names & numbers

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Fri Oct 12 09:12:18 CDT 2001

Paul van Rijckevorsel wrote:

> Just a thought, how about attaching numbers to types instead of names?
> This makes no practical difference to a computer but may be a lot
> easier to sell to people.

That, in essence, is what we as biologists are after; but there is a problem
there as well in that individual specimens have served as the primary type
for more than one name, and similarly individual species have been
designated as the type of more than one genus.  Granted it's rare, but it
only takes one exception to destroy the elegance of dealing with these
things electronically. Also, for the most part, there are more names out
there for which we can't (or haven't been able to) ascribe a primary type,
than there are types without names; and, of course, we'd have to
artificially designate "type" taxa for names above the rank of Family.
Overall, I think it is necessary to regard a "name" as a distinct entity,
and the type as an attribute (a biologically defining attribute) of that

Chris Thompson wrote:

[a great post...]

> Now to numbers and scientific names. Much has been written and
> from that it
> is clear that numbers are for computers, etc., what they needed but most
> people want to retain names. So, what is wrong with having both.

Nothing, of course. Indeed, I'd rather that most taxonomists essentially
forget about the number, and leave it to the computer nerds to work with.
>From the taxonomists perspective, the only real change would be that authors
of newly described taxa should take the time to notify some universally
designated organization (BIOSIS? Species 2000? ITIS? another?) about their
new descriptions. Is that really so much to ask?  When you consider the time
it takes to collect specimens, examine them in detail, identify characters,
make drawings, write a manuscript, submit the manuscript to a journal,
address reviewers comments, etc., etc., a simple visit to a
website, an email or a posted letter with a reprint so much to ask?  Maybe
the responsibility should be not with the author, but with the publisher of
the journal/book/whatever that the description appears in. What *REALLY*
needs to happen is that the community of folks who develop databases for
taxon data should coordinate with each other and designate ONE set of
numbers that they will all synchronize on for their priamry keys of taxon
names. It would be a tremendous bonus (and dramatic improvement to the
efficiency of the process) if taxonomists could lend their cooperation by
making these folks aware of their new descriptions (Chris Thompson's post on
the subject "Registration in Zoology" nailed this issue).

> As for ITIS it uses a taxonomical serial number. A
> "social-security-number"
> for each name in its system. NOTICE that is for each name, not just each
> taxon (and Barry, the decision of what is a scientific name is determined
> essentially on the International Codes of Nomenclature, not by
> some "agency
> buckaroo") . So, while it isn't being done now, those unique TSN
> can be used
> by others to build alternative classifications.

This is a critical point.  The numbers need to represent the objective (by
IC_N standards) "name"; not the taxonomic status of that name.  ITIS is just
one organization that seeks to assign taxonomic status to those names --
which it does as a *service* (one that is very useful to many
organizations).  So long as the master list of names is made publicly
available (as it damn-well should be), then any other taxonomist or
organization is free to ascribe their own prefered taxonomic status to each.
The critical point here is to distinguish the "names" (objective entities
defined in accordance with IC_N codes), from the "circumscriptions" (the
scope of biological entities -- critters and weeds -- to which that name

> Which leads to the last and critical point. As I wrote  " Pogo once said:
> "We have met the enemy; and it is US" Other scientists get together and
> build community tools, like GenBank. Taxonomists fight among themselves to
> defend their unique worlds. That neither help us getting the support our
> science need nor delivers the information that Society wants from us.


> I believe the time has come for taxonomists to unite, work together
> to produce something useful, etc.. If we don't those who need our
information will
> abandon us.


Robin Panza wrote:

> >>>Assign a permanent number to each name associated with type
> material, and
> you
> get one-to-one mapping.<<<<
> Only until someone starts splitting and lumping taxa.

No, the concepts of "splitting" and "lumping" are about circumscriptions.
The numbers are for the *names*.  I don't care how many times someone
synonymizes and resurrects a taxon name -- it exists as a name into
perpetuity, regardless of its status.  You can't go back in history and
alter its original description, or its type designation.  The name is an
objective, unique, and permanent entity, so it needs an objective
(=arbitrary), unique, and permanent identifier.

> Then there's the situation
> when the original description was a type *series*, which turns out to be
> multiple taxa!

Even that's not technically a problem, because in principle, at least, each
name needs to be anchored to a single primary type -- so those names would
need to be refined.  Given the practical implications, however, I agree that
this represents a major stumbling block for identifying taxon names by their
types.  But more critically, I think, the prinicple is in jeopardy for the
rare-exception cases that I alluded to above.

> Sorry, Doug, but I think it's all pie-in-the-sky.  Every
> problem with name (whether you include author, date, page, line number,
> whatever) is applicable to an assigned number.  Until we have the ultimate
> taxonomy with all the answers, there will be fluidity of
> designation, and no
> stable designation scheme will cover all the quirks.

Again, the names *are* permanently stable.  It's the circumscriptions that
change.  What we need is to assign permanent numbers to the *names*, and
allow flexibility in the circumscriptions.

Enough for now......


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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