names & numbers

Jim Croft jrc at ANBG.GOV.AU
Sun Oct 14 09:58:45 CDT 2001


>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;

What the heck is a 'type without a name'?  A transient fantasy of a
faceless taxonomist?   Of course, ALL my collections are types just waiting
to happen...  :)

>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
>entity.

If you model the universe that way you will come unstuck, big time.  They
are both entities with their own definable attributes and they have a
relationship to each other.  In fact a type is nothing more that a specimen
with one particular attribute set - you could model it as a subentity of
the specimen entity if you like...

This particular thread has come up several times on Taxacom in the past and
much the same things are said and it NEVER resolves itself.  Why?

For a number of reasons, I suspect: general misunderstanding or the
relationships between names, types, taxa and taxonomic concepts;
freedom-loving anarchists vs. analy retentive control freaks; evil
doctrinaire centralist oligarchy with their big data sets of global
hegemony vs. uncontrollable decentralist rabble with their individual
uncoordinated datasets that are of damn all use to anyone but themselves;
my taxonomy vs. anyone else who dares to question it; etc., etc...

On top of that is another ugly issue that also has an unpleasant habit of
recurring on Taxacom - what exactly constitutes a species or taxon.  The
problem here is that they can be circumscribed in one or more of three not
entirely compatible and not entirely mutually exclusive ways: by reference
to the type (but this only anchors a name in a taxon space and does not
tell you very much about the taxon at all); by reference to a  textual or
visual description of the taxon; and ultimately by reference by that pile
of specimens deemed to belong to that taxon by that taxonomists at the
time...  Pretty cruddy way of managing information if you ask me...  If a
database designer was to present a solution like that their contract would
not be paid and they would be out of a job real quick...  Yet taxonomists
have been working like this , more or less, for  two and half centuries...

So... what to do?

Numbers and codes?  Don't go there...  Humans use names for a reason -
communication.  Humans can not remember numbers because they do not contain
information (and if they do you have violated one of the cardinal rules of
database design and you will be struck by lightning in divine retribution)
but can link to information held somewhere else.  On the other hand, as
soon as you utter a name (of a plant, animal, person, or whatever) you
immediately convey some basic information about and its context (it is
fairly likely that Joseph Banks was a male progeny of Mr and Mrs Banks,
that _Asplenium_australasicum_ might look sort of like like a bunch of
other things also called _Asplenium_ and might be expected in the southern
hemisphere in or around Australia, etc.)

It is easy enough to design a database application that handles a single
agreed taxonomy - we do it all the time - and even to handle quite complex
synonymies, but we seem to fall in  heap when it comes to dealing with all
but the very simplest of alternative taxonomies.  The problem here is that
there are just so many alternatives in any particular area and you can not
simply refer to it as a taxonomists system since  they change their minds
in response to further investigation, new information, peer pressure,
bribery, threats of physical violence, etc.

An approach we are trying here is to record taxonomies and synonymy as they
are published, by each published reference.  This means that the compilers
of the database do not have to venture an opinion - they are recording, as
a simple matter of fact, what one particular taxonomist said or implied at
one particular time.  No one can argue with this, other than the fact that
we may have entered the data wrongly - we are simply trying to record the
history of taxonomic concepts surrounding a particular name.

This approach is not without its problems: the database blows out as
multiple similar and even identical taxonomies are entered.  It creates a
lot of work and will take a long time to cover all the historical
references for our area of interest.  On the positive side it is creating
an incredible powerful tool to aid the taxonomic process, to sort out and
correlate taxonomic concepts and so on.

Another downer is that it is not what most users or clients want.  They
want to be told 'what is truth' and they do not want it qualified with any
ifs or buts.  Some of these clients pay the bills and neither know nor care
about the process of taxonomy - they want an answer, they want one answer,
and they want it now!  To handle this we have had to indicate that a
particular taxonomy has been 'accepted', in whole or in part, for our
purposes, in effect making the database itself a reference to be
cited...  at this point things start to get a little complicated...

Enough ramble...

Summary; taxon codes and numbers - don't do it!

jim
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