[Taxacom] Read... and believe...

Mike Dallwitz m.j.dallwitz at netspeed.com.au
Sun Sep 6 21:01:51 CDT 2009

Dan Lahr wrote:

> Why is it impossible then to make the supposedly "subjective" taxonomic 
> concept objective? ... I still think that is where the most intellectual 
> advance should be made, once we figure out (or rather agree on) 
> standardizing nomenclature and "databasing" methods. As soon as 
> nomenclature is settled that will be the challenge.

Many, perhaps most, nomenclatural problems arise from the lack of 
accessible, comprehensive, comparative data.

Here's part of a posting I made to the TDWG-SDD list on 6 September 2000.


Thirty years ago, Leslie Watson wrote:

Perusal of the average taxonomic-descriptive work usually reveals that _as 
a source of comparative data_ it is hopeless. One genus will be described 
in terms of criteria that receive no mention in the next. Even species of 
the same genus may be described inconsistently. It is often impossible to 
distinguish with any degree of conviction between actual observation and 
extrapolation, between absence of a feature and mere failure to seek or 
comment on it. In general, the further one proceeds up the hierarchy, the 
less comparative the descriptions become. Given the situation prevailing 
in individual publications it is not surprising that scanning across them 
is even less satisfactory. ... If facts are wanted for reviewing the 
classification of a large group it is singularly disheartening to have to 
seek them in miscellaneous works of this kind. The labour is immense; 
worse, one sets out with the depressing knowledge that much of it will be 
wasted on discovering that the details thus compiled are not comparative. 
There is a welter of such material theoretically applicable to most major 
taxonomic problems, which will probably never be called upon because of 
its unpromising presentation and sheer intractability.

L. Watson (1971). Basic taxonomic data: the need for organisation over 
presentation and accumulation. Taxon 20, 131-136.

Things haven't improved much since, and they won't if we back away from 
teaching and strongly encouraging people to produce comparative data. 
Marking up free text into related chunks and making it available in 
electronic form would certainly reduce some of the labour, referred to 
above, of the person who is searching for comparative data. But it would 
not make non-comparative data comparative, and doing the markup would be a 
difficult and probably thankless task.

I think that, in addition to the classificatory problems alluded to above, 
the majority of nomenclatural problems (proliferation of synonyms) are the 
result of not having readily accessible, comparative data.


Mike Dallwitz
Contact information: http://delta-intkey.com/contact/dallwitz.htm
DELTA home page: http://delta-intkey.com

More information about the Taxacom mailing list