[Taxacom] Towards a consensus higher classification of organisms (was: List of Orders of the world), misspellings, etc...

Jim Croft jim.croft at gmail.com
Fri Jun 13 21:01:13 CDT 2008

On Fri, Jun 13, 2008 at 8:55 PM, David Remsen <dremsen at gbif.org> wrote:
> In the 2005 publication "Evolution of the Insects, " the authors
> Grimaldi and Engel state "All accumulated information of a species is
> tied to a scientific name, a name that serves as a link between what
> has been learned in the past and what we today add to the body of
> knowledge.
[ ... ]
> Three cups of coffee and a whole morning.  Try to be kind.

Aw, c'mon Dave.  Instead of three cups of coffee and a morning you
could have just said "This is simplistic rubbish!" and I would have
said "Ah!  Now *there* is a man who knows what he is talking about!"

In spite of its grandiose title, 'the scientific name' (I like the
poetic ambiguity of  '*a* scientific name' in the quote) is little
more than a hint on where to start looking.  It is little better, and
at times I think no better, than a politely or not so politely agreed
convention or handle to which we agree to *try* to attach consistent
conceptual information.  And that we do not completely succeed, and
probably will never completely succeed, is why this thread exists at

To me the issue is the huge and perhaps unavoidable disconnect we have
created between names and the concepts they represent, and the
parallel disconnect between a named concept in a list (or anywhere for
that matter) and the name attached to a specimen, a name which
proclaims it to be of the concept that bears that name but may in fact
be of a different concept of the same name.  We all wrestle (or
should) with this burden and carry with each scientific name we utter,
all the angst of tacit implicit assumption in search of authority that
is the very core of taxonomy - any taxonomist who does not go to bed
subsuicidally depressed about this each evening doesn't really
understand the business of taxonomy.

Hey - I am just getting started and I haven't even had a cup of coffee
yet...  :)

Every time I show an AVH or a GBIF map to someone it pains me to have
to say "It is a pretty map, and there is some plausible and defensible
truth to the story it tells, but parts of it are wrong.
Unfortunately, you can not tell which parts are wrong, in many cases
not even by looking at the data.  It is an indication, a suggestion -
treat it as such".

And as for lists, list of names that purport to be or are assumed to
be *the* concepts, each needs to be issued with a healthy dose of
caveat and skepticism.  We have dedicated staff compiling these lists
with religious dedication and fervor, believing to their souls that
they are documenting *truth*.  I use  'religious' here deliberately.
After a while, as the lists incrementally improve in coverage and
reliability, they acquire biblical significance, to both compilers an
users.   And I use the word 'biblical' deliberately.  The compilers
and users start to believe their lists - and defend them -
passionately.  And we do not help the situation by referring to these
lists as 'authority files' which leads people to believe that they are
in some way authoritative.

In taxonomy, the only thing with any real authority is the combination
of the type specimen and the protologue (and sometimes I worry about
the reliability of the protologue  :).  Everything that follows is
'the story'.  The best that can be said of lists is that they are a
reference, an index.   They are a process rather than an end.  We tell
people here, not entirely tongue in cheek,  that the The Australian
Plant Name Index is, in reality, a state of mind...  think
documentation of concepts, not authority.  Any authority, if it exists
at all, lies elsewhere.

This is one of the reasons why I worry about lists of names being
given authority, and processes like registration that give authority -
it discourages or removes the ability to challenge and thus make
progress.  In the words of Andre Gide, "Believe those who are seeking
the truth. Doubt those who find it." (thanks Mike).  But this is a
separate diatribe...

Our big challenge as taxonomists and biodiversity informaticians is to
remove the tacit implication and assumption from what we do and to be
more explicit (and dare I say, scientific) in our communication.  At
the moment the name implies *a* concept - we need more information to
get to *the* concept or tease out the alternative concepts.  We need
to get the stage where a particular concept can be communicated
unambiguously, or at least where the ambiguity is explicit and
unambiguously visible.  In the meantime we will have continue making
do with our lists of  'near enough is good enough' scientific names.
They sort of work, much of the time, but as you indicated, we must be
able to do better.

We have tried several times to convince botanists here to include a
statement of concept with their determinations.  Not only "I think it
is this" but "this in the same way it was circumscribed in ...".
Even something as simple as an oblique reference, "Jones 1967".  But
they refused - "I'm the expert - *I* know what I was thinking".
Heck, if it was good enough for Linnaeus...

See?  All that without any coffee at all...  :)


Jim Croft
jim.croft at gmail.com

"I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in
order to enjoy ourselves."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher (1889-1951)

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