[Taxacom] Does the species name have to change when it moves genus?

Richard Pyle deepreef at bishopmuseum.org
Tue Jun 19 15:02:30 CDT 2012

> I'm not actually suggesting we change the code, merely
> the convention to automatically  change the genus name
> if a species moves.

I never said anything about changing the Code.  I was talking about 250
years of conventional practice.

> Trivial in the sense that if we had all the information on names
> (synonyms included) linked to types we could resolve synonyms
> computationally, but we don't, certainly not at the scale of the
> 10x5 - 10x6 names that databases such as NCBI taxonomy and
> GBIF deal with. Yes, in principle, it is tractable, but why do
> we contribute to creating the situation in the first place?

The "situation" is only as such because of the advent of computer systems.
Prior to computers, people had no issue with it.  Now that we have
technology that lets us mine vast volumes of historical literature, the
situation appears problematic because we are now doing at a much larger
scale something that hasn't really been done before, other than by Sherborn,
Neave, Linneaus, and a few others.

I've always maintained that this period in history -- starting in the mid-
to late 1990s and ending probably around 2020-2025 -- is a somewhat awkward
one because it represents the transition between a centuries-long era when
paper was the primary mode of information dissemination and documentation
among humans, and the era when information is mostly documented and
disseminated via electronic signals.  It's awkward in general because not
all systems are moving in parallel and at the same pace, so various systems
get out of phase (e.g., the desire by modern taxonomists to publishe new
scientific names in electronic journals, vs. -- until recently -- the
requirements of the various Codes).  Specific to this topic, the awkwardness
relates to the fact that we have computer systems that index large numbers
of taxonomic name-strings (messy things, that don't always make it clear
which binomials are homotypic), but don't yet have computer systems that
index large numbers of taxonomic name "objects" (where homotypic binomials
are easily identified -- plus much, much more).  By about 2050 or so, this
period of awkwardness will warrant only a footnote.

> Personally I suspect the taxon concept issue isn't going to be worth
> the effort expended, unless tackled with some clever tools for inferring
> context from citation, etc. it's simply unscalable.

I'm not so sure about that.  Consider that we're rapidly shifting from
paper-based publication to electronic publication.  To make a major change
in practice in how we render text strings to human eyeballs (i.e., your
proposal to stop changing binomial combinations so we can maintain more
stable text-string labels) seems like using a Ferrari to drive down the
block to the local grocery store a little faster than the Toyota used to get
us there.  I imagine a world (not hard to imagine, really -- given journals
like ZooKeys) where the text string name is something just to render on the
computer monitor for the benefit of human eyeballs.  Behind that text-string
name would be the necessary electronic link (or links) to the taxonomic
object, complete with all the metadata any taxonomist would ever want (type
specimens, concept definitions, literature citations, historical trends in
usages, etc., etc., etc.).

You're talking about changing how we do things going forward, right?  Why
not focus on the brave new world of electronic publication, where the
included information is not limited to what is seen by the human eyeballs,
and where all this stuff can be harvested seamlessly via unambiguous GUIDs
(rather than via crude OCR and fuzzy text matching of messy text-string
names)?  To me, that's where the answer lies going forward.  Not putting a
band-aid on a centuries-old practice that is still trying to use text-string
names as unique identifiers.

> Why not focus on what is tractable and will add immediate value?

It would appear that you and I have different ideas about what is tractable
(or maybe we define the word differently?)

> I'm not proposing a change in how we cite names,

Yes, you are.  Since Linnaeus, we have cite species names in the form of a
species epithet preceded by a genus name, and the genus name is selected to
reflect the classification of the epithet.  You're proposing that we strip
the classification information from the binomial, and treat it as though
it's a single text string that happens to include a space within it.  That's
a change in how we cite names.  Maybe we're operating on different
definitions of the word "cite"?

> and suggestions that embed more semantics in names (such as author, date,
first name)
> are just asking for trouble http://bit.ly/KQ6o46

Perhaps.  But why not instead leverage the move towards electronically
published works by embedding GUIDs (which are themselves hidden from human
eyeballs), rather than continue to overload the feeble text string with more
information than it's capable of representing?

> Citing a reference for "what I mean by" is useful, but I'd be
> happier if that was linked to actual data.

We're in agreement on this one -- the key word being "linked".

> Ironically, if you read the tea leaves the way I do, we are
> moving to a biodiversity science without names, where
> specimens will be the unit of choice, and taxa will be
> computational inferences, not vague assertions supported
> by a citation at best. But that's another story...

...and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that story.  So in that context
(if you really believe that's where it's heading), why try to change one of
the core principles of binomial nomenclature right at the twilight of its
tenure in science?


Richard L. Pyle, PhD
Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
Associate Zoologist in Ichthyology
Dive Safety Officer
Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at bishopmuseum.org

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