[iczn-list] Re: Insect patronym auction (>$10,000)

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Fri Jul 15 09:43:03 CDT 2005

> We could probably revitalize the profession of taxonomy (after all,
> one reason Universities are avoiding hiring new alpha taxonomists is
> because they don't bring in much money - unless they are molecular) -
> but only if we put VERY rigorous safeguards in place to ensure that
> only legitimately new taxa are being described. That phrase "without
> significant compromise to scientific integrity" is the CRUCIAL thing,
> and the ONLY objection I'm raising; I have NO qualms about auctioning
> names, in and of itself. I, personally, would love to be able to
> support myself and my institution by naming the >200 undescribed bees
> and wasps I know of, at $10K each. That'd be great...just 5 species a
> year and I'd exceed my present salary.

O.K., it seems we all agree on most things, except the magnitude of the
potential threat to nomenclatural stability. And if I understand your point
correctly, you're less worried about real taxonomists (with real scientific
reputations at stake) turning to the "dark side", than charlatan
entrepreneurs who know just enough about taxonomy to be dangerous (but no
more). Is that right?

I guess my feeling is that there may be a handful of people out there
wealthy enough to part with thousands of dollars for a patronym, who are
also so scientifically unsavvy that they wouldn't know a legitimate
taxonomist from a snake-oil salesman. But I really don't think there are
enough of them that it would represent any measurable blip against the
background of the thousands (millions?) of synonymous names already out

I suppose it could intensify the lumper/splitter debates for certain
charismatic groups -- but even still, I think we're talking about a
relatively trivial potential for negative impact, compared with potential
for positive impact. Considering that this idea cannot possibly be new, and
that there has been 250 years in which it could have been abused (but
apparently not yet extensively so -- or perhaps it has?), I don't think
we're at any greater risk now than we ever have been.  If anything, better
communication would reduce the risk of abuse (e.g., a high-bid donor need
only spend a few minutes on Google to check on the legitimacy of a
particular taxonomist, and/or the existence of previously-named species
similar to the one being "purchased").

Scenario 1: The practice of name-buying for taxonomic funding is generally
embraced by the scientific community, and becomes a decent source of money
for exploratory work. Snake-oil salesmen hear of this, get grand ideas, and
try to scam a few big donors.  After the bogus names are published, the
legitimate taxonomists (not wanting a controversial stain on their potential
cash-cow) police the situation by contacting the duped donors and explain
the situation.  It seems to me that the greater harm of this scenario is
that a potential donor for legitimate research has been burned, and wants
nothing more to do with it (rather than the handful of bogus names added to
the collective literature).

Scenario 2:  The practice of name-buying for taxonomic funding is generally
scorned by the scientific community, and thus legitimate scientists will
avoid that source of funding.  But I don't see how the charlatans, not too
concerned about their reputations in the first place (evidently -- if they
are naming species they know will be sunk), will be at all dissuaded from
scamming rich people.

To be fair, I think Doug was leading to a Scenario 3: Embrace name-buying,
but also establish ICZN/ICBN rules to restrict the scope of journals in
which names can be published (aka peer-reviewed journals).  I understand
this perspective, but it just seems to me that this issue (IC_N-approved
journals) is so heavily loaded with other points of potential contentious
debate/discussion, that the issue of thwarting bogus names from scammed
donors seems utterly lost in the noise.

There is also a self-regulating component to all of this: People are only
interested in paying large amounts of money to have a species names after
them if it is perceived to be a rare/special/semi-exclusive honor.  I
suspect that long before substantial numbers of bogus names are described
(and sadly, long before large-scale funding is directed towards legitimate
taxonomic progress), the novelty will have mostly worn off.

As for Dick Jensen's comment:

> I can agree with Rich in some respects, but this practice could
> work against
> improved cataloging.  From the posting I might infer that the ant
> taxonomist is
> holding one or more species "in reserve" until such time as a sufficiently
> endowed donor appears.  Such action (if it were to occur) could
> slow down the
> process of cataloging and could lead to a situation in which the
> species is
> named after it goes extinct.

I understand how that might represent a real impediment to taxonomic
progress in some cases.  However, knowing Brian Fisher, there are enough new
ant species in need of description (more or less perpetually), that waiting
for a donor to cough up the money to buy a patronym will not in any way
impede taxonomic progress.  Besides, I suspect that the main paradigm for
this sort of taxonomic support will involve donors being solicited to fund
expeditions on which new species will be discovered; rather than auctioning
off names of already-discovered species.  Even in the latter situation
(which I believe was the case with the recent new monkey species), I
seriously doubt that the auction process will impact the speed at which the
species get named.  Having said this, I should clarify that I don't discount
either of these concerns (Doug's or Dick's) as illegitimate -- I believe
they are legitimate.  But I think the costs from such can be mitigated, and
are overshadowed by the potential benefits of increased taxonomic funding.

Finally, for the record, I have never "sold" a new species name, nor do I
have any immediate plans to.  But I would be lying if I said I hadn't
pondered the possibility as a way to support future exploration and
taxonomic work.


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