NATURE to save taxonomy!

Bill Shear wshear at EMAIL.HSC.EDU
Thu Jun 6 11:07:10 CDT 2002

I really like NATURE for its sincere attempt to balance its coverage of all
sciences, including systematics and paleontology, and for its sly sense of
humor, reflected in the titles of its news articles and columns.  I like it
better than the morbidly serious and self-important SCIENCE.

HOWEVER--this step is misguided, as it sets up yet another "registration"
authority which has no formal power to register names or the resources (as
does Zoological Record, for example) to publish lists of such names.  It's
just a peculiar requirement of one single, albeit very important, journal.
The Linnean Society gets a preprint.  Big deal.

And, let's face it, how many new names are actually published every year in
NATURE?  Six? Twenty? A dozen?  So the impact of this action is really very
small in practical terms.  Probably its most important meaning is that one
of the two premier general journals of the sciences is signalling that it
thinks something is wrong with the way taxonomy operates.

Somehow I find this unconvincing.  "Great fragmentation" could be seen as
happening in any area of scientific publishing, where journals run the gamut
from the highly specialized to those dedicated to all of (for example)
biology, and on to those that, like NATURE, publish articles on all aspects
of science.  So what if descriptions of spider species appear in Novitates
of the American Museum of Natural History, as well as the Journal of
Arachnology?  Those journals and others, even the most obscure, are freely
available via interlibrary loan or by electronic means, and such mechanisms
are daily proliferating and becoming more and more effective.  In fact, the
Balkanization of publishing in any science creates no problems so long as
what is published is readily available.   Isn't this the message of the web?

Despite a few strident voices, I think the vast majority of practicing
taxonomists are pretty well satisfied with how the system presently works.
Like organisms themselves, it has evolved (evolution is a tinkerer!) to meet
emerging needs, and so far the equilibrium of that evolution has not been

If we are to make a sudden and great departure from the way we work now,
like the Phylocode or some centralized system of names registration, it
seems to me that it is up to the proponents of such change to make an
overwhelming case that the problems are very serious indeed, and that the
remedies they want are the ones we need.

So far, I don't see it, and neither, I believe, do most of my colleagues.
So, while this action by NATURE adds another voice to the debate, it will
probably have very little long-term effect.

Bill Shear
Department of Biology
Hampden-Sydney College
Hampden-Sydney VA 23943
FAX (434)223-6374
email<wshear at>
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"The old naturalists were so sensitive and sympathetic to nature that they
could be surprised by the ordinary events of life.  It was an incessant
miracle to them, and therefore gorgons and flying dragons were not
incredible to them.  The greatests and saddest defect is not credulity, but
our habitual forgetfulness that our science is ignorance."
Henry David Thoreau, Journals, March 5, 1860.

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