names and numbers

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Wed Oct 17 11:50:59 CDT 2001

> This brings us to another point that's not been addressed.  Do you always
> accept all the proposed new taxa described in your field?  Just
> because it's
> validly described and published, that doesn't mean its a valid taxon by
> anybody's criteria except the author's.  For example, a new race may be
> described based on an inadequate sample (of specimens or of localities).

Taxon names as legitimately described via IC_N are, and always will be,
objective concepts.  Assertions about whether the primary type specimens of
those names are concspecific with the the primary type specimens of other
taxon names (which is fundamentally what a "synonym" is) are, and always
will be, subjective concepts.  But while the assertion itself if based on a
subjective decision, the existence and nature of the assertion is objective
(depending on the extent to which one tries to define the limits of the
assertion). Universal serial numbers are very useful for applying to
objective concepts, because they allow different computer databases to
quickly and reliably match-up logically (objectively) identical concepts.

> Now what?  Some collections may accept the new name and assign the new
> number to those of their specimens that agree with the description.  Other
> curators don't accept the new name and keep the old number for all their
> specimens.  There goes the utility of the numbers.

That's why it's generally better to assign taxon names to specimens via
*assertions*, rather than directly to the names themselves.  This may seem
convoluted, but it's actually what most museums do already.  Many specimen
labels and corresponding database entries have "Identfied by" data.  Such
data constitute, in my view, an assertion about a taxon name. For example,
specimen 1234 was identified as "Genus species Smith 1999" by Jones in 2001.
This means that Jones had, in 2001, a concept of "Genus species Smith 1999"
that placed specimen 1234 within the same taxon circumscription as the
primary type of "Genus species Smith 1999".  So, the identification really
would be:

Specimen 1234 is assigned to the assertion "Genus species Smith 1999, sensu
Jones 2001"

So, if we had universal ID numbers for both names, and the objective
components of assertions, then a consumer of this identification information
would have a better understanding of what Specimen 1234 was, whether or not
said information consumer agreed or disagreed with Jones' concept of the
taxon represented by the name "Genus species Smith 1999".

In fact, specimen identifications are the *ultimate* assertions, because
they tie names directly to the biological world, rather than to abstract
representations of the biological world, such as poupulations of geographic


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