"arcane" rules/was gender of -opsis

Doug Yanega dyanega at POP.UCR.EDU
Thu Aug 15 11:44:20 CDT 2002

Tom Lammers wrote:

>I say it again: 95% of the "confusion" surrounding nomenclature would be
>eliminated if taxonomists would learn to use one of the basic tools of
>their discipline, the Code of Nomenclature.

I beg to differ. Our gripe has only a little to do with learning to
use the Code, and more with the impractical hoops it forces people to
jump through. MORE than 95% of the time, the only *absolutely*
definitive answer comes when one has the original descriptions IN
HAND, and the Code cannot run to the library *for* you. As John
Oswald said:

>Under such conditions, the rules of
>Art. 30.2 [covering non-Latin, non-Greek based genus-group names] (rather
>than 30.1, which covers Latin and Greek based names) apply for determining
>the gender of genus-group names. Under such conditions, a name ending in
>-opsis could have any gender -- masc., fem., or neuter. Thus, in rigorously
>determining "nomenclatural gender", there is no getting around going back
>to the literature to check for this possibility for each and every
genus-group name.

I don't know about you, but I don't think there's a person in the
world who has handy access to every single generic and species
description ever published. If a taxonomist has to sit on their hands
for SIX MONTHS while tracking down a copy of an original paper from
1833 just to see whether an author stated a name was intended to be
one gender or another, just to determine the proper conjugation of an
epithet, then that is one heck of a lousy hoop to have to jump
through just for the sake of scholarship. It might be different if
every piece of taxonomic literature in history were one mouse-click
away, but that ain't ever gonna happen.

More to the point, there are other people *besides* active
taxonomists that have need to know the names for things, and when the
same exact organism appears under two names that differ only in
whether they end with an -a or an -us, not only does it do our public
image little credit, but it wreaks havoc for database managers,
people doing web searches, cataloguers, etc. It was appropriate that
John Noyes chimed in here a moment ago, as he's a good example of
someone who is negatively affected by this sort of thing: there are
at least 13 species names on his CD-ROM of world Chalcidoidea that
are "-opsis" genera with *masculine* epithets. He now has to go in,
track these down one by one (to exclude the possibility that the
authors of both the genera and the species didn't write in some
counter-Code exclusionary clauses), and CHANGE them in the next
edition of the CD-ROM. It's a hard enough (and often thankless) task
to make a decent catalog, and it's made vastly worse if you're
expected to track the proper conjugation of tens of THOUSANDS of
names. To continue the story, when John issues the new CD, then those
of us who use it as a database authority file are going to have to
manually go into our databases (after doing a search for non-matching
names) and eliminate the duplicated taxon names, because our database
software CANNOT recognize that Tineobiopsis mexicanus Gibson 1995 and
Tineobiopsis mexicana Gibson 1995 are the same taxon unless we tell
it so.

This latter point is ultimately a gripe about the stability of the
names, and THAT is an entirely legitimate complaint that can and has
been *repeatedly* leveled at the Code over the years. Exactly what
legitimate scientific purpose is served if a species epithet can
change? It most certainly does NOT improve communication, nor help us
trace history, nor teach us valuable linguistic skills, nor make us
better scientists. Any one of us could be fired from our jobs
tomorrow, and the ability to conjugate Latin, while an admirable
display of scholarship and testament to our dedication, is NOT going
to convince some axe-wielding administrator that we and what we do
are relevant and worthwhile. What convinces them is our level of
productivity, and this particular aspect of the Code - determining
nomenclatural gender and tracking fluctuating epithets - is an
*impediment* to productivity. It slows the whole system down, and if
we're serious about naming, cataloguing, and archiving the natural
world before it's obliterated, we should be SERIOUSLY reconsidering
how we go about this task: revising the Code to make it as
expeditious as possible certainly has to be part of the picture. I'm
sure I'm not alone in saying I cherish and respect the Code(s), but I
would *infinitely* prefer working to *revise* things, *within* the
present system - and SOON - than risk having some horrendous,
cataclysmic schism like the Phylocode tear us apart simply because
too many people dragged their feet and resisted change. The old "Hang
together or hang separately" maxim comes to mind; working together
for constructive change will improve us, not diminish us.


Doug Yanega        Dept. of Entomology         Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California - Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521
phone: (909) 787-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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