Names, Concepts, and GUIDs

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Thu Jun 17 08:21:20 CDT 2004

Oh, BOY I wish I had more time this morning to dive into this thread.  Among all the recurring threads on Taxacom that catch my interest, this one is by far the most near & dear to me.

Some (relatively) quick comments:

1. Names vs. Concepts vs. hypotheses
Lots of cross-talking on this in recent posts; it might be helpful to lay down some basic terminology.

Most of the community interested in and struggling with all this stuff has settled on the word "Name" to apply to scientific names governed by established international codes of nomenclature (ICZN, ICBN, etc.).  A "Name" is not a hypothesis -- it is a textual label established for the purpose of representing a group of organisms.  Rules established in the codes of nomenclature attempt to provide objective criteria for determining whether such names are "available" for use in science.  (Note that "availability" is not about subjective synonomy -- deciding whether one name should be treated as a junior synonym of another name; etc. -- only whether the names are even within the domain of scientific nomenclature). Many of these rules relate to the publication and authorship of the name as it was first established.  Other rules relate to fixing the name to the biological world via typification (primary type specimen).

Some people define the word "Name" in this context as a literal string of characters.  For instance, the genus name Holacanthus Lacepède 1802 would be thought of as one name, and the subsequent misspelling of Holocanthus Lacepède 1802 (as spelled by Gray 1831) would be treated as a different "name".  I prefer to use the word "Name" to represent a nomenclatural entity -- so that there would be only one "name" in this example (the genus-group name that was made available for nomenclatural purposes in accordance with ICZN rules by Lacepède in his 1802 publication, in which the character string "Holacanthus" was used).  The character string "Holocanthus" as appears in Gray's 1831 publication would thus be considered to be the same "Name" as that which was first established for nomenclatural purposes by Lacepède in 1802; but just happened to be spelled incorrectly.  There are other points of confusion about whether a "Name" is the sum of its polynomial parts, or is only the terminal epithet (e.g., whether "Holcanthus interruptus Tanaka" and "Centropyge interrupta (Tanaka)" represent one name, or two distinct names.  By my view, there is only one name here, used by different authorities in different hierarchical contexts.)

When thinking of a "Name" in the way, the importance of citing the author (and date) of the original publication when citing a scientific name is more apparent.  Because the Name is not a string of characters by itself, but rather a nomenclatural entity, some reference to the nomenclatural act that established the name as available in accordance with IC_N rules is a core component of the name itself.  As has been pointed out by others, problems of homonymy are but one practical reason for the importance of including reference to the author when citing a scientific name.  More fundamentally, the name does not (cannot, in a scientific context) exist in any meaningful way outside of the nomenclatural act that first established it.

Except in a few cases of old names represented by a syntype series, for which a lectotype has not yet been formally designated, the biological circumscription (the scope of actual living organisms) directly associated with a name is limited to a single specimen:  the primary type specimen.  This is why a name is not a "hypothesis", nor is it a "concept".

The word "concept" seems to have taken the lead among the aforementioned group of folks who are interested in and struggling with all this stuff, to refer to the broader scope of actual organisms (circumscription) implied by every use of a scientific name.  To my knowledge, no available scientific name was originally proposed and intended to refer *only* to the primary type specimen of the name.  Rather, the name is always proposed to refer to the type specimen as well as all living, recently dead, and soon-to-be-born kin of the type specimen.  In other words, the name is "anchored" to the biological world by the type specimen, but is always intended/implied as a short-hand label representing a much broader scope of actual organisms.  The extent of this scope (the boundaries of the circumscription) is the "concept" attached by any given author to any given name that she made reference to.

So...going back to Holacanthus Lacepède 1802; the "Name" Holacanthus was established by Lacepède 1802.  But Lacepède 1802 also had some scope of organisms in mind to which he intended this name to apply. Therefore, Lacepède 1802 had his own concept of Holacanthus.  Following Nico's recent post, we would reference this concept as Holacanthus Lacepède 1802 sec. Lacepède 1802.  Gray (1831) also had in mind some concept of the scope of organisms represended by Lacepède's name Holacanthus (aside from the fact that Gray also misspelled it).  Gray might have had the same scope of organisms in mind as Lacepède did; or he might not have. In any case, this concept would be cited as Holacanthus Lacepède Sec. Gray. Indeed, all workers who have ever used the name Holacanthus (as established by Lacepède in 1802; no matter how they spelled it) had some implied concept in mind when they invoked the name as a short-hand label to refer to a group of organisms.

Oh, much for a quick reply.  Stay tuned for part 2, later today (I haven’t even gotten into GUIDs yet – which was my real purpose for writing this!).


Richard L. Pyle, PhD
Ichthyology, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at

More information about the Taxacom mailing list