Monday, October 04, 2004

Ever wonder what happened to that nerdy kid?

Remember the nerdy kid in grade 5? You know, the strange kid that had strange sandwiches at lunch and was perefctly happy with the same compass and protractor, year after year? C'mon, you remember, the kid that absolutely no one- no one-- had any idea what he was talking about?

I think he did pretty good for himself. He's getting letters published in "New Scientist."

Renaming means chaos

Bob Holmes reports on proposals to replace our standard Linnaean system of classifying animals and plants with a new system called the PhyloCode (11 September, p 12). Advocates of this revolution - for that is what it is - claim names will be more stable, more precise in their meaning, and that the proposed abolition of ranks (genera, families, etc) will be helpful. They base their reasons for change on the charge that Linnaean taxonomy (founded well before evolutionary theory) is incapable of absorbing our changing ideas of genealogy.

Unfortunately, their proposals will probably lead to chaos. The PhyloCode small print reveals that a name may be formulated in one of several ways. Any user, such as a field biologist seeking to document our ever-decreasing biota, will have to know in what way.

Placing an organism into a PhyloCode system will require us to know its genealogical relationships, since this is how the names are formulated. Do we have time for this?

Also, names we now use can be commandeered to the PhyloCode, meaning that two systems will exist in parallel and sometimes in a hybridised form, so the same name could mean very different things. Finally, the idea that we drop the genus rank, and hence the binomial system (whereby every species has two parts to its name), would be universally disruptive and undermine the foundations of our current codes of nomenclature.

No one claims the current system is perfect. But it is flexible to the point of being usable by many, not just the few.

Peter Forey
Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum
London, UK

Obviously, he's doing well. Though I still don't know what the hell he's talking about.

Wandering Mind

may not be suitable for political vegans