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

Curtis Clark lists at curtisclark.org
Sat Aug 31 20:14:44 CDT 2013

Coming to the discussion late, and I don't often disagree with Doug. 
Maybe I'm missing something, but, if so, by the replies I'm not alone.

On 2013-08-29 11:41 AM, Doug Yanega wrote:
> This runs afoul of the exact same issue: such a system would not give a
> single answer to a simple question like "What family is this plant in?".
> It gives an enormously esoteric and complicated answer that makes sense
> only to a taxonomist who is family with plant taxonomy - "Here are the
> 15 competing classifications, in which this plant is in family X in 9 of
> them, family Y in 4 of them, and family Z in 2; of the three most recent
> classifications, it was placed in X twice and Z once, with Z based on
> chloroplast DNA sequencing." That sort of answer is precisely the kind
> of thing that confirms the impression of taxonomy as hopelessly
> impractical. No one outside the taxonomic community cares how many
> competing classifications exist, who published them, or who is citing
> and/or following them. Lumpers versus splitters, molecules versus
> morphology, strict monophyly or not... the end users of taxonomy *don't
> care* about our internal arguments and controversy, and it is a mistake
> to force everyone else to accept ambiguity just because WE strive for
> objectivity.

Okay, let's say that we all come to the consensus that Mimulus 
aurantiacus is in the family Scrophulariaceae. That datum conveys no 
useful information beyond that taxonomists agree. Most individuals with 
even an undergraduate degree in biology are aware that taxonomists 
almost never agree, and that the things they do agree on are almost 
always trivial. So we have trivialized nomenclature. It's now a useful 
artificial classification, like the US Library of Congress 
classification of books. Huzzah. And the non-taxonomist who wanted to 
know what family it is in gets a stable, uninformative piece of information.

But for taxonomists this won't do at all. Since Linnaeus and the 
beginnings of modern biological nomenclature, many (and in some eras 
most) taxonomists want a heuristic system. They want to be able to 
assume that Mimulus aurantiacus has some affinity to Scrophularia 
californica and Penstemon grinnellii, more so than to Plantago major. 
That's how most taxonomists' minds work. So if we stabilize biological 
nomenclature to that extent, we'll have to use a different system 
internally. Phylocode comes to mind, but it has its own issues, so we 
might face decades of hashing out different systems among competing 

And a few non-taxonomists will look at these new systems and think, 
"Hey, that's a lot more informative that the stabilized traditional 
biological nomenclature. Maybe I should start using it instead." And so 
in the guise of stability of record-keeping, we would have increased 
instability in the way taxonomists communicate their actual work.

But like I say, maybe I'm missing the point.

(Angiosperm taxonomists will recognize that the specimen I called 
Mimulus aurantiacus is now Diplacus auranticaus in the Phrymaceae, 
Penstemon grinnellii and Plantago major are in the Plantaginaceae, or 
Veronicaceae if you eschew priority, and of the species mentioned only 
Scrophularia californica is in the Scrophulariaceae. What a difference a 
decade makes!)

Curtis Clark        http://www.csupomona.edu/~jcclark
Biological Sciences                   +1 909 869 4140
Cal Poly Pomona, Pomona CA 91768

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