Uses of nomenclature

Bob Mesibov mesibov at SOUTHCOM.COM.AU
Sun Feb 6 14:06:04 CST 2000

'What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where YOU come from?' the Gnat

'I don't REJOICE in insects at all,' Alice explained, 'because I'm
rather afraid of them -- at least the large kinds. But I can tell you
the names of some of them.'

'Of course they answer to their names?' the Gnat remarked carelessly.

'I never knew them do it.'

'What's the use of their having names' the Gnat said, 'if they won't
answer to them?'

'No use to THEM,' said Alice; 'but it's useful to the people who name
them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?'

'I can't say,' the Gnat replied.

(Lewis Carroll, 'Through the Looking Glass', Chapter 3)

IMHO some contributors to the current thread have been confusing the
many uses of names in biology. Taxonomists who adhere to the Code have a
clearly delimited definition of a name, and non-taxonomists are
sometimes surprised to learn just how limited that definition is.
Taxonomists' names are borrowed for a whole range of purposes in
biology, some 'essentialistic' and some strictly operational (where any
label would do). It is unreasonable to expect that taxonomists' names
will suit every purpose, but it is entirely reasonable to expect that
every biologist will use them. You may have an alternative method of
constructing names which is more convenient for phylogenetic
systematics, for example, than the existing system. Unless that method
also suits all the other users of names in biology, then taxonomists
(the 'Keepers of the Book of Names', and if that phrase sounds
impressive, you've got the point) will be reluctant to listen to you.

It's been comforting to see diagrams of descent, with and without
reticulation, in this discussion. Patterns like these are not amenable
to naming. They are very, very far from nameable realities. Read (or
re-read) O'Hara to understand why:

O'Hara, R.J. 1993. Systematic generalisation, historical fate and the
species problem. Systematic Biology 42: 231-246.
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 6437 1195; international 61 3 6437 1195

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