[Taxacom] Call for proxy votes for the forthcomingInternational Botanical Congress

John Grehan jgrehan at sciencebuff.org
Wed Jul 6 07:31:57 CDT 2011

If this is all there was to the argument then it would seem to be a form of academic colonialism - a taxonomic grab in place of the colonial land grabs of the 1800's.

John Grehan 

-----Original Message-----
From: taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu [mailto:taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of Michael Heads
Sent: Wednesday, July 06, 2011 1:50 AM
To: taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] Call for proxy votes for the forthcomingInternational Botanical Congress

Hi Kevin,
With all respect, I don't think these are 'complex matters'. Africa had the type and Australia grabbed it. They justified this because they have more species in it, i.e. for no reason at all.
Michael Heads 

Wellington, New Zealand.

My papers on biogeography are at: http://tiny.cc/RiUE0

--- On Wed, 6/7/11, Thiele, Kevin <Kevin.Thiele at dec.wa.gov.au> wrote:

From: Thiele, Kevin <Kevin.Thiele at dec.wa.gov.au>
Subject: [Taxacom] Call for proxy votes for the forthcoming International Botanical Congress
To: "taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu" <taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu>
Received: Wednesday, 6 July, 2011, 5:30 PM

A very important issue will be debated and decided at the forthcoming International Botanical Congress in Melbourne in a little over a week, brought to the fore by questions around the application of the name Acacia.

You may know that Acacia nomenclature has generated a lot of controversy in the taxonomic, nomenclatural and wider community. Essentially, an argument has developed over whether the name Acacia should be used for Australian or African-American species of Acacia sens. lat. At the last Congress in Vienna a decision was taken to retain the name for Australia. Since then, a vocal group hostile to this decision has campaigned to have the it reversed at the Melbourne Congress. In essence, they are seeking to have the process used in Vienna declared invalid and hence set aside.

The votes that will be taken on this issue have much wider implications than simply a resolution of the Acacia issue, possibly including far-reaching consequences for the future conduct of botanical nomenclature. This email is to encourage institutions that are unable to attend the Melbourne IBC Nomenclature Section meeting to consider being represented there by proxy. It may well be that proxy votes are critical for many of the votes that will be taken there.

If you have an interest in this matter, agree with the position outlined below, and would like to have your vote counted, please consider casting a proxy vote at the Melbourne IBC (note that only institutions may cast proxy votes). Details on how to do this are at the end of the email below.

Apologies for the length of this email, but these are somewhat complex matters. Note that the Melbourne Nomenclature Section meeting is a little over a week away, so if you are convinced after reading this that the issue is important, please act without delay.

If you're still interested, please read on.


Kevin Thiele
Curator, Western Australian Herbarium (PERTH)


The five sections below provide (1) a summary of the original proposal to conserve Acacia, (2) a summary of the events in Vienna and the subsequent controversy and opposing positions, (3) an outline of the potential negative consequences of the proposed Melbourne challenge to the Vienna decision, (4) an outline of the process for casting proxy votes and (5) links to the most important references for further reading on both sides of the debate.

1. The conservation of Acacia with a conserved type

The large, cosmopolitan genus Acacia sens. lat. is now widely recognized to be para- or polyphyletic, comprising five distinct clades, each of which is now treated as a distinct genus. Two of these clades are relevant to the current debate. One is a large, predominantly Australian group of 1021 species, the other is a smaller, pan-tropical group comprising 163 species in Africa, Asia, the Americas and northern Australia.

The historical type of Acacia, A. scorpioides (L.) W. Wight (= A. nilotica (L.) Delile), belongs to the smaller pan-tropical group, so if simple priority applied then the name Acacia would be retained for this group.

In 2003, a proposal to conserve Acacia with a new type, the Australian species A. penninervis, was published (Orchard & Maslin, 2003). The proposal was made on the grounds of nomenclatural stability, as required by the Code. Central to the proponents' arguments was that conserving Acacia with a type from the much larger Australian group would be least disruptive globally because many fewer names would need to be changed. They also argued that a number of Australian species of Acacia are significant environmental weeds while others form the basis of large, global, economically important industries in timber and other products and that these industries would be substantially disadvantaged by a name change in their literature and marketed products. See Orchard & Maslin (2003) for additional arguments supporting the case.

