[Taxacom] Lumping and Splitting

Edwards, G.B. edwardg at doacs.state.fl.us
Fri Sep 7 11:29:13 CDT 2007

I have to second Rich's comments on this subject.  Is a "gap" even an
appropriate analogy anymore?  Now that we routinely run phylogenetic
analyses on everything down to the species level, it seems simply a
matter of which branches get named at what level, and that depends on
the personal philosophy of the namer (yes, I know, there are characters
determining the branches).  But still, a subgenus for one person is a
genus for another, a subfamily for one person is a family for another,
and so on...  No wonder some people want to scrap the system altogether.

But let's assume we don't ever scrap the present system.  How do we best
implement it?  To start with, quoting Rich, a "damn good reason" for
change should be present before making one.  I think this especially
applies to taxon rank (see below).

To wax philosophical for a bit, and this relates as much to the EoL
thread going on simultaneously, who are the names for?  Is it simply to
facilitate debate among taxonomists as to what rank to give various
taxa?  Or should we take into consideration other end users when naming
taxa, who are not taxonomists, but maybe ecologists, ethologists,
conservation specialists, agroecosystem specialists, educators, etc.

Having come up through an entomology rather than a zoology or
evolutionary biology department, I've had considerable exposure to the
needs of certain types of non-taxonomists and have developed a somewhat
pragmatic view of classification.  There are certain taxon ranks that
appear to be very important to the non-taxonomist in order to understand
the diversity of the system under study.  We can rank these in order of
importance; the following is my view from lowest to highest.

Order (and higher) - obviously non-taxonomists need to be able to tell a
beetle from a spider, but not much more is expected at this level.
Genus - important to certain ecologists, even in regard to taxonomic
placement of species groups.  But maybe not so important overall in
other fields.
Species - of supreme importance to autecologists, ethologists,
conservation, and other specialties depending on the subject.
Family - most important for general knowledge of large groups of
organisms and knowledge of guilds, in ecology, agroecosystems, and
public education.

This is certainly not an all-inclusive user list.  Does it surprise
anyone?  Probably some will disagree.  But in my experience, it is the
family level which is often the level of knowledge of non-taxonomists,
and the level required for non-taxonomists to conduct research in other
fields.  Species level comes in a close second, but the research is much
more specialized, and general public inquiries at the species level tend
to reflect concern about specific venomous or pest species.

So my advice for pragmatic taxonomy at the family level - be
conservative.  It is how most people with some interest or education in
biology recognize an organism.  If you want your work and your favorite
taxon to be noticed and utilized by more than your colleagues, have a
"damn good reason" for splitting it up.  Perceived instability doesn't
impress anyone and irritates the heck out of non-taxonomists (and other
taxonomists too, for that matter).  If you don't care, then feel free to
ignore this post.  It's just one person's opinion.

G. B. Edwards, Ph.D.  [Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman] 
Curator: Arachnida (except Acari), Myriapoda, Terrestrial Crustacea,
Florida State Collection of Arthropods, FDACS, Division of Plant
P.O.Box 147100, 1911 SW 34th St., Gainesville, FL 32614-7100 USA 
(352) 372-3505 x194; fax (352) 334-0737; edwardg at doacs.state.fl.us 
Veritas vos liberabit  

-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
[mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Peter Stevens
Sent: Friday, September 07, 2007 9:27 AM
To: Richard Pyle
Cc: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Lumping and Splitting

But the old problem was no better. The problem of "when is a gap a  
gap?", is rather like is the beam in my eye smaller than the mote in  
the other guy's eye? Also, if one is cautious about going from  
cladogram to classification, there may be rather fewer problems with  
this "cladogram du jour" than one might think.  Et puis?

On Sep 6, 2007, at 7:56 PM, Richard Pyle wrote:

> I haven't been able to figure out yet whether I'm a lumper or a  
> splitter.  I
> have at one time or another been accused (or have accused myself)  
> of being
> both.  I think my strongest bias is neither for lumping nor  
> splitting, but
> rather preserving existing nomenclatural stability unless given a  
> damn good
> reason to change things.
> My own belief is that much of the arguments about cladistc vs.  
> eclectic
> approachs to nomenclatural systematics (as well as arguments about  
> molecular
> vs. morphological characters in shaping nomenclatural  
> classification) is
> ultimately rooted in differences about what constitutes a "damn  
> good reason"
> to alter existing nomenclature.
> Aloha,
> Rich
> P.S. My use of the qualifier "nomenclatural" in front of  
> "systematics" and
> "classification" above is intended to reflect the fact that I'm  
> perfectly
> happy to see a million alternative cladograms representing alternate
> hypotheses about phylogenetic affinities among a group of organisms  
> -- using
> whatever metric any author wants to use.  It only represents a  
> problem when
> otherwise stable Linnaean nomenclature is contorted in order to  
> assert one's
> own cladogram du joir.
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