[Taxacom] Pop article on taxonomy's decline

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Fri Jan 28 05:11:52 CST 2011

> However, GNI does give the impression of having a marketing department
> (trying to sell the idea by inflated statements)

What inflated statements?  When they say "19,384,364 names total", they are
using the definition of "name" that I articulated previously (UTF-8 encoded
text strings purported to represent scientific names, with or without
authorship, year and/or qualifiers).  Much to my surprise, I have discovered
that more people define a scientific "name" this way, than define it the way
that you and I would define it.  It's only inflated if you apply *your*
definition of "name" to the statement.

> There are consistent definitions of what we mean by a "name of a taxon",

I used to believe that too.

> clearly laid down in the respective nomenclature Codes. That there are
> lots of other names (personal names, vernacular names, product names, etc)
> will be obvious, but not really relevant.

Yes, indeed!  The zoological Code defines it one way, and the botanical Code
defines it another way, and those are only two of the definitions currently
in widespread use.  And in general I have found that they are not the most
often used definition, except among nomenclatural taxonomists.

> Most people I talk to just run away screaming when seeing
> the way that GNI represents things.

Evidently we talk to different people.  Not all of the people I talk to are
botanical nomenclaturalists.  Many are zoologists.  More still and not
taxonomists at all, but are the primary consumers of scientific names.
There was a time, many years ago, when I tried to "correct" everyone by
pointing out that the Codes have (sort of) clear definitions (even though
the botanical Code and zoological Code don't share the same definition -- I
believe the bacteriological Code emulates the botanical version).  But this
is the quest I alluded to earlier that I came to regard as futile.  Now,
whenever someone says "name" in an unqualified way, I immediately interrupt
them and ask them to define what they mean by it. I no longer try to tell
them they're wrong -- I just want to make sure I understand what they are

> * * *
> > Botanists and zoologists each have their own definition of
> > what a "name" is. Most botanists would say the following list
> > represents two names:
> > Aus bus
> > Aus buus
> > Xus bus
> > Most botanists think of the combination as the "name", and
> > (I think) most would treat "Aus buus" as an orthographic variant
> > of "Aus bus", but the same "name".
> ***
> Well, that would depend (what is its type?).

The implication was that tll three species epithets share the same type
specimen (sorry -- I should have been explicit about that).

> * * *
> > To many (not all) zoologists, the list above contains
> > three names: the genus-group name "Aus", the genus-group name
> > "Xus", and the species-group name "bus" (which has a spelling
> > variant of "buus"); to them, combinations are not "names",
> > they are combinations.
> ***
> That may be, but unless I am sadly mistaken, according to the
> zoological Code "the name of a species" is a combination, which
> leaves personal (or shared) idiosynchrasies of expressing oneself
> as just that.

It depends on where in the zoological Code you look. In the glossary
lossary&nfv=&mF=true), there is the word "name", and then there are no less
than FORTY qualified versions of the word "name".  The definition of the
unqualified word "name" is:

"(1) (general) A word, or ordered sequence of words, conventionally used to
denote and identify a particular entity (e.g. a person, place, object,
concept). (2) Equivalent to scientific name (q.v.). (3) An element of the
name of a species-group taxon: see generic name, subgeneric name, specific
name, subspecific name."

#1 is not relevant to us, but reminds us that "name" does have other uses.
#2 points to "scientific name", and #3 implies each element of a compound
name is itself a "name".

The definition of "scientific name" is closer to how you and I imagine it:
"Of a taxon: a name that conforms to Article 1, as opposed to a vernacular
name. The scientific name of a taxon at any rank above the species group
consists of one name; that of a species, two names (a binomen); and that of
a subspecies, three names (a trinomen) [Arts. 4 and 5]. A scientific name is
not necessarily available."

Thus, a "scientific name" is composed of one, two or three "names".

> Yes, "scientific name" is a term that often means
> "Latin name of a species".

Often, yes.  According to the ICZN Code, it is an assemblage of one, two or
three "names".

In the case of GNI "names", I use the definition already stated above.  But
I think it would be a bit klunky for the GNI website to declare:

"19,384,364 UTF-8 encoded text strings purported to represent scientific
names, with or without authorship, year and/or qualifiers" in its masthead.
However, I will send them an email and suggest that they replace it with the
phrase, "19,384,364 name-strings total" -- to avoid this sort of confusion
in the future.

> As you know, as laid down in the Codes, a name of a taxon does
> not include authorship.

Absolutely!  But, as I have said before, there are plenty of consumers of
scientific names who do not define the word "name" in the same way as the

> Actually, that is not at all conclusive. Many people carry their
> own marketing department around inside them and it operates
> automatically, no awareness required.

True in some cases, but not in this case.  I absolutely guarantee that the
people who developed GNI are not trying to misrepresent the content of GNI,
by hoping that people think that they index 19 million names in the sense of
the Code.  It is not a marketing strategy -- not even a subconscious one.

> Perhaps more people would understand that that is what GNI is if the
> website said so, instead of claiming to be an "Index of scientific
> names provided by all Name Repositories (19,384,364 names total)"?

I completely agree!  Their claim, of course, is accurate within the context
of how "name" is defined for GNI.  As I said, to avoid this sort of
confusion in the future, I have asked them to change it to "name-strings".
I just hope that suggestion will slip past the marketing department....


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