names & numbers

Jean-Michel MAES jmmaes at IBW.COM.NI
Sat Oct 13 19:10:54 CDT 2001

Dear Jim and friends of the list,

I read the messages about codes as a remplacement of names. I feel that this
topic has been managed times to times in different lists and obviously never
reach to a solution.

I remember that in some beetles catalogue in Central Europe, the autor use a
code for the species, joint to the name (of course). That could be a
solution ?

I guess that if you put only codes, nobody will follow it. for diffrent
reasons. The main reason could be that a simple character error will
transform a species in a totally different one with no way to see the
mistake. Just have a look at the lots of errors in the names used for some
common insects. Using codes will be the same, machine are free of errors but
not typist entering the losts of codes. Just try, as a bad example, to
remember the names of 10 entomologists, ok, now try to remember they phone
nummer, see it, not easy. They have probably the same quantity of character
in their names as figures in the phone nummer but it's not so evident.
Normally in the family of plant or animals you study, you have in mind 200
or 300 names commonly used, I am not so shure you can put such quantities of

If someone want to begin with a coded system, a good transition could be the
use of both names and codes.

The other point is that I do not see why putting nummers or codes, as a name
is logically organized but not in a mathematical order except if you apply a
phylogeny to do it. Seeing the big discussion aroud results of phylogeny
works, I think we are not really ready to do that.



Dr. Jean-Michel MAES
AP 527 (Do not use DHL or similar !)
tel 505-3116586 / 505-7794363
jmmaes at
----- Original Message -----
From: Jim Croft <jrc at ANBG.GOV.AU>
Sent: Saturday, October 13, 2001 5:58 PM
Subject: Re: names & numbers

> >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
> >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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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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