lonely Dan Janzen

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Wed Mar 24 10:35:21 CST 2004

Thanks, Dan, for that excellent commentary!  The following excerpt resonated
particularly well with me:

> Yes, I as a user care hugely about species-level
> names as stable unique identifiers (and other-level names as
> identifiers for their group).  But, in the same breath let me say
> that many - and I dare say some day nearly all - users also make very
> extensive use of the marvelous inferencial (=predictive) power of the
> phylogenetic components of your classification systems.    You are
> all aware that the more phylogenetically-based your system(s), the
> more inferentially powerful it is for us users.  Terrific.  The
> opposing force is the nomenclatorial instability introduced by the
> continually shifting (and growing) knowledge base.

I have always maintained that the value of Linnaean-based nomenclature
(quarter-millennium legacy), and the value of objective attempts to infer
evolutionary lineages (the inferential/predictive power of which you speak),
are both extremely important aspects of our goal of understanding
biodiversity; and your words above, in my view, capture perfectly the
essence of what is behind the ongoing debate between cladisticians and
traditional nomenclaturalists.

But here is where I depart a bit:

> Whatever we use,
> it will always be a sort of fuzzy compromise between these two
> forces.

I certainly agree that right now, and over the past few decades (maybe even
stretching all the way back to Darwin), there has been an increasingly fuzzy
compromise to force-fit information about inferred phylogenetic affinities
into the Linnaean nomenclatural system.  During much of this time, the
process of inferring evolutionary relationships was a tedious one, requiring
years or decades of very careful study and interpretation.  Hence, changes
in interpreted relationships came at a tortoise-like pace that did not
appear to pose meaningful threat to nomenclatural stability.  But now the
information is pouring in, and the pace of re-interpretation has quickened
to the point where nomenclatural instability has become prevalent enough
that the value of the naming system itself is diminished. I see it as
understandable, but unfortunate, that the Linnaean system of nomenclature
has been co-opted as a tool to communicate precise and strict
interpretations of phylogenetic affinities. The PhyloCode folks figured this
out (that the Linnaean system was suboptimal for communicating inferred
phylogenies) a while back, and tried to do something about it.  For reasons
of Politics, Personalities, or Practicality, that effort seems to have
ruffled too many feathers to have a chance of attaining widespread adoption
anytime soon. Maybe the PhyloCode framers will morph it to the point where
more practitioners will adopt it; or perhaps someone will eventually come up
with a more "palatable" alternative.

All of this notwithstanding, my quibble with Dan's comment above is with the
word "always".  I do not believe that the fuzzy compromise will perpetuate
indefinitely.  The writing is already on the wall.  Speaking as a
morphological taxonomist who has never run a gel in his life, it is
extraordinarily obvious to me that the best INFORMATION that can help us
reconstruct phylogenies (absent a highly detailed fossil record) is buried
within the genome.  This is really a no-brainer.  Before I am pummeled by my
fellow morphologists, however, let me quickly underscore that we are still
technologically (and intellectually) a long way from being able to EXTRACT
and INTERPRET this genomic information with a high degree of consistency and
reliability (not to mention practicality).  Recent research showing
different phylogenetic interpretations when looking at different regions of
the genome exemplify the problem.  But the point is, I believe that the day
will come -- very likely within my own professional lifetime -- that we will
have the technology and intellectual fortitude to convincingly extract and
interpret phylogenetic information from the genome.  And when that day
comes, the era of the "fuzzy compromise" will begin to draw to a close.

In the mean time, we should look for ways to dowse the flames of the
"cladistic wars" over the use of nomenclature as a tool for the strict
representation of phylogenies inferred from the latest lump of data.  For
one thing, journals & their reviewers should NOT reject manuscripts that
describe new names for taxa (at least at the genus and species levels)
simply because the authors chose not to go through the motions of structured
phylogenetic interpretations. (Lord knows we don't need any more impediments
to cataloging biodiversity...)  Users of cladistic methodology should also
recognize the tentative nature of their conclusions (in the majority of
cases, at least), and wield the nomenclatural sword only with great care and
humility. As for those of us on the "stability of nomenclature" side of the
fence, we need to stop disregarding "those damned cladists" outright as
naive and misguided souls who are missing the broader picture.  Their
contributions to science are valuable at least as often as our own (probably
more so), and they are paving the way to the inevitable (and ultimately
preferable) future.

Egad! What have I done here?  I'd better shut-up before I sink even deeper
into this quicksand...


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

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