Shingleback from South Australia. Photo from Wikipedia.
Among the many things I do with taxonomy and systematics is I am a regular follower of a couple of List-Servers that cater to this field. One of those Taxacom has been around for quite some time. I try to be a bit of a back ground viewer and only get involved on occasion. However I do read all the posts. A post was put up the other day entitled “Why defend the code” now that I had to say something about. Some may worry that maybe I should not talk about some of the downsides, but I do so in the hope of bring understanding. I want people to take an interest in the Code, I want people to defend and teach the Code. As this piece is largely a commentary it will have fewer references, so please consider this one an opinion piece, it stems from a discussion I commented on in Taxacom.
But this begs the question, why should we defend this system of nomenclature that we have been using in one way or another since 1756. The Code now in its 4th edition with a 5th in preparation is old, maybe it’s not keeping up to date with the times. Maybe it is being stressed by the speed of advancement in publishing methods, the speed at which new technologies are developing. It was designed in another world. So why should we bother. That is the question today.
One of the reasons is the sheer workload; a 2011 census estimated that there were approximately 7.7 million species of eukaryotes of which a little under 1 million were described with 10000 species added every year. Looking at our area of interest here there are some 10200 odd species of described reptiles in the world. That’s a lot of work and increasing our workload by dumping the system that named what has been done and replacing it with something else seems to be a step backwards. It is clearly going to take many more years of work to describe the rest of these species, and of course I am only talking about eukaryotes here.
Another factor here is that taxonomy and nomenclature are very specific fields, which to be honest most people do not take that much of a thrill from. Your ecologist, manager or medical researcher just wants to know what to call it, they do not care why. This may sound a little callous, and to be fair it’s not true of everyone, but what they are saying is they need this nomenclatural system to be stable. Then they can officially use a name for species X and get on with their science. That is not entirely an unfair point of view from their perspective.
This leads to one of the foundation reasons for the existence of our nomenclatural system in the first place. I have mentioned it before, it’s communication. Common names and scientific names. I grew up knowing a lizard that I called the shingleback, in NSW of Australia that’s what we called them. However I have since learned that they can be called stumpy tails, bobtails depending on where you are from, but they are all Tiliqua rugosa. The common name does not matter in the end, that scientific name is where we can connect all the short-falls of our very fallible language differences over distance. Or worse across language. For example the “Argentinian Snake Neck Turtle” also known as the “Cágado pescoço de cobra” are both names in different languages for the chelid turtle Hydromedusa tectifera. This is the foundation of why we use the system of nomenclature that we do.
Hydromedusa tectifera. Photo from Wikipedia.
So the point was made, why defend the code? Does it need defending? Well yes it does. I find it quite interesting that this document called the Code has been followed for so long. I can think of very few sets of rules that have stood for so long with no requirement to follow them. Yes that is true we follow the ICZN Code voluntarily. There is no law requiring it, no rules that state we must name animals this way, we just do it. The reason for that is it is convenient, it is helpful and by and large it is reasonable. It also provides a stable pillar of how to do this where everyone can be on the same page. The Code is not perfect, it has issues of language that need to be addressed, it needs to be updated for modern technology but by and large it works well. So if it makes so much sense and everyone is mostly happy with it what is the problem?
I have alluded to one of the problems in a previous post where I said that the Code was written under the premise that almost all scientists, almost instinctively, carry out their work according to a set of ethics. They follow a method that other scientists can accept in terms of things such as plagiarism, acceptable levels of evidence and methods (for the time) and in general to treat each other well and not use science as an opportunity to get on a soapbox. The Code instilled these ideals into their appendix on ethics and as such they are not rules within the code, just suggestions, for want of a better word.
Now we have a dilemma, not all people are using the code ethically. Not all are following the principals behind the code and this causes major issues. One of the issues it causes is a considerable amount of tension between individuals. This should not occur but unfortunately it looks bad when people see it. This is not something new, it has happened many times over the years. However, with the modern world and online discussions, twitter, Facebook and e-mail this news gets spread far and wide and quickly. It brings disrepute to the parties involved. Unfortunately it is the case that for some of those involved this disrepute has little effect on, whereas other it will do. We end up with dual nomenclatures, dual taxonomies; i.e. the same species having more than one name or more than one concept. This breaks down the stability this system has had over many years. There are also many insults and libelous claims made, but on International forums these are hard to do anything about. From the outside looking into this world of infighting inside nomenclature it looks petty. It makes people wonder if maybe there is another, maybe better way. So the Code is under attack, from within and from the outside. This system of nomenclature must be defended and there are a number of ways to accomplish this.
People have been in recent years suggesting alternatives to the ICZN code, perhaps the best known is PhyloCode. To be fair to the proponents of PhyloCode they have not taken advantage of the recent issues in ICZN nomenclature they developed their ideas for other reasons. So a difficulty for the ICZN Nomenclatural system is that alternatives have been put on the table. We cannot ignore that and hope the problem will go away.
One of the most important things that can be done for Nomenclature is to teach it. The numbers of professionally trained taxonomists in the world is declining and has been for some time. These taxonomists are also an aging group, which means we are not being replaced. So to the Universities of the world you need to stop saying we need more taxonomists and actually train them. This of course means we need money in those Universities earmarked for the training of taxonomists. Now by taxonomy I mean a lot more than gel jockies. Sorry for the shot at the molecular systematists. The reality though is that we need morphologists too, particularly since we are now using fossils to calibrate molecular trees. Well you cannot do that without morphology. As an integral part of teaching that taxonomy we must teach nomenclature. One of the sad things with nomenclature is that those who are taking advantage of the Code and bringing it into disrepute, in some ways know more about the code than the professionals who try to abide by it.
The next thing we need to do is decide that there is a line that will not be crossed. That may need some tightening in the next version of the Code to make possible, but horrifically unethical behavior is not tolerated anywhere and should not be in taxonomy either. People know what I mean by that, there are lines you do not cross in society with your behavior without consequences it should be the same here. We cannot have material effectively shoved down our throats no matter how it’s presented. Some people have suggested various forms of online voting and analysis by other taxonomists to determine if a name is acceptable. However that is done seems like a good step forward.
The next thing that needs to be done I believe, is the ICZN needs to be visible. They need to be seen by all the different groups. This would probably mean that they need to ensure their membership includes people from a wider range of taxonomic groups. That is just pure politics; people will be more supportive if they see who they are supporting.
Lastly of course, new version of the Code, it’s time for an update, but I will say here they are working on this.
Now I hope that people do not perceive this as a doom and gloom on the ICZN or the Code. It is not. The Code has stood for a long time and we all now need to stand by it. I believe the ICZN and the Code can get through the spate of issues that have come up in recent years. My major plea in all this is to the Universities, teach taxonomy and teach nomenclature and teach them well.