names and numbers

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Wed Oct 17 01:32:47 CDT 2001

Dr. Pullan,

Thank you for an excellent and thought-provoking response.

Without launching another thread on the subtlties (and not-so-subtlties) of
the distinction between "names" and "taxa", I did  want to make one comment
of clarification:

> >2) Would the world not be a better place if my database, and the
> >Species 2000 database, and the ITIS database, and the Index
> >Kewensis database, and every other taxon name database out
> >there used the same set of arbitrary surrogate primary keys for
> >the same taxon names?
> It most certainly would not, this would lead us down the very
> dangerous path of making it simple to assume that the same name
> means the same thing.

This seems to represent a particular miscommunication in how we are each
using the term "Name".  In my sense of the word "Name", it is anchored to
biology *only* through the primary type specimen. In this sense, all the
databases should indeed share precisely the same definition of each "Name",
because each Name should have one, and only one primary type specimen (in
theory, at least....), and one, and only one, authentic original
description. I fail to see a compelling case for why communication would not
be enhanced if we were all to converge on a universal set of unique and
constant identifications for each "legitimate" (by corresponding IC_N
protocols) "Name".

The "dynamic" part of the name is not the name itself, but the interpreted
biological scope of the name (the circumscription). These are created
anytime a taxonomist endeavors to define the boundaries of a taxon
circumscription with greater resolution than the units of primary types.  In
other words; whenever a taxonomist tries to delineate the scope of kin
organisms to the primary type that fall under the same taxon circumscription
as that primary type. These are what I am calling "Assertions" (i.e.,
assertions about the biological scope encompased by a given taxon name).

These too should be identified by a universal set of arbitrary serial
numbers that all databases share, so that when my database makes a reference

"Genus species Smith 1999, sensu Jones 2001",

your database will have no difficulty matching it up to its own record of

"Genus species Smith 1999, sensu Jones 2001".

The issue you raise has to do with mapping equivalencies among assertions;
that is, whether:

"Genus species Smith 1999, sensu Jones 2001"

is equivalent to:

"Genus species Smith 1999, sensu Pyle 2000"

....or, alternatively, whether Pyle and Jones had different concepts of what
the biological scope of kin to the primary type of "Genus species Smith
1999" is.

And yet another layer, which has dominated recent posts to this thread, is
the notion of "current classification".

We have a long list of legitimately-described taxon names, each anchored to
the world of biology through a primary type specimen.  We have a distinct
notion of "circumscription", which is an issue of "species boundaries" --
involving much more than just the primary types (e.g., geographical
distributions, particular populations, and at the highest resolution,
individual speciemsn, as you allude to). With your post, we have now
introduced a new concept to this thread, which is that of establishing
equivalencies among circumscriptions.

> We have to remember that if taxonomy is
> to be of any use its end products must be available and
> understandable by non-taxonomists. We must make sure that
> these users are aware not only of the value of the data presented
> but also of its shortcomings and not hide these behind the facade
> of a name numbering scheme.

I couldn't agree more, which is why I am spending so much of my time
clogging Taxacomers' email boxes trying to delineate the various concepts of
"Names" and "Assertions", and how they relate to "circumscriptions" and

I have little doubt that the majority of taxacomers automatically hit the
"Delete" key for each of my long contributions to this thread; but for those
interested enough to follow, I think it's important that we all have clear
and shared understandings of these various concepts.


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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