Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Annie Davidson sent our tiny aging, nostalgic, and usually goofy Zoo group (we have known each other since, what, 1970?) a provocative essay contra the Linnaean binomial system. I think she was poking a stick in an anthill, but I am afraid it pushed a few buttons! I was provoked to editorialize...

"The author's criticisms are valid, her conclusion unjustified. Linnaean terminology is bad but everything else is WAAY worse. I espouse and defend, here and elsewhere, a small c conservatism-- what works (and with many patches it has & does); rules known, universally accepted against chaos and a million competing schemes & memes. Think how losing the Latin Mass for idealistic reasons shattered the Catholic church-- I was there-- but she argues for tearing down a system that, I'm sorry, represents something even more universal.

"She is a bit historically uninformed, and naive besides. For the first, she states (always beware any use of 'obviously'!): "What is obviously needed is a naming system where the name, once assigned, does not change, even when scientific understanding of the organism's relationships changes. We would not have to worry whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.' But no SPECIFIC name can change without reassignment to another species-- only generic. Nomenclatural priority. It even allows stupidity-- Buteo jamaicensis for the redtail because it was first collected there, Canis niger, "BLACK dog or canid", for the red wolf, now an endangered "taxon" because it may be a natural hybrid but still nominally black... one stable name. WE ALREADY HAVE THIS, bound about by formal rules. She goes on: 'The irony is that there already is an informal system with that property. It is the much-maligned common name. The objection to a common name like "strawberry geranium" is that the plant is neither a strawberry nor a geranium. Why is that a problem? French toast is neither French nor toast, but the world survives.'

"Because who cares about toast, as long as you get it? Every language has many common names but there is only one formal name and even Russians (ie, those with a Cyrillic alphabet) and Chinese acknowledge it.

"The only schemes seriously offered to challenge Linnaeus are cladistic and 'correct' but are not NAMING systems which I expect are hardwired in our brains evolutionarily-- "Rational monsters" that would take a PhD to explain. I have heard it seriously offered that an organism's proper-- what, term?-- is a printout of a tree of however many pages showing its descent. I would find this an excellent adjunct of great interest- but what do you CALL it?? 'Cladistic tree # 545,353'? Instead, we are naming animals, doing what the late Vicki Hearne metaphorically called "Adam's task", calling the animals by name to know something about what they are, to be able to talk about them- inadequate but a start. To name is not to know but is there any knowing without naming in a speaking species?

"Systems like the author's, using pop names, are worse-- breathtakingly ignorant of history-- one popular book in favor, understanding the nature of whales, wants to "popularly" reclassify them as FISH. NO, NO, NO, NO! NO!

"Last thought: high in the Kazakh Tian Shan nearly a decade ago, a friendship formed when ornithologist Andrey Kovalenko, whose English is as awkward as my Russian, lifted his eyes above the peaks and breathed "Gypaetus barbatus!" I knew to look to the sky because I knew he wasn't seeing a snowcock on the ground, an accentor in the bush-- he was looking above the skyline to show me my first Lammergeier."


therese said...

I couldn't read her entire post without getting frustrated, although she does have some valid points, especially in regards to the "what is a genus" questions. Hopefully making a group of genera subgenera in a new genus was done to match norms in the group, but there is nothing requiring this. The code does not regulate taxonomic decisions, just prescribes rules for naming. Decisions are left to the taxonomist and the norms in the group which vary substantially. At a PEET (taxonomy of neglected groups) meeting a few years ago and the bacteria people kept reminding the animal people that if they were naming primates the entire order would be a single genus! The rules outlined in the code are so basic that anyone can describe a species and create an available name. I like telling my students they can write an awful description of a dog (the new species has 4 legs, many teeth, and different from similar species because it has brown fur), designate a type specimen (the type of this species is deposited in my personal collection), give it a name, and submit it to the campus newspaper with an article title "new species of dog" and satisfy the requirements. The fact it's already described, was published in a campus newspaper, that the description itself is awful (and wrong) don't matter.

For examples of truly awful species descriptions check out the work of A.A. Girault (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandre_Ars%C3%A8ne_Girault). If you can find copies of some of his species descriptions, especially towards the end of his life, they are a real "treat". Many are a sentence long, and intermixed with poetry, political rants, and other randomness. He actually was institutionalized towards the end of his life but continued describing species in papers he had published privately. While the wiki article says his types are in great shape, the people I know who work on them have run into problems because he didn't sometimes mounted many different species on a single slide and it's not always possible to figure out what species matches which piece…

I'm not sure what you mean in paragraph 3 though. Species names change when things are synonymized. True both names are still there, and if the "new" taxon is split again the old names come back into play (maybe). Usually, but not always, priority determines which is used, but names, works, or even an author's entire body of work can be suppressed. There are also instances when the species name changes when the genus name changes. For example the genus I revised for my MS was identified as a gender ending neuter word. Most of the species were formerly placed in a feminine gender ending word. So I had to change all the species names to reflect this change in gender. Also, in regards to what you would call tree 545,353 we say something along the lines of the largest monophyletic clade containing sample x but excluding sample y.

