Google for Internet Database / unique classification?

Doug Yanega dyanega at UCR.EDU
Wed Mar 22 11:30:39 CST 2006

Pierre Deleporte wrote:

>Only the extreme terminal taxa would be universally defined, while
>the classes and hierachies would fit particular needs. What would be
>wrong with this, who would complain? (besides some "inside"
>taxonomists I can bet)

Let's consider practical examples:

(1) An ecologist reads a paper saying "All members of Higher Taxon X
(Genus or Family, say) have [physical or behavioral characteristic
Y]". A taxonomist identifies a species the ecologist is studying as
belonging to Genus/Family X, so the ecologist assumes that it
possesses characteristic Y. However, the higher taxon definition used
by the person identifying the specimen is different from the
definition in the literature, and the species in question does NOT
possess characteristic Y - meaning, in some cases, that the
ecologist's entire research program, or their conclusions, could be
based upon faulty assumptions. That ecologist would certainly

(2) A biogeographer decides to use the distributions of the member
species within Higher Taxon X to test a hypothesis. However, there
are four different extant classifications each of which proposes
different lists of member species, each of which leads to a different
result relative to that hypothesis. That biogeographer would complain.

(3) A museum curator receives a request for a loan of all unidentifed
material of Higher Taxon X, and spends a week packing 14,000
specimens and then ships them. A week later, they get back a package
with 13,500 specimens and a note saying "These specimens are in
Higher Taxon Y, so I don't need them". Meanwhile, elsewhere in the
collection there are another 5,000 specimens that DO belong in what
the requestor calls Taxon X, which they will never see because the
curator places them in Taxon Z. Both the curator AND the requestor
would complain.

(4) A student or researcher is trying to compile information about
Higher Taxon X, and the literature spans several decades. The papers,
including the recent ones, contain a total of more than a dozen
functionally different circumscriptions of said Taxon X, many of them
directly contradictory - and, moreover, there are many references to
species that belong in HIgher Taxon X (in some of these
classifications) that simply don't show up in library or online
searches, because at the time they were published they were NOT
included in Taxon X. Such a person would certainly complain.

Like it or not, a classification is more than just a way to declare a
hypothesis about which branch is related to which in the Tree of
Life; it is a tool for the organization of information ABOUT life,
and we can only retrieve information correctly if everyone is using
the same tool the same way.

I am not saying that a consensus classification would necessarily
have to be static, nor even necessarily *stable* - science does,
after all, march on - but it DOES need to be standardized (so anyone
using, say, the name "Nymphalidae" in 2007 will be talking about the
same thing as anyone else using the name "Nymphalidae" in 2007).


Doug Yanega        /Dept. of Entomology         /Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California - Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521-0314
phone: (951) 827-4315 (standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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