Bill Shear wshear at EMAIL.HSC.EDU
Wed Apr 4 09:38:17 CDT 2001

Nomenclature would seem to me to be as neccessary (but not an evil)
to systematics as language is to society in general.  Without a
commonly agreed-upon vocabulary, syntax, and manner of discourse, how
do we talk to each other?  Certainly it makes no difference
whatsoever to its effectiveness if it meets or fails to meet ANY
definition, dictionary or otherwise, of "science."

The Linnean system of nomenclature has proven itself over more than
two centuries; most of its users are not dissatisfied.  It is simple
and comprehensible, and transferable to all languages and cultures.
The system of nested, ranked categories is reflective of the action
of natural selection.  A set of rules and regulations for its use has
been worked out over the years and remains open to revision and
improvement.  The vast majority of the systematics community has
tacitly agreed by mutual coercion to follow these rules.  While
documents like the ICZN do not have the force of law, they resemble
honor systems in that the community has agreed to eject or ignore
those who do not comply.  To change the system now would require
compelling evidence of widespread dissatisfaction and the proposal of
a new system which would correct the glaring errors and abuses of the
old.  But neither of these conditions appears to obtain.  Nearly
everyone is happy with the status quo, and it seems to most of us not
to have any huge shortcomings.

In order to gain acceptance, Phylocode must show that it is superior
to the Linnean system not only in its ability to reflect phylogeny,
but in its ability to serve as a filing system for gaining access to
information.  To this systematist of 35 years experience, who has
described, named, and attempted to place into phylogenetic
perspective hundreds of taxa ranging from class to species, it has so
far failed in both these tasks.

However most of us might wish to do so, Phylocode cannot be merely
dismissed as the hobby horse of a noisy, unpleasant minority.  It has
already gotten too much attention for that.  But the burden is on its
proponents to demonstrate its supposed superiority.  It would appear
to me that they are failing miserably to do so, and that Phylocode
will soon be relegated to the sort of footnote status as "numerical
taxonomy (remember that?)".

Bill Shear
Department of Biology
Hampden-Sydney College
Hampden-Sydney VA 23943
FAX (804)223-6374
email<wshear at>
Moderating e-lists:
Coleus at
Opiliones at
Myriapod at

"If some are to be prosecuted for abusing children, others deserve to
be prosecuted for maltreating the face of nature committed to their

--Henry David Thoreau, Journals, September 28, 1857

More information about the Taxacom mailing list