 1998

At 9/2/98 01:14 PM +0100, Bernard Picton wrote:

>It seems to me that the critical point here is:
>"Users will thus be able to rely upon this standard reference to determine
>the accepted scientific name which then can be used to compare, relate,
>exchange and/or integrate biological data that may use different scientific
>or common names for the same species."
>The implication is that non-experts will be able to integrate information on

The implication of the last sentence is that only experts are able to
integrate information on species.   Although this could be interpreted in
many ways depending on the definition of "expert" and "integrate," the
dangerous and I think ultimately fatal interpretation is that only members
of the Linnean priesthood are sanctified and competent to interpret and use
scientific names and concepts in public discourse.

It cannot be denied that the nuances of nomenclature and the numerous
varying concepts which might be applied to a single name creates a
gargantuan problem interpreting what any particular name on a list
signifies.  I see the problem as a failure of the systematics community to
make their intellectual products accessible, manageable and interpretable
by society.  Taxonomists have created one heck of an information mess for
tracking biological concepts by imposing rules of nomenclature which
decouple changes in concepts from corresponding changes in names (e.g. the
rules of priority which mandate in many cases that the same name must be
used for a derivative concept which might be markedly different).  Bernard
is correct, to track concepts precisely we need to apply "sensu" qualifiers
and bib references to essentially every name, to be certain we are talking
about the same concept.   Even then, one could argue that range extensions,
or new character or molecular data from specimens reported in print (or on
the net!!) change the concept of a taxon, even without a new formal

I think we need to be very careful about criticizing user communities about
inadequate handling of taxonomic/species data when we scientists have
created a huge morass of historical names and concepts.  It is a matter of
time and resources.  ITIS and other projects like it do not have the
funding nor the time to repair 250 years of nomenclatural madness.  Should
they then refrain from building an informatics infrastructure for their
needs?  The ITIS database and data description standards do deal with the
'surface level' synonymies and nomenclatural issues, but to a limited
extent.   How can we reasonably expect them and other species databases
which are regional or otherwise special purpose, to build the ultimate
system to unambiguously identify every concept and map all of the available
names for those taxa in a globally  exhaustive and precise way?  In the
absence of significant systematics community informatics infrastructure
(i.e. implementations) to deal with this particular problem, we (in the
U.S. at least) should celebrate their bravery and support ITIS as a
nucleating process which, with enough broad support, could spawn a more
integrative and global taxonomic infrastructure.



James H. Beach
National Biological Information Infrastructure
U.S. Geological Survey Biological Resources Division
Tel: (785) 864-4540
E-mail:  jbeach at eagle.cc.ukans.edu

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