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Scientists Want To Change Centuries Old Naming System

April 14, 2011

On Friday, scientists will join together at Yale University for a forum that could overturn the three century old method for naming newly discovered nature.

Adventurous scientists who capture previously unknown fish, birds and other creatures, and others who work with fossils and microorganisms, say that they have an increasing problem in assigning accurate names to their subjects.

Evolutionary biologists, naturalists and other thinkers from Yale and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC will join at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center for a symposium titled “Naming Nature: A conversation on the nature, uses and limitations of biological taxonomies.”

The idea at the forum is that it could be time to overturn the widely used naming system developed by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus 275 years ago.

The Linnaean system divides the natural world into neat ranks and gives species joint Latin names like Homo sapiens for humans, with groupings based on physical similarity.

The reformists at the Yale conference say the Linnaean system has had its day.

“The Linnaean system is simply not up to the task of handling the sheer amount of information we’re amassing about diversity,” evolutionary biologist Donoghue said in a statement.

Their idea is to replace the Linnaean system with something known as “PhyloCode.”  Under this system, shared ancestors and Darwinian principles rank life forms.

Donoghue and his colleagues converted the Yale Herbarium’s plant collection from the Linnaean system to PhyloCode.

He said that converting from one system to the other generally does not require a name change, except to correct a name to reflect new knowledge of evolutionary relationships.

“The goal is to apply the same names in ways that make more sense,” Smithsonian zoologists Kevin De Queiroz, who gave the example of the termite as presenting a different outcome under the PhyloCode than the traditional approach, said in a statement.

De Queiroz wrote in a published essay that termites have recently been determined to descend from roaches.

He said that “because roaches and termites were considered mutually exclusive and ranked as orders, it’s been proposed that termites be demoted in rank to a family of roaches” to take into account the new knowledge.

However, he said that to make that simple change, the Linnaean system dictates that “the name of the group of termites be changed (from Isoptera to Termitidae) and the name Termitidae change its reference from a subgroup of termites to the group of all termites — even though the hypothesized composition of both of these groups has remained unchanged.”

“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because now all the former termite families have to be demoted in rank to subfamilies, and all of the former termite sub-families have to be demoted in rank to tribes, etc, and all of these changes in rank necessitate changes in the names of the taxa that they designate.”

“With examples such as this in mind, it’s hard to believe that the rank-based code used in zoology has a stated objective of promoting stability in the scientific name of animals!” De Queiroz wrote.

A single change would be required to reflect the new knowledge of termite evolution by using the PhyloCode.

However, not everyone is a fan of adopting the PhyloCode.

Richard Prum, a Yale evolutionary biologist who reconstructed the red, white and black feathers of a flightless dinosaur, objects the change.

“The PhyloCode doesn’t solve a useful problem,” Prum told AFP.  He is a winner of a MacArthur Fellowship genius grant and teacher of an evolution of beauty seminar with Yale philosopher and art critic Jonathan Gilmore.

“I suggest a name registry, building up a registry of meanings with names,” he said.

James Prosek, a naturalist, cautioned that when small groups of creatures are not recognized for their diversity and given their own names, they lose protections afforded by conservation laws.

“How we name things affects their health and well-being, so we must wield language carefully and thoughtfully,” he said.

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