[Taxacom] taxonomic names databases

Doug Yanega dyanega at ucr.edu
Tue Sep 6 16:56:01 CDT 2016

On 9/6/16 8:21 AM, Nico Franz wrote:
> I think science funding panels, in
> some of which I personally partake on occasion, are a bit drunk on the
> whole notion of "synthesis". More so than synthesis, we need provenance of
> conflicting views, and assessment tools for robustness on inferences given
> these conflicting views. But synthesizing conflict away is short-sided,
> instead we need to embrace it. If "users demand" one tree, well then we can
> argue why that demand is not a sound reflection of our science and
> scientific business plan, and provide other means for users to relevantly
> meet goals.
You may be surprised that some of us have actually been following this 
thread, but I have. The comment above compels me to chime in with what I 
would have hoped was obvious, but perhaps has been overlooked.

I, and others like me, manage a very large physical collection of 
specimens - several million, in my case. That collection *has to be 
organized* in order to retrieve things from it efficiently - so concepts 
like Order, Family, Genus, etc. are not simple abstractions that can be 
ambiguously defined and changed at will; when I have specimens of a 
given taxon X, they can only have a single name on their unit tray 
header label (genus + species), and each unit can only be in one drawer 
(which has a family-rank header on it), and that drawer can only be in 
one cabinet (which has an order header on it). Standardization and 
synthesis help make a system like this *practical*. If different 
institutions use a different order name, or different family name, or 
different genus name, or different species name, for the same taxa as 
occur in other collections, then someone trying to retrieve specimens or 
data from multiple collections - which *is* standard practice - will 
have a great deal more difficulty than if every collection, everywhere, 
was following a single classification. If someone asks to borrow our 
unidentified members of family X, and I'm using a classification system 
where family X is much larger or smaller than the requestor's concept, 
then I may either be wasting time (and risking loss or damage of 
irreplaceable material) by sending many specimens they don't want, or I 
may be failing to send them specimens they DO want. The more conflict we 
embrace, the harder it is to communicate regarding the actual physical 
specimens that underlie all of our taxonomy.

As a corollary, instability of classification also makes it much harder 
to communicate with non-taxonomists, at many levels. If we have to 
preface every single thing we say, or write, when communicating to 
non-taxonomists, with a comment like "Bear in mind that there is no 
consensus as to what names we really should use for the organisms I'm 
about to mention..." then that just makes taxonomists look like complete 
idiots, at a time and in a political climate where anti-science 
sentiment is strong and getting stronger. Nothing makes taxonomy look 
more *irrelevant* than being unable to give a straight answer. If you go 
to a museum or library, or read a field guide, you want clear 
organization, and expect answers, not a lecture in epistemology. If I 
can't answer a simple question regarding a butterfly someone found in 
their yard without expressing that there are three possible species 
names, two possible genus names, and three possible family names, then 
while my response might be a "sound reflection of our science," it won't 
reflect well ON our science, in most people's minds. All a layman is 
going to take away from that experience is "Taxonomists don't know what 
the heck they're talking about," and I can't say I'd blame them.

While it may be true that SOME people don't need a synthesis, this does 
not mean there is NO need for a synthesis.


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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