To be fair there are some major problems with the code. One of the biggest ones that is related to this issue of names/stability is the animal code only regulates species, genus, and family group names. So anything higher than superfamily isn't covered. It's a problem in insects because some workers recognize different ordinal names. I must admit I'm not big into naming species. The vast majority of OTUs on my tree are identified as [country collected in] [extraction number]. Does Argentina 7 mean much? Depends on what your question is. For my work its actually more useful than using the names which often don't reflect monophyletic groups. Someone will have to sort it all out and give these things names that reflect reality, but if I was to deal with that I'd spend the next 30 years dealing with that and never actually get to the interesting parts.

Your last section is exactly why the binomial system is useful, as anyone who has spent any time talking biology cross langauages knows!

Steve Bodio said...

Thanks Therese- I might have known you might bring in a professional's insights. I just went off the top of my head!

Flying anything?

Retrieverman said...

Canis niger is the name given to the wolf of Florida, which was almost always black. There is very little evidence that it was the same thing as the creature we call a red wolf now.

Canis niger isn't used for the red wolf anymore. When it's considered a unique species, it's Canis rufus, which makes them not black anymore.

I have no idea what to call it now in light of the genomic studies on them. It really is more or less a Canis latrans subspecies. If we consider the coyotes of northeast to be coyotes, then we almost have to classify the red wolf as a subspecies of coyote, which, just like the northeastern coyote, has a bit of wolf in it.

Steve Bodio said...

Thanks for the update, Scottie. The fluidity of species is a given today but ill- understood by the public-- Annie, who sent me the provocative original essay, likened it to a hangover from a past where species were "created', fixed & eternal.

Wild and tame canids-- dogs & wolves, old world wolves that are of separate lineage (Indian); New world- evolved coyotes and extinct dire wolves and whatever red wolves are; the eastern coyote, all evolving and crossing (or not) and traveling and adapting to humans-- where are the lines and lineages?

Of course there are the Simien wolves in Ethiopia, and some golden jackals as African wolves... will be eager to read the new Kingdon opus on that...

I will only add that many big falcons present some of the same problems. What is a species? How shall we make the boundaries, and how shall we best name them? John Wilson has sent me a paper that may be relevant when I have digested it...

therese said...

Nope had a run of bad luck early in the season and had no luck trapping a prairie (to be fair I only spent 3 days on that quest). Since I'll be gone for a couple months this spring I just decided to hold off until I get back and then go in for the peregrine draw again.

What is a species? With 20+ species concepts that's the million dollar question (to some people). Actually one of the systematics discussion groups I participate in regularly wastes our entire meeting on this question. As I said I'm pretty much at the point where I don't even care anymore what a species is or what we should call something, it's all artificially constructed anyway. That said one of my life long goals is to be a Commissioner on the ICZN

Matt Miller said...

Interesting post. I assume the popular book you mention--"a whale is a fish"--is Naming Nature. That conclusion by the author seemed to come out of nowhere. But I do think her central idea--that people who interact closely with nature often create their own taxonomies, regardless of the science--has merit.

This is certainly true for the old hunters and trappers--as can be seen by reading their journals and accounts. Many old woodsmen list different "species" of deer, bear, raccoon, duck, etc that have no basis in scientific reality. In fact, one realizes by reading such journals that just spending time outdoors does not make one a scientific authority.

(On the other hand, whalers apparently realized a whale was NOT a fish before scientists. See D. Graham Burnett's Trying Leviathan for an account of a trial that sought to decide this question).

This remains true to this day. Birders and big game record book collectors can both obsess over somewhat arbitrary classifications. The lunatic fringe of both these groups can make species/subspecies classification seem absurd.

I agree with your take completely, but I do think there is a place for folk taxonomies and forms of classification beyond science.

And sometimes the "folk taxonomies" do reveal facts not yet evident to science. Growing up in central Pennsylvania, I often heard hunters refer to "mountain rabbits" as a separate animal. This was "common knowledge" among small game hunters.

Recently, genetic studies revealed these "mountain bunnies" were actually a separate species (Appalachian cottontails), and are now so recognized by the American Society of Mammalogists.

It is human to characterize, and the Linnaen system works best for science, but I suspect as long as people interact with creatures, they will devise other ways of categorizing as well.

Retrieverman said...

Whatever Canis lupus is, it's now being treated as as species complex that includes Canis latrans and maybe also Canis aureus.

I think we it's now settled that dogs are part of the Holarctic lineages of Canis lupus and that dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs are part of the dog lineage, but the line between wolves and coyotes in North America and wolves and golden jackals in much of Africa is very muddled.