Status of the Biocode

John McNeill johnm at ROM.ON.CA
Tue Feb 4 08:53:22 CST 2003

Jerry Bricker asked for an assessment of where the BioCode stands.  I can best refer him to the comments I made in a review published in 2000 on the previous 50 years of botanical nomenclature (as part of the IAPT Golden Jubilee celebrations).  The relevant portion of the text of that paper appears below (I have not checked that the url's are still operational).

A little context might be helpful, however.  The International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS) took the initiative some 10 or so years ago to try to co-ordinate biological nomenclature -- and the International Committee on Bionomenclature (ICB), co-sponsored by IUBS and the International Union of Microbiological Societies (IUMS), became the vehicle to implement this initiative.  The prime goal was to facilitate unambiguous communication among biologists (sensu lato), e.g. to try to circumvent the confusing terminology used by bacteriologists, botanists and zoologists for the same nomenclatural concepts -- the idea of an integrated Code was an intellectual challenge that came later.

As I noted in my 2000 review, it was always a code for the future -- note each version was that of "The Draft BioCode" -- and so there has been no "demise" of the BioCode -- it is just that its future has yet to come (!) -- at least for botanists and zoologists.

The bacteriologists modernized their nomenclature with their 1978 List of Approved Names -- the equivalent of what botanists have more recently attempted, so far unsuccessfully, with the concept of "Names in Current Use" (NCUs).  These are names that current taxonomy uses -- and whose application is reasonably certain.  This is not a straight-jacketed taxonomy -- any name that is used even if some consider it a synonym would be included.  Other names, not listed, are not thereby made unavailable, but a listed name cannot be threatened by an unlisted one -- and, of course, the list(s) are open to addition.

In this environment, with lists of names (developed, of course, group by group -- there is currently one that is de facto operational for the Trichocomaceae -- Penicillium and Aspergillus), an integrated BioCode that can ignore the complications of the past 250 years of binary nomenclature, becomes not just a realistic possibility but almost certainly a desideratum.

With modern electronic tools, such lists are only a matter of time -- rather longer perhaps in botany than was envisaged in the 1990's but an inevitable liberation for nomenclature, I believe.  At that time some BioCode, developed perhaps from the 1990's Draft, will be a desirable adjunct.

McNeill, John (2000): Naming the groups: developing a stable and efficient nomenclature. Taxon 49: 705*720. * ISSN 0040-0262.
        But what of the other three initiatives that provoked so much controversy and negative comment at St. Louis: the Draft BioCode, Names in Current Use (NCUs), and Registration? The first can be dealt with simply. As was always understood by those involved in its development, the Draft BioCode (Greuter & al., 1998) was never intended to replace existing Codes in contemporary nomenclature; it was always a code for the future (cf. Greuter, 1996, in press, McNeill, 1996) and, despite the concerns expressed by many, both before (Orchard & al., 1996) and during the St. Louis Congress, there were no proposals on the BioCode, per se, presented to the Nomenclature Section in St. Louis, nor would any have made sense unless other initiatives had been very much further advanced. Some of the communication issues between codes of nomenclature that development of the Draft BioCode made apparent are important and continue to be important -- to understand, for example, that botanists and zoologist mean something totally different by the words "valid" or "available" (cf McNeill, 1997). Harmonization of terminology that will clarify understanding and not destabilize names remains a desideratum, whereas any significant changes to the Codes themselves have always been recognized as impossibly destabilizing.
        Greuter, W. 1996. On a new BioCode, harmony and expediency. Taxon 45: 291--294.
---     In press. Biological nomenclature in the electronic era: chances, challenges, risks. Proc. XVIII International Zoological Congress.
---     , Hawksworth, D. L., McNeill, J., Mayo, M. A., Minelli, A. Sneath, P. H. A., Tindall, B. J., Trehane, P. & Tubbs, P. (the IUBS/IUMS International Committee for Bionomenclature, eds.). 1998. Draft BioCode (1997): the prospective international rules for the scientific names of organisms. Taxon 47: 127--150.
        McNeill, J. 1996. The BioCode: Integrated biological nomenclature for the 21st century? In: Reveal, J. L. (ed.), Proceedings of a mini-symposium on biological nomenclature in the 21st century, chapter 2. Maryland [].
---     1997. Key issues to be addressed. Pp. 17--40 in: Hawksworth, D. L. (ed.), The new bionomenclature: the BioCode debate. Biology International Special Issue 34.
        Orchard, A. E., Anderson, W. R., Gilbert, M. G., Sebsebe, D., Stearn, W. T. & Voss, E. G. 1996. Harmonized bionomenclature -- a recipe for disharmony. Taxon 45: 287--290.

John McNeill, Director Emeritus, Royal Ontario Museum;
    Honorary Associate ,Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh
Mailing address:  Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, EH3 5LR, Scotland, U.K.
Telephone:    +44-131-248-2912;  fax: +44-131-248-2901
Home office:  +44-162-088-0651;  fax: +44-162-088-0342
e-mail: jmcneill at (johnm at is also read)

>>> Jerry Bricker <jerry_bricker at MAC.COM> 02/03/03 17:40 PM >>>
Hello all,

I'm reviewing the ICBN in my plant taxonomy class and I'd like to
make summary comments on the BioCode.  Can anyone give me an
assessment of where the Biocode stands?  It is my impression that it
is dead and that discussion has moved on to the Phylocode.  If I'm
correct would anyone be willing to objectively summarize the reasons
behind the demise of the Biocode?

I know I'm opening a can of worms here but I need to bring my
knowledge base on the status of the various codes up a few notches.





Jerry Bricker
Assistant Professor of Biology
Department of Biological Sciences
Cameron University
2800 W. Gore Blvd.
Lawton, OK 73505
Phone: 580-581-2374
FAX: 580-591-8004
E-mail: jerry_bricker at

"If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong. In that simple
statement is the key to science. It doesn't matter how beautiful the
theory is, how smart you are, or what your name is - if it disagrees
with experiment, it's wrong."

Richard P. Feyman

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