naming of plants

Nhu Nguyen
Wed, 06 Jan 2016 12:55:19 PST
Travis, you asked a question that requires me to answer as a part-time
taxonomist (of fungi, not plants but it's all the same). The overall idea
is why we give organisms name and why the names keep changing.

I will start with an old Chinese proverb that goes something like this --
"Things cannot be known until they are named"

Whether the thing (in this case, an organism) is named by using Latin
binomials or by alpha numeric codes (think of stars and planets), humans
need a way of thinking about them, and to communicate about them to each
other. It facilitates effective communication, and some would argue that it
is one of the fundamentals of language. Scientists, much like the rest of
the world require names so that they can effectively communicate with each
other, and to the rest of the world.

So why is it that naming organisms and renaming organisms such a
fascination for taxonomists? I have to start by telling you a little bit
about the psychology of taxonomists. For the most part, taxonomists are
people who like their world well-organized. They find fascination in
putting organisms into categories, and bringing new organisms to knowledge
with a new name. Therefore shuffling and reshuffling is give taxonomists a
fundamental drive, but it is based on current knowledge and new data, not
just someone's whims. However, before we get too far and blame taxonomists
for their psychology, we have to talk about science.

It is crucial to know that names are a human construct, our attempt to
categorize the world around us. Sometimes it is effective, other times not
so much. As we attempt to put the gradients of the natural world into
discrete categories, we often failed to see that the world itself is not
discrete. Therefore the appropriate question to ask a taxonomist is not
"what is it" but rather "what do you call it"! Different taxonomists may
call a single organism by different names.

Using machines, we have learned how to decode the very fundamental unit of
life, DNA. That knowledge freed us from the shackles of morphological
categorization that had bounded us for the last 200 year. DNA sequencing
happened over 30 years ago, and you are now seeing the effect of that
change. Taxonomists are more and more bounded by their peers. Years ago,
taxonomists could hide away in a herbarium somewhere and not see another
person, yet publishing names after names while being ignorant of the world.
Internet communication put a big break on such solo action, and as a
community we try to enforce modern standards. Those who publish without
peer reviews and those who do not provide credible evidence for their work
are not well-regarded by their peers, and that trickles down to denial of
grant proposals. Therefore, most of the name changes that you see these
days are not made by one person, but made by a team of people, and often
they undergo peer-reviews by another 2-3 taxonomists elsewhere. Such names
may or may not stick around, but it is the responsibility of a taxonomist
to make sure that the names reflect the latest scientific evidence.

And finally, of all physical scientific fields, taxonomists are placed on
the lowest rung of the ladder. They receive the least funding and their
work get cited the least, and further they sustain backlash from the public
for doing what is appropriate to move into a new era. Sadly most of the
public, and other scientific disciplines do not realize that taxonomy is
the base for their communication. Fancy new techniques and million dollar
machines generate interesting data, but those data must be connected to an
organism, and that organism was named by a taxonomist. Communication across
plant growers here on the PBS and elsewhere relies on names, and those
names were given by taxonomists. Therefore, it is a not only offensive, but
antithetical to taxonomists when the public misjudge their work as ways to
keep getting paid, or as I remember from a BBC gardening program where one
person wrote an essay claiming that taxonomist get to go do their work
(vacation implied) in exotic locations. I would say that to get to explore
new and perhaps exotic lands and continue to contribute knowledge to the
world is a small return for the 12 hour days (and getting paid for only 8),
nights at the microscope, weekends doing unpaid workshops/public outreach,
sacrifice of a social life, being barely treated as being a "scientist",
and always scrounging for the next small grant to continue one's work.

Nhu Nguyen
PBS President and taxonomist among other categories

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