Common Names => Classification (utility) & species (unique identifiers)

christian thompson cthompson at SEL.BARC.USDA.GOV
Mon Jul 16 12:46:11 CDT 2001

Consider the following pieces ...

1) In any case, I believe we do need to listen to our non-taxonomist
colleagues and the general public.  We want them to have an appreciation of
what we do, but we also must provide a system that is in some sense
"user-friendly" for those who are not primarily interested in the
evolutionary relationships among the plants they see and grow. ... AND ...
In the real world, commona names quite often do reflect hisher taxonomic
levels.  The common name Orchid refers to a very large family of flowering
plants, just as the common name hickory refers to a specific genus.(Richard

2) in spite of complaints from "the general public", Latin binomials are
not confusing. (Michael Vincent)

3) Classification is irrelevant to a huge body of people working with
plants. Names are not irrelevant, but a stable,
recognized name is worth more than a less stable, less well-accepted name.
(Mary Barkworth)

4) But you'd be surprised how many folks are interested to know what's
related to what.  "I didn't know Box Elder was a maple!"  Of course not.  If
you rely on common names, you think it's related to Buxus or Sambucus.
yeah, that malkes sense; the 'seeds' are the same." (Thomas Lammers)

4) So the question is, why do we change names?   We change names for three
classes of reasons.  One is because there are 'theoretical" issues involved;
monophyly versus paraphyly, for instance. The second is, some lump, some
split.  The third can be independent of the first two and is application of
the relevant code. (Peter Stevens)

5) I don't think we will get very far in our discussions on naming unless
we understand the contexts - both cognitive, scientific and sociological -
in which names are proposed. ... AND ... If you read Mark Barrow's excellent
recent book "A Passion for birds: American ornithology after Audubon", there
was a period when the scientific names of birds seemed to be in flux, and so
vernacular names became common. And of course many birders today use
vernacular names. (Peter Stevens)


Pull all these threads together and the benefits and problems of common
names versus scientific names is clear.  So,
A) Richard is right, we do need to pay attention to our "users," especially
if we want our science to be well supported.
B) so, we need to separate our discussion about nomenclature into two
components,  classifications and species.
C) on species, we need to educate our users about one universal, consistent
set of unique names that can be use to communicate information about
species. Only scientific names as regulated by our ICZN, ICBN, etc., can
provide such a set of names that every users in the World what ever their
native language may be can use and be assured that they are communicating
about the same species. That common names can within a particular language
"map" a scientific name, such as Acer rubrum = Red Maple, then every one can
be happy. But common names will always be to the extent of the usage of
their language "local."
D) and where common names don't exist, they can and should be derived from
scientific names (such as boa constrictor is both a scientific as well as
common english name).

E) Common names can also "map" useful groups in a classification and can be
derived from those taxon names. The example given of "orchid," is one.
Falco (=falcons), Buteo (=buteos), etc., are generic names as well as common
names used by all birders.

Now as our species names are a combination of a genus-group name which
reveals relationships (classification) and an epithet which enforces the
uniqueness, there is can be instability in those names due to how we
approach our classifications.

And this is where the loss of utility comes in as most "taxonomists,"
believe they must split taxa to reflect "phylogenetic" relationships.  And
also for those sociological reasons, the desire to name "new" taxa,
splitting is the normal practice today.  Which is why most users no longer
find in any use in our classifications as our new, narrower circumscribed
taxa, don't correspond anymore to broader groups that the non-specialist can
understand and use. Also as they split more, the understanding of the
"phylogenetic relationships," is less certain. Hence, more instability in
the names and classifications. So, as Mary wrote classifications become
irrelevant to the general public.

And the more this happens, the more the general public will wonder what use
are taxonomists? Which returns to the importance of those "sociological
issues" that Peter alludes to.  So, like Peter I too would recommend
everyone reading  Mark Barrow's book about a passion for birds to understand
what can happen when the scientists separate from their user community to
let their "passion" for collecting become the driver of their scientific
program (paradigm) and the users responded by rejecting the science (altho
many bird listers are now also appreciating the value of subspecies as
something more to check off, etc.)

In summary, common names are useful, and we, scientists, should encourage
their "wise" use. And if scientists continue to split genera, etc., then
perhaps common names may become more stable and useful as they need not
"map" those changes. But we also must educate the general public on the
importance that scientific names at the species level serve as universal,
precise, unique tags for communications, etc.

As an aside to those botanist read this stream. Do the Linnaean genera,
like Ulmus (elms), Quercus (oaks), Acer (maples), Pinus (pines), etc.,
remain in use in their broad sense that I as a zoologist think of them?  Or
have they too been split?

F. Christian Thompson
Systematic Entomology Lab., ARS, USDA
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, D. C. 20560-0169
(202) 382-1800 voice
(202) 786-9422 FAX
cthompso at
visit our Diptera site at

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