Acceptance of the Orchard & Maslin proposal would mean that the 163 pan-tropical species would be called Vachellia while the 1021 mostly Australian species would continue to be called Acacia; its rejection would retain the name Acacia for the pan-tropical species while requiring the adoption of the name Racosperma for the Australian species.

In brief, conservation proposals such as this one are handled in the following steps:

(1). A proposal to conserve a name is published in Taxon.
(2). The Committee for Vascular Plants (formerly called the Committee for Spermatophyta) considers the proposal, seeks submissions, and eventually votes on whether to support it or not. A 60% majority vote in favour is needed for the proposal to go to the next step.
(3). The General Committee of the IBC, after considering the Committee for Vascular Plant's report, votes on whether to accept it or not. A 60% majority vote in favour is needed for the proposal to go to the next step.
(4). The Nomenclature Section of the IBC, after considering the General Committee's report, votes on whether to accept it or not. If accepted, the Nomenclature Section includes the proposal in a Resolution submitted to the final Plenary Session of the Congress.
(5). If the Nomenclature Section's Resolution is approved by the Plenary, all included amendments and proposals are adopted in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature and its Appendices.

In the Acacia case, the proposal was considered by the Committee for Spermatophyta and the General Committee, both of which voted to support it by the required 60% majority. Accordingly, the General Committee reported to the Nomenclature Section of the Vienna Congress and recommended that the proposal be accepted. The Chairman of the Committee for Spermatophyta published the reasons why that committee voted in support of the proposal (see Brummitt 2004).

2. The Vienna IBC, and the controversy since

The Report of the General Committee regarding Acacia was presented on the last day of the Nomenclature Section meeting in Vienna. Before considering the matter, the President of the Section recommended that, because both Committees who had previously considered this proposal had passed it with a required supermajority of 60%, a 60% vote against would be required to reject the General Committee's report and recommendation. This recommendation was accepted by the meeting without dissent. Following a lengthy debate, 54% of votes were cast to reject the General Committee's decision; as this was less than the required 60% majority, the Committee's decision was not rejected. Subsequently, at the final plenary session of the Congress, the decisions of the Nomenclature Section, including the decision on Acacia, were ratified by a large majority, and Acacia was listed as conserved with A. penninervis as the conserved type in the Vienna Code.

Since Vienna, opponents of the decision taken at that meeting have raised a number of objections, principally to the process followed in Vienna rather than against the original proposal. In particular, they have argued that the requirement at the meeting for a 60% supermajority vote to reject the General Committee's report was unacceptable and an example of "minority rule". They have also argued a number of nomenclatural matters regarding the applicability of various Code articles in this case. See Moore et al. (2010) for further reading.

Supporters of the Vienna process, including people who voted both for and against the issue at that meeting, have argued that the process was proper and that the decision should stand. They have pointed out that the two specialist Committees appointed by IAPT to consider such proposals both approved and recommended the proposal, and have argued that the Nomenclature Section meeting should not be able to overturn their recommendations with a simple majority. McNeill & Turland (2010) recommended that the correct way forward for those objecting to the Vienna outcome would be to submit a new proposal for the conservation of Acacia for consideration at Melbourne IBC. However, this recommendation has not been taken up and the scene is now set for a robust debate in Melbourne.

A more detailed synopsis of the above matters is provided in Thiele et al. (2011).

3. Why the Melbourne vote matters

The challenge to the Vienna vote is a challenge to an established process that has until now worked well. Both Committees were convinced largely by the sheer weight-of-numbers argument in the original proposal: if rejected, >1000 species would need to be renamed; if accepted, only c. 160 species would need to be renamed (the remaining species in Acacia s.l. need to be renamed anyway). The Committees considered the matter very carefully, calling for submissions and weighing all arguments both for and against, exactly what they were established to do. That both decided in favour of the proposal indicates that it was properly conceived, well-supported and was, they felt, in the best interests of global nomenclature.

