[Taxacom] global species lists and taxonomy ( was Re: Draft Checklist ...)

David Campbell pleuronaia at gmail.com
Wed Aug 28 15:26:37 CDT 2013

These are significant barriers to having a single classification of all
organisms, and very important to consider in projects of this sort.
However, there are also objective corrections and points of near-universal
consensus, where authoritative lists could be made.  The objective
corrections relate to taxonomic issues governed by the appropriate Code.
While points of disagreement exist, as well as those who want to change or
ignore certain provisions, as the rules stand we can say that there are
certain mandatory corrections (such as gender agreement and certain
misspellings), that objective junior synonyms should not be used, etc.  In
principle much of this could be programmed into a database, but this has
not been done frequently.

Some aspects of systematic classification also are quite generally agreed
upon.  Modern mammals are a monophyletic group relative to all other extant
organisms.  Although sorting out the precise connections of Mesozoic
synapsids is often challenging, it's safe to assume that none of them will
prove to be lophotrochozoans or angiosperms.  Some databases present
alternative classifications, allowing some nuances on the level of

But far too often, the issues in databases are simply errors that result
from giving insufficient attention to the quality and accuracy of the
content, or inappropriate data management (e.g., confounding homonyms).
Tools to automatically capture and synthesize different opinions have
potential, but there are many pitfalls.  The current online situation, with
multiple databases that draw on each other, rapidly spread errors as well
as corrections.  Teasing out what are independent votes for a given
classification is a challenge.  Likewise, is a given source merely
repeating a classification from somewhere, or does it involve any
considered evaluation?  Worse yet, some sources are a mixed bag.  A major
revision of the scaphopods a few years ago had thorough updating of the
Recent species and also reprinted a list of fossil species that was
compiled in the late 1800's, with relatively little updating (regrettably
following the late 1800's age assignments of almost every eastern North
American Tertiary unit to the wrong epoch).

Better cooperation is desirable, and much effort is wasted on duplicate
work due to poor integration of projects.  On the other hand, there is
often no incentive to cooperate - are contributions accepted and recognized
by the database and by employers?

On Wed, Aug 28, 2013 at 2:27 PM, Doug Yanega <dyanega at ucr.edu> wrote:

> I'll jump in here, and re-title the thread, since no one seems to be
> referring to the original topic any more.
> On 8/28/13 12:52 AM, Donat Agosti wrote:
> > And there is definitely no cure in sight, if we continue to publish
> dumb, copyrighted taxonomic publications in print or as pdf.
> >
> > The creed should be: open access, marked-up publications that can
> automatically be harvested for taxonomic names (and more), at least new
> taxa being registered previous to the publications at the various domain
> specific registries (Zoobank, IPNI; Mycobank/Index Fungorum, etc.). The
> technology and business model is here (see the Pensoft publications
> Zookeys, Phytokeys, etc.).
> On 8/28/13 1:18 AM, Robert Guralnick wrote:
> > Its very
> > thorny, however, as it requires not just dealing with names entering the
> > system but the names, changes to names, and changes to name
> > circumscriptions eg. taxon concepts separate from the name changes.
> >
> The domain-specific registries are not designed to track name changes or
> circumscriptions, which are subjective (with few exceptions). The role
> of subjectivity in the taxonomic enterprise is the fundamental stumbling
> block - and always has been - in terms of taxonomists communicating to
> non-taxonomists, and even if we had a complete registry of every name
> ever published, we would have no *objective* (i.e. "definitive") way of
> telling anyone how many *taxa* those names represent, OR what ranks they
> should be assigned to. To accomplish this we would need to create a new
> administrative entity whose task is to (1) arbitrate all cases of
> taxonomic "dispute" such that a single definitive taxonomy is achieved
> [look to the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) for a possible model], and
> (2) make that single taxonomy available to non-taxonomists via a dynamic
> "official" interface [look to Wikispecies for a possible model, but with
> links that allow for instant propagation of classification changes to
> all online sources]. I'm fairly certain, however, that not only would
> there be insufficient financial support (to engage the services of
> enough taxonomists for this to work), but that the concept itself - a
> select group of taxonomists coming to a consensus about an *entire*
> classification - is about as realistic as expecting to find a pot of
> gold at the end of a rainbow. Even the APG is still highly controversial
> after 15 years, and that covers just one part of the taxasphere, and
> only a subset of the rankings therein.
> Taxonomists are people, and people have ambitions and egos and careers,
> and they are collectively, intrinsically, in *conflict*; fighting for
> jobs, fighting for funding, fighting for *recognition*. Expecting
> genuine cooperation and collaboration, or even a unified vision, seems
> extremely naive. I try to imagine how to get all the world's taxonomists
> to act in unison for the common good, and even the most likely scenarios
> seem improbable: (1: Democracy) if, rather than having a "select group"
> deciding on the official taxonomy, every single taxonomist, regardless
> of discipline, was allowed a single vote (thus, participation is out of
> self-interest, rather than requiring funding). This is probably
> technically feasible, but people would have to *unanimously* agree to
> participate AND agree to abide by the results of the voting. Given that
> some taxonomists refuse to accept even the premise of peer review, I
> cannot see how unanimous participation could ever be achieved, because
> these folks would be unwilling to have their work subjected to a vote.
> (2: Fear) if the non-taxonomists who control the funding for taxonomy
> become sufficiently annoyed with being told things like "There is no
> consensus as to which family that endangered species belongs to, or if
> it's even a species" then they could potentially consign us to oblivion
> - and the fear of us all collectively being unemployed if we can't get
> our act together might sufficiently motivate people (I'm reminded of
> Benjamin Franklin's famous quote: " We must, indeed, all hang together
> or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.") The problem with
> this, even if it should reach that unpleasant level, is that there will
> always be SOME taxonomists whose funding is secure, and they will not
> perceive a threat, feel no sense of urgency, nor see a reason to
> sacrifice their independence in order to help their less fortunate
> colleagues.
> In either scenario, there would inevitably be some taxonomists who would
> absolutely refuse to cooperate, because the status quo *suits their
> purposes*. The ultimate question, then, is whether - in order to achieve
> a single unified classification of life - people would have the resolve
> to develop and implement such a system over the objections of all those
> who oppose it. If not, then any vision of a unified classification is
> dead in the water, and discussion is moot. If the best we can do is to
> simply list all the disputes, and tell non-taxonomists that it's up to
> them to choose which classification they want to follow, then we have no
> one but ourselves to blame for all the resulting antagonism, disdain,
> and lack of support for taxonomy. Yes, the existence of things like the
> APG do give me some hope, but it also highlights just how far we have
> yet to go.
> Sincerely,
> --
> Doug Yanega      Dept. of Entomology       Entomology Research Museum
> Univ. of California, Riverside, CA 92521-0314     skype: dyanega
> phone: (951) 827-4315 (disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR's)
>               http://cache.ucr.edu/~heraty/yanega.html
>    "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
>          is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82
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> Celebrating 26 years of Taxacom in 2013.

Dr. David Campbell
Assistant Professor, Geology
Department of Natural Sciences
Gardner-Webb University
Boiling Springs NC 28017

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