Names for Money

Neil Snow Neil.Snow at ENV.QLD.GOV.AU
Thu Feb 18 11:00:31 CST 1999

This is an important discussion and I hope it continues.

I suspect most professionally trained systematists are comfortable with:
1) the idea that specialists in the great museums and universities of
the world would not name new species merely to generate income; 2)
naming a taxon to honour a patron who (usually quietly) has funded
research because he or she understands tbe scientific and cultural value
of new knowledge; or 3) naming a species after a specialist who has
spent considerabe time and effort in that field.  However, as expressed
earlier by some, I am concerned about the proliferation of new "species"
and lower ranks, particularly by amateurs (or "hobbyists").

Taxonomy is still awash with amateurs. By amateurs I mean those who have
great enthusiasm for the subject, but who haven't spent years in the
library pouring over the past masters and learning the different schools
of thought and the theory behind them.  Ask an amateur or hobbyist what
his or her species concept is, when it was first articulated and by
whom, and how it differs from several other species concepts. You will
likely get a blank stare or some vacuous comment that species concepts
are irrelevant. Yet that same amateur might tomorrow go out publish a
new species in some poorly reviewed journal of low scientific standards.

My experience suggests that most amateurs have little or no concept of
widespread infraspecific variation, or that such variation is an
expected consequence of evolutionary processes acting on local
populations. (Most have no understanding of evolution, either.)
Consequently, amateurs often describe local variants as new species,
which, if analysed globally, would be seen as regional variants unworthy
of taxnomic rank.

It may be unpopular to say so, but I believe the majority of amateurs
publishing new "species" are grossly incompetent as scientists. I
routinely scan dozens of systematics journals and am frequently appalled
to see new "species" described in the absence of any scientific or
scholarly context.  Whether this is only by amateurs or more highly
trained specialists is hard to know.

For example, during 1998 separate articles appeared that described new
species of _Taraxacum_ (dandelions) and _Rubus_ (blackberries) from
Europe. These two genera are amongst the most over-described in the
history of botany.  Over 2900 names exist in _Taraxacum_, which probably
has only 60 or so good species.  Over 7000 names exist in _Rubus_, which
likely has only 250 good species.  These articles were notable for their
lack of scholarly discussion of previous taxonomic treatments of their
respective genera, their lack of dichotomous keys (even for the newly
described species), and the fact that photos of the holotypes in each
article showed specimens that hardly differed at all.  For many
botanists the description of new species of _Taraxacum_ and _Rubus_ from
Europe strains scientific credibility.

In short, many unnecessary new "species" are already being described.
If the trend accelerates among highly trained professionals to link
money to the privelage of naming new species, it likely will be picked
up by amateurs and lesser charlatans.  The integrity and reputation of
systematics as a science would be severely compromised.

Does anyone really want that?


Dr. Neil Snow
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Northern Colorado
Greeley, CO 80639 USA
email: nsnow at

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