Taxonomy wars, ersatz and echt

Most bloggers know that it is hard to write interesting entries (curse PZ Mnhyrs!), but just occasionally, one writes itself.

In one day we get three items about taxonomy: one about real taxonomic disagreement, over whether whales are more closely related to hippos (the whippo hypothesis) than either are to other groups; one about a self-publishing snake [oil] researcher who is meeting the criteria of the ICZN for published species names, although his work is highly suspect, and one on how the UK government has banned Councils from using a bunch of obfuscatory terms, including "systematics" and "taxonomy".

The first item is based on a letter to Nature, arguing that a previous analysis was mistaken in interposing a now-extinct group, Raoellidae, between whales and hippos, and that in fact their aquatic adaptations were inherited from a common ancestor not shared with pigs and peccaries and the Raoellidae. The authors reply here. Unfortunately I'm not at work so I can't get access, but if you are interested read the summary.

The second issue is about Raymond Hoser, who self-publishes his own, shall we say, unique taxonomies of Australian pythons. The problem is that his self-published works, which are not peer reviewed, qualify under the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature as published sources. Moreover, many of the classics in the systematics field were self-published prior to the second world war, so merely saying that the nomenclature needs to be published in a peer reviewed journal would cause a major upset.

The third issue is something that has become clear to me from having a Google Alert on "taxonomy or systematics" - these terms have been taken over by IT to mean something like "terms used to group documents and records". But if a Council (local government body) needed to talk about real taxonomy or systematics, perhaps by supporting a local museum, surely that would be OK?

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Couldn't the Commission put in a requirement for peer-reviewed journals, but with a grandfather clause: something like "publications, AFTER DATE N, must be in peer-reviewed publications"? Any date you choose, if it's late enough to allow the good stuff done before the present institutional framework was in place, will let some "Hosers" in, but it could at least prevent new ones from arising.
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Do you know about the Edward Wette problem? Sort of "the Raymond Hoser of mathematical logic." The Association for Symbolic Logic has long had the policy that any dues-paying member of can present a paper at an ASL conference (conference organizers have the option of letting some papers by "presented by title": mentioned in the program and if the presenter is wearing his nametag you can ask for a copy), with an abstract published, without refereeing, in one of the Association's otherwise peer-reviewed (& prestigious!) journals. Edward Wette paid his dues...

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 19 Mar 2009 #permalink

I'm a IT professional working for taxonomists, and one of the difficult things is that our fields overlap so much that many of the names we use are overloaded.

Programming involves creating symbols to mean things (more so than does the work of - say - a welder), and that's exactly what a taxonomist does.

'Type', for instance, means something entirely different to a programmer and a taxonomist. Took me a couple of weeks to work out that the taxonomists meant it in the sense of "typical", whereas I mean it in the sense of "prototype".

Fun times.

See
http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/abrs/online-resources/fauna/…
for the end result.

Paul, Let me run through a little example which will, hopefully, clarify the concept of type as used in zoology.

I discover an undescribed species of fish. In the description I designate a single individual as the HOLOTYPE. This individual is deposited in a museum, and is the name bearer for the species name. That name, right or wrong, will always include that one specimen. I also include data from various other individuals in the description. These other individuals are PARATYPES. They are distributed to museums around the world and are the best representatives of the species next to the holotype. Say someone, 20 years later, collects the species at the TYPE LOCALITY. These individuals are TOPOTYPES. Paratypes from the type locality are actually PARATOPOTYPES. There are some other valid kinds of types, but this gives you the general idea.

If I describe a new genus, I designate a TYPE SPECIES, which will always be included in that genus. If I describe a new family, I designate a TYPE GENUS. There are no types for categories higher than family.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 23 Mar 2009 #permalink