However, there are also larger issues at stake here. An important contention of those seeking to overturn the Vienna decision is that procedures adopted by the 2005 Nomenclature Session meeting were deeply flawed. In particular, they object to the requirement for a supermajority (60%) to reject the General Committee report; they have proposed instead that Melbourne and subsequent Congresses should require a supermajority to accept a General Committee report (a reversal of the Vienna process) and that the Code should be amended to mandate this. I regard that this is a dangerous idea for several reasons:

(1). It would create a perverse imbalance between proposals to amend the Code and proposals to conserve or reject names. Effectively, proposals such as that on Acacia must pass two steep hurdles before reaching the Nomenclature Session. Requiring a further supermajority to accept a Committee report adds a third hurdle. By comparison, proposals to amend the Code itself face only a single hurdle (the Nomenclature Session vote itself). This would be a perverse outcome, given that proposals to amend the Code are often much more important than proposals to conserve or reject names.

(2). It changes the intent of the Code on a matter that has been agreed for the last half-century. The Code clearly devolves some responsibility for deciding proposals on conservation and rejection to the Committees. It recommends that authors should follow existing usage of names until the General Committee reports (Recommendation 14A.1), then should commence using the name as approved by the General Committee "subject to the decision of a later International Botanical Congress" (Art. 14.14). This clearly assumes that the Congress is very likely to endorse the Committees' recommendations. If the intent of the Code were that the Congress has all the power over such proposals and the Committees are of little importance, it would require authors to follow existing usage until the Congress itself mandates the change and not before. Hence, the proposal to overturn the Vienna process is a proposal to change the clear intent of the Code.

(3). It will create nomenclatural uncertainty and confusion. The Code seeks to create stability and to reduce uncertainty in these matters, especially in the years between Congresses. If the three-hurdle system is introduced, it will become much easier for disenchanted and vocal groups to overturn Committees' recommendations at Nomenclature Session meetings, creating great uncertainty for the (up to 6 years) between a General Committee decision and the following Congress.

There is a danger that, in order to get the desired result on Acacia, some at the Congress will seek to establish a process and perhaps to amend the Code in a way that is deleterious for nomenclature. I believe that the nomenclatural process we have and which worked well in Vienna, should be supported against these moves.

4. What you can do about it

Votes at the Nomenclature Section may be cast by registered delegates and by institutions represented by registered delegates. Delegates may also carry to the meeting and cast proxy votes from recognized institutions that have been assigned votes. If your institution is not able to send any delegates to the Melbourne Nomenclature Section and if you would like to send a proxy vote, in order to have your say on this issue, there are two main alternatives. You may contact a colleague who will be there and assign your proxy vote to them (individual delegates may carry up to 15 votes including their own). If you prefer, please feel free to respond to this email, and I can arrange for a carrier for your proxy vote. Proxies provided for this purpose would be deployed only for those votes directly relevant to the Acacia issue.

Note that you will need to provide anyone carrying your proxy vote with either a statement on your institution's letterhead to that effect, or the completed proxy notification form that each herbarium should have received, notifying them of their voting entitlement.

Again, if you are convinced after reading this that the issue is important and wish to assign your proxy votes, please act without delay.

5. Further reading

If you would like to read further on this issue, I suggest the following key papers:

Orchard & Maslin (2003) - the original proposal to conserve Acacia with an Australian type http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iapt/tax/2003/00000052/00000002/art00031

Brummitt (2004) - report of the Permanent Nomenclature Committee regarding the proposal http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iapt/tax/2004/00000053/00000003/art00022

Moore et al (2010) - the principal paper for the case against the Vienna decision http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iapt/tax/2010/00000059/00000004/art00017

Thiele et al (2011) - the principal paper for the case supporting the Vienna decision

McNeil & Turland (2010) - paper from the Nomenclature Bureau of the Vienna meeting supporting its process  http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iapt/tax/2010/00000059/00000002/art00026

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