Future-Proofing Biological Nomenclature


TO MOST BIOLOGISTS, it seems inconceivable that the simple act of naming a biological entity has any more significance than identifying a personal achievement or staking a claim to a territory of research interest, akin to carving one’s initials into the tree of life. However, this simple act has potentially far-reaching and long-lived consequences. Names, especially those ascribed to organisms, serve as a primary entry point into the scientific, medical, and technical literature and figure prominently in countless laws and regulations governing various aspects of commerce, public safety and public health. These names also serve as a primary entry point into many of the central databases that the scientific community and the general public now rely upon. Even well-formed and properly applied names can serve as a source of confusion and considerable frustration. This is hardly a new problem. In the mid 18th century, Carl von Linné proposed the use of latinized binomial names and a hierarchical classification scheme as an alternative to trivial and colloquial names, which were a constant source of confusion among his contemporaries (Linné, 1735). The Linnaean system of nomenclature was widely accepted and has subsequently been codified into four separate legalistic frameworks (the codes of botanical [Greuter, 2000], zoological [Ride, 1985], prokaryotic [Sneath, 1992], and viral nomenclature [Buchen-Osmond, 2002]), describing the rules for forming and ascribing names to species and higher taxa, circumscription and emendation, priority and citation, synonymy and more recently homonymy, correction of orthographic errors and adjudication of disputes in nomenclature. Chief among the stated objectives of these codes is stability and order in the nomenclature of the taxa covered by each. Achieving this goal, however, remains elusive. There are a variety of reasons. Relatively few contemporary biologists are actively engaged in systematic studies and have reason to formally propose names for new biological entities. Rather, they are end-users of the classifications and nomenclature produced by a small group of specialists. Most biologists fail to recognize that taxonomic proposals are expert opinions, arising from comparative studies of small numbers of species that may or may not be representative of larger natural groups and that the opinions rendered by these experts are subject to acceptance or rejection by the larger community of biologists. They also fail to recognize that the Codes of Nomenclature do not govern the process of biological classification or identification, only the formation and assignment of names to proposed taxa. Legitimate and valid names may be ascribed to poorly formed taxa and illegitimate and invalid names may be assigned to well formed taxa. The name ascribed to a given group is fixed in both time and scope and may or may not be revised when new information is available. When taxonomic revisions do occur, resulting in the division or joining of previously described taxa, authors frequently fail to address synonymies or formally emend the descriptions of higher taxa that are affected. Whereas the different codes of nomenclature guarantee persistence of a formal name, the serial, cumulative nature of effective and valid publication allows the name to obsolesce in relation to the taxon it originally denoted. In contrast, it is the taxon itself that persists, and the granularity with which it is defined increases over time. The formal name provides an archival record of taxonomic definition only for a single point in time—the date of publication. A robust and persistent taxonomy requires taxonomic definition to

DOI: 10.1089/153623103322006562

Cite this paper

@article{Garrity2003FutureProofingBN, title={Future-Proofing Biological Nomenclature}, author={George M. Garrity and Catherine Lyons}, journal={Omics : a journal of integrative biology}, year={2003}, volume={7 1}, pages={31-3} }