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

Stephen Thorpe s.thorpe at auckland.ac.nz
Sun Sep 6 21:30:27 CDT 2009

I certainly think you are correct inasmuch as lack of comparative descriptions is a problem in taxonomy, a problem which DELTA has the potential to remedy, but I don't think it is strictly relevant to the subjectivity/objectivity issue under discussion here. Even if all descriptions were strictly comparative, the question is whether there is more than one equally good description for a given species? For example, two allopatric populations that differ only very, very slightly in morphology. One taxonomist considers them to be one species, another considers tham to be two species. Is this only a purely subjective disagreement, with no fact of the matter? Or is one taxonomist wrong and the other right?

From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Mike Dallwitz [m.j.dallwitz at netspeed.com.au]
Sent: Monday, 7 September 2009 2:01 p.m.
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Read... and believe...

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


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