generic oversplitting (heart of the problem)

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Thu Jul 19 08:52:18 CDT 2001

> We put labels on organisms and clusters of organisms because it
> seems to be
> an innate human trait to be able to, and to want to, name and
> label things.
> Reflect on Ernst Mayr's findings about the New Guinea natives and their
> knowledge of and names for the birds - if I recall correctly,
> they had names
> for 143 of the 144 species he identified.
> The New Guinea natives did not eat or use each of the identified species,
> but they could name them.
> As for communication, the communication improves after we have a
> name for an
> organism or cluster or organisms.  Without a name, we can
> describe organisms
> so that others understand what organisms we are talking about,
> but it takes
> time.  A name is a shortcut.

I completely agree, but now realize that I might not have elaborated my
question adequately.  When I asked, "Why, exactly, are we putting labels on
clusters of organisms?", I did not intend it to contrast against an
alternative of not putting names on clusters of organisms at all.  Clearly,
we put labels on them (as opposed to not putting labels on them) in order to
more efficiently communicate with one another. Perhaps my question would
have been more reflective of my point if I had phrased it as:

"What information do we wish to convey in erecting a hierarchical labeling
system for clusters of organisms?"

One camp believes the hierarchical labeling system should reflect a strict
representation of evolutionary affinities, without regard to other factors.
The other camp believes it should continue to reflect what it has always
reflected since its inception: a general method of classifying organisms in
a way that makes intuitive sense to the insightful observer, taking a
variety of factors into account.

My overall point was that both perspectives have merit (otherwise there
would be no raging debate), and perhaps two separate systems, each optimized
to suit its intended needs, would help us get back to what we should be
spending our time doing: learning about the critters, weeds, and microbes
that we share this planet with.

To those who maintain that having two separate naming systems would make
things hopelessly confusing, I submit that we already have *multiple* naming
systems of organisms.  We have latin/greek names that are used by
taxonomists.  We have American Language names used by people inhabiting the
United States. We have a suite of European Language names, Asian Language
Names, South American Language names, Pacific Island Language names...etc.,
etc., etc.  While we as biologists may occasionally get frustrated by the
plethora of other-language (vernacular) names in active use around the
globe, it doesn't really impact us all that much or confuse us in our own
lines of work. Why not? Because for genera and species, we have a convention
of representing the name in italics (or underscored), and even for higher
ranks we still have little difficulty discerning a "scientific" latin/greek
name from a vernacular name of another language. Rarely do I read a document
and come across a label applied to an organism, where I don't know whether
that label represents one of "our" names, or one of "their" names.

This is why I continue to emphasize that the success of the Phylocode, I
believe, will hinge on how readily distinguishable (at a glance) a Phylocode
name will be from a Linnaean name. Give it a flag (my pick would be either a
">" prefix, or a "<" suffix), and the confusion will be minimized -- the
Phylocode names will be as distinguishable from Linnaean names as Linnaean
names currently are from vernacular names.


Richard L. Pyle
Ichthyology, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at
"The views expressed are the author's, and not necessarily those of Bishop

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