Don't change your labels - was New mystery bulb

Leo A. Martin
Thu, 07 Jul 2005 22:53:27 PDT
First point

If a name for a species was properly published at one time then that is 
a valid name for that species. Perhaps in the future after more study 
somebody may argue that there is a more proper name for the species. 
They may publish this proposed name, and if other people concur with the 
explanation for the new name (for the most part, other professional 
botanists are the only ones who matter here) people begin using the new 
name. But the previous name was properly given and may be used. 
Professional botanists working with a given portion of the plant kingdom 
are expected to understand the taxonomic history of their area of 
expertise. We hobbyists aren't.

Second point

Very little material in possession of us hobbyists is of value to 
professional botanists. We can't prove where it actually originated most 
of the time.

If we can, we seldom take proper precautions for controlled pollination. 
Besides, the natural pollinator doesn't have a whole population to 
choose from, just our few plants, even if the pollinator occurs in our 
gardens or greenhouses, and unless the pollinator is native to our local 
area its behavior can't be assumed to be the same as it would be in the 

Wild populations are what matter, not plants bred in captivity even if 
the original source material came from the wild. So don't think our 
efforts at cultivating species have any contribution to species 
preservation or taxonomy. For taxonomy and ecology, especially for 
species preservation, what counts is populations in the wild and habitat 

Third point

We are hobbyists, not professional botanists. We aren't expected to keep 
up with name changes. Don't change your labels if they bear a properly 
given name and if you are sure your plant is actually what is on the 
label. Professional botanists are expected to know the taxonomic history 
of plants in their field of expertise. Leave the cutting edge to them. 
We don't have anything to contribute to taxonomy unless we are able to 
provide accurate observations on wild material (which usually will 
entail making proper herbarium specimens from wild material, not from 
our gardens.)

Fourth point

Recall that in the days of Linnaeus, it was believed by scientists that 
each species was created by God in the form in which it was encountered 
at the time, and that species did not change over time. A motivation for 
natural historians of the day in exploring terra incognita was the 
Biblical command to name every creature and plant upon the earth. It was 
thought there was a finite number of species of organisms on the Earth, 
some of which were extinct and represented only by fossils, and it was 
the duty of science to enumerate them all. The Linnean name can be 
thought of as a label to put on a file drawer in a super-museum 
containing a specimen each of all species of organism on the Earth. The 
concept of species was God-given and we were to figure it out.

After Darwin and Wallace presented their results things became different.

Nowadays evolutionary biologists and taxonomists are trying to show, 
with the Linnean binomial, evolutionary relationships between organisms.
"Species" and "genus" and "family" are now the judgment call of a 
professional botanist or working group of botanists who (it is hoped) 
understand(s) the full range of variation of the natural population, not 
just the population existing dead and pressed in herbaria. In addition, 
we have lots more new problems:

- What constitutes a species? Should the difference considered large 
enough between populations, to warrant cosideration that the populations 
constitute different species, be the same for all organisms on earth, or 
should this difference be allowed to vary from genus to genus (or 
kingdom, class, order...?) Does it take 1000 base pairs' difference to 
be a new species? 500? On which chromosome? Which intron? Should we use 
DNA coding for proteins? Ribosomes? Transcriptional regulatory DNA? 
Homeobox DNA? Who decides? What about post-translational peptide processing?

- There are so many species on the earth, and so few people expert in 
any one area. So the decisions of only a few people, who don't really 
understand their field all that well - because the problem is so huge 
and they are so few - (ars longa, vida brevis etc) is accepted 
provisionally, with the understanding that in the future, with further 
study, if the organisms aren't extinct by then, we might have a fuller 

- DNA work is in its infancy. Many huge decisions are being based on 
tiny numbers of DNA base pairs chosen because they are easy to isolate, 
not because they are representative of the organism. The people 
proposing these taxonomic changes based on DNA have far too little data, 
in my opinion, to be proposing sweeping changes. Some have expressed the 
idea that those making big changes now are hoping they guess right so 
their names are the ones that go down in history. I heard this from one 
of the people proposing big changes in one particular plant family based 
on three introns (DNA sequences whose function is unknown) of less than 
5000 base pairs chosen one intron each from nuclear, chloroplast, and 
mitochondrial chromomes. And these three specific introns were chosen 
only because they were the easiest ones to isolate in the lab.

Speaking as a biologist who specializes in the biology of Homo sapiens, 
and who reads medical journals, the amount of DNA sequenced in the plant 
kingdom to propose big taxonomic changes is much smaller than the amount 
regularly sequenced by researchers in medicine trying to figure out 
genetic diseases in a single small kindred of humans. So while I 
anticipate DNA sequencing will be useful for taxonomic purposes as we 
learn more and more, I don't share the absolute certainty botanists 
working with it seem to have regarding their current conclusions.

Fifth point

The Linnean binomial was intended to bear one kind of information: it 
was to be the label on the curio cabinet drawer in the natural history 
museum for one easily-identifiable species.

Mathematicians who study information storage (databases) will tell us 
that, for each type of data in a database, only one kind of information 
can be borne by each datum (this is the singular of the plural noun 
data.) In a smaller database it doesn't much matter if your serial 
number is composed to reflect not only a unique identifier, but also 
something else about your data. (Some people, in their home plant 
database, might assign numbers 0-10000 for bulbs, 10001-20000 for cacti, 
20001-30000 for ferns, etc.) But for very large databases, this leads to 
serious problems. Each datum can bear only one kind of information.

The current Linnean binomial is expected to signify many different 
things: it must be a unique identifier of a species; it also must 
reflect the evolutionary descent of that species; it must signify the 
intent of the botanist who proposed it; and others.

So, database theory would tell us our current Linnean nomenclature is 
impossible to use precisely. In other words, our method of naming 
organisms can't work.

This has been recognized by taxonomists. They are busy trying to figure 
out what to do next. After all, once everything is settled and agreed, 
there will be no need for new publications and nobody will attain tenure 
any more.

Last point

Note carefully: I am not criticizing botanists. I am pointing out that 
biology is an unimaginably huge field of research and we as humans are 
still just making tiny scratches on the surface. There may or may not be 
someday a final understanding of the evolutionary relationships between 
all organisms on earth. This may or may not be beyond our understanding. 
In the mean time we have to use some system of shared understanding.


As for us hobbyists, there is no point in changing labels at every whim. 
At least for now, a species is still whatever a competent biologist 
working in that field said/says it is.

 From this you can gather I think it would be an enormously bad idea to 
keep changing the Wiki to reflect whatever was last published. For one, 
it is impossible to do without subscribing to every publication in every 
language in the world; for another, who has the time? You would do us a 
better service by spending more time with your own plants and learning 
how to grow them better, and telling us. And lastly, the changes are all 
temporary, anyhow, until more is known and more changes proposed. So 
long as it is quite easy to tell apart at a glance Galaxia, Homeria, 
Gynandriris, Moraea, Leucojum, Acis, Polyxena, Lachenalia, Albuca, and 
Ornithogalum, leave them separate on the Wiki, perhaps with a comment as 
to what the current name might (or might not) be.

In the animal kingdom the name of the first zoologist to name the 
species is always listed after the Linnean binomial, outside the 
parentheses, and the latest name changer is listed inside the 
parentheses. This is the reverse of the plant kingdom: the first namer 
is listed in the parentheses and the latest name changeer gets her/his 
name listed after the binomial in type big enough for her/his department 
chair to see. Some have observed there are far fewer name changes of 
animal species than plant species. Cause and effect, or chance occurrence?

Leo Martin
Phoenix Arizona USA

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