How names work; was RE: Arum

Joe Shaw
Sat, 07 Apr 2007 10:12:01 PDT
You have to keep in mind that there are really two completely different 
things going on here. One is the process of determining the rank of the 
entities in question - i.e. answering the questions "is it a species?" "is 
it a subspecies? "is it something else?". One appeals to science to answer 
this question.

Hi Gang,

I am a cafeteria taxonomiy user; I just choose the items I like and ignore 
other items.  In such non-true-believer spirit I will make a comment about 
Jim M's sensible advice.

One does appeal to science to determine rank.  However, there are other 
criteria that have to do with expertise, understanding of the oranisms in 
"the wild," and even force of personality.  The point is that science helps, 
but rank (species or subpecies, etc.) is sometimes not illuminated by 
science.  In such cases, other criteria are employed that may not be firmly 
reproducible or testable.

In some ways the problem is a manifestation of "what is a species," a 
question that has occupied biology for a long time.  Many "know a species 
when they see one," but are unable to articulate a universial definition, 
and so on for a subspecies.

My favorite writing on the subject comes from Charles Darwin, who stayed 
away from defining a species.  He understood that species exist but he could 
offer not clear definition that fit all situations.  Science does not now 
how different two organisms must be in order to belong to different species, 
much less different subspecies.  But, science is clearly a good starting 
point and a place that can often provide answers--just not answers for all 

As special, brilliant, and useful as the ICBN is, it offers no way to know 
if definitions of a species are correct or not.  The ICBN does not police 
biological validity.  Rather, the ICBN provides a clear path for determining 
if names are correctly created and applied.

Lastly, I would point out that "rank" is a human concept.  Biology and 
nature operate on levels that do not include genera or families, etc.  Rank 
works pretty well as a tool to understand diversity, but Nature (being 
indifferent to our desire to classify) went about her business before ranks 
were created by humans, and before science was created by humans.

So, coming back to names, I conclude that names work pretty much as Jim M. 
described.  Nonetheless, there is a very real distinction between knowing a 
name for a subspecies, and whether or not such subspecies is "real."


Conroe TX
Hippeastrum hybrids coming into full bloom in the yard. 

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