[Taxacom] Paper on taxonomic standards in herpetology

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Tue May 21 23:52:47 CDT 2013

This ongoing "debate" is really starting to wear thin, and I feel 
compelled to make my feelings on the matter as clear as I possibly can; 
though I certainly can't claim to speak for other Commissioners (in 
fact, I know that there are some who will strongly disagree with me), 
maybe my perspective can help others to think a little more carefully 
about the central issues.

First off, all of us must acknowledge that the Code is an evolving, and 
historical, effort that derives ALL of its authority from the voluntary 
acquiescence of the members of the scientific community. While it is 
true that very few people have ever directly contributed to writing the 
Code, it has been (and continues to be) written with the sincere hope 
that it will accurately reflect the interests of the larger community, 
and - importantly - so long as what the Code says and what the community 
wants are in accordance, the members of the community will continue to 
uphold and comply with the rules the Code sets forth. When the desires 
of the community begin to diverge from the Code, however, this leads 
people to question the Code - to question whether it benefits them to 
continue to comply with it. My personal feeling is that while the Code 
should not become a proverbial "political football", subject to the 
wishes of factions competing for influence, it also cannot be completely 
unresponsive when very large portions of the community are dissatisfied 
- that leads to alienation, and non-compliance. The recent amendment 
allowing for the publication of nomenclatural acts in digital media was 
not easily achieved - it took a long time, much debate, and much 
fine-tuning to get it implemented - but the Code WAS changed, in 
response to the desires of the community. How explicit was the community 
in expressing that desire? How many actual practicing taxonomists wrote 
letters urging the Commission to act on this? Well, frankly, it wasn't 
anything near a unanimous statement, but here's the point that needs to 
be made: even if the actual number of vocal individuals pushing for 
change is only a fraction of the larger community, when the argument 
being put forth clearly and convincingly promises to benefit the entire 
community, and when any reasonable person can see that the non-vocal 
part of the community is likely to support it, then the Commission will 
take the argument seriously.

This brings me back to the issue at hand. Several people have quite 
correctly pointed out that the Code has always taken a neutral stance on 
taxonomic judgment, and that this is a fundamental principle:

"The Code refrains from infringing upon taxonomic judgement, which must not be made subject to regulation or constraint."

This assumes that any issues the community may have regarding the 
quality of science behind a given work, or the ethics of the author(s), 
etc., are something that the community is perfectly capable of handling 
on its own, without requiring the Code to back up their actions. The 
recent paper by Kaiser et al. was, in that sense, an attempt by the 
taxonomic community to take an action of precisely the sort that the 
Code could not help them achieve; a constraint upon taxonomic judgment. 
The response was quite predictable (if one ignores all the 
name-calling): basically, invoking the Code-compliance of the acts in 
question as a means of defense. It's too late for that, though - 
obviously, if Kaiser and the others are taking the matter up outside of 
the Code's jurisdiction, then any DEFENSE has to be outside of the 
Code's jurisdiction, as well. The Code cannot force the taxonomic 
community to recognize anyone's works, or use anyone's names, if it is 
against the will of the community, just like the Code cannot force 
anyone to REJECT something that people refuse to reject. That is the 
status quo.

That being said, however, the issue is not so black-and-white, because 
of the larger context I spoke of earlier (the need for the Code and the 
community to be in accord in order for the Code to have authority), and 
because the Code ALSO has the mandate to promote stability in 
nomenclature. Having witnessed a variety of events, debates, and 
diatribes centered around "taxonomic vandalism" over many years now, it 
is abundantly clear to me that the taxonomic community DOES have 
concerns about quality, and about ethics, and people frequently express 
a desire to have such concerns incorporated into the Code, if only so 
that people can no longer use the Code as a shield to hide behind while 
they undermine the work of others. Something can be Code-compliant and 
also be disastrously disruptive to nomenclature; works of dubious 
quality can indeed pose a serious threat to nomenclatural stability. Can 
the Code afford to keep ignoring this? Actually, it doesn't, at least 
not entirely: for example, one can point to internal "double standards" 
within the Code itself that reveal attempts to achieve quality control 
(e.g., the idiosyncratically stringent conditions for the designation of 
Neotypes in Article 75.3, like 75.3.7). Bearing this in mind, I view the 
present situation as one that brings different aspects of the Code into 
conflict with one another; if a lack of regulation leads to instability, 
or alienates the community, which one of these three competing concerns 
really needs to be given the highest priority?

My stance is that the desires of the community trump all other concerns, 
primarily because if the community abandons the Code, it won't matter 
how admirably we defend the principle of neutrality. In partial defense 
of this view, I will also point out that the most recent edition of the 
Code is set apart from the earlier Codes most dramatically by the 
incorporation, at various crucial points, of the principle of 
"prevailing usage" - the rather clear implication being that stability 
cannot be divorced from the community consensus. In essence, everywhere 
in the present Code the phrase "prevailing usage" appears, we have 
ALREADY admitted that the community consensus trumps other concerns (in 
those particular cases). Accordingly, I would maintain that stability is 
the second highest priority. That puts the prohibition against 
"regulation or constraint" as the lowest of these three competing 
priorities. That does not mean that I advocate a complete abandonment of 
neutrality! I am ONLY saying that I perceive that there are 
circumstances where the Code, by prioritizing consensus and stability, 
might NEED to apply some regulations - mostly in the realm of quality 
control. Right now, the LANs are the closest thing we have to achieving 
this objective. I believe we can do better, with the proper development 
of ZooBank. The Code is presently chock full of Recommendations 
(including a Code of Ethics), many of which could easily be "elevated" 
to Article status (not to be applied retrospectively, with few 
exceptions), with little more impact than improving the mandatory level 
of quality control in taxonomy - which is ALREADY embodied in various 
places in the Code, despite its subjective nature. The existing Articles 
of this type are pretty numerous, and all are accepted, with no one 
crying out about how subjective it is to insist (e.g.) that a neotype 
must solve a "complex zoological problem" in order to be validly 
designated (Art. 75.2), and these subjective measures are accepted in 
practice precisely *because* the community accepts the premise that 
quality control helps achieve stability. The Code and the community are 
in accord. Obviously, expanding quality control should not be done 
against the community's will, but I don't expect that there will be very 
much genuine resistance; in fact, I would imagine that such an attempt 
would find considerable support. More to the point, through interfaces 
like the ICZN Wiki and the ICZN-list, we now have the potential to 
interact more directly with the community, to better allow the Code to 
reflect the community's interests - assuming they choose to express them.

To sum up, I believe the Code (and the Commission, including myself) 
must be responsive to the needs of the community, and I believe we are 
better equipped now to BE responsive than we ever have been. Insisting 
upon neutrality *without exceptions* is not responsive, when the 
community is asking for exceptions to be made. But part of that is the 
community needs to make its collective voice more clearly heard. You can 
say what you like about the Kaiser et al. paper, but it is an expression 
of that collective voice, and even if I don't agree with everything in 
it, I'm going to take it seriously.


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)
   "There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
         is the true method" - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 82

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