Linnaeus's Big Mistake

I don't know who said it first, but an often-repeated warning goes like this:

Be careful what you wish for -- you just might get it.

It applies with striking poignancy to biological nomenclature and the assertion of biologists that it is their realm in which they make the rules.

It began with what I call Linnaeus's Big Mistake, the concept that what you call an organism is determined by what you think it is, specifically by what other organisms you believe to be its closest relatives.  It sure seemed like a great idea at the time, and was an improvement on anything that came before.  It was far from obvious what a tangled and disagreeable thicket it was going to lead us into.

Encouraged by their success in giving names to things, biologists, needing precise descriptive terms for other elements of anatomy, co-opted vernacular words and gave them new meanings.  Words like flower, fruit, berry, and root were defined in ways which excluded (respectively) daisies, pineapples, strawberries, and potatoes.  Botanists declared themselves perplexed by people could not grasp that blackberries weren't really berries while tomatoes were.  Apparently it was too late to profit by the example of invented names like carpel, cyme, and anther, which did not collide with existing meanings.  [It should be noted that botanists aren't the only ones falling into this trap.  Zoologists are busy trying to redefine words they don't own, like spider and fish.]

An omen of things to come was provided by one of Linnaeus's own names, Geranium, which entered the vernacular only to drift into unpleasantness when most plants cultivated under that name were reclassified under a different name, following the rules of botanical nomenclature.  In fact, more than a century later, the tide of battle is still against the botanical taxonomists -- most such plants are still sold, circulated, and described to others using the name geranium.  The people who know what a geranium is outnumber the people who know what a pelargonium is by more than 100 to 1 (a statistic I just made up, but still...).

It would have been hard for anyone, even Linnaeus, to foresee what difficulties biologists were making for themselves by trying to impose their naming system upon the general public.  The greatest difficulty would have been realizing that their very system (what you call it depends on what you think it's related to) guaranteed that names would change.  The people upon whom these name changes would be forced, without any say in the matter, might not, to put it mildly, take kindly to them, especially when there was an economic cost to the change.

The situation is starkest in the family Cactaceae, where the number of people affected by name changes is far greater than the number of people making them.  Linnaeus could not have anticipated the effort and expense that (for instance) submerging Notocactus in Parodia would impose upon vendors and growers who didn't get a voice in it.  Thus it is hardly surprising that taxonomic decisions in the cactus family are widely ignored.  Most cactus vendors continue to offer plants and seeds of Notocactus, Trichocereus, Lobivia, Sulcorebutia, and Weingartia, even though those genera have officially disappeared -- at least until the next reclassification.

The case of Hatiora and Rhipsalidopsis is a good example of the side effects of taxonomy. These two genera were combined under the name Hatiora (the older name), but the two former genera were retained as subsections of the new genus.  Thus the reorganization (and the enforced name changes for the two species of Rhipsalidopsis) was purely a consequence of somebody's philosophical concept of "genus".  Neither Hatiora (in the old sense) nor Rhipsalidopsis were declared non-monophyletic.  The data didn't force the change; somebody's view of the data did.

It wouldn't have mattered, were it not for the link between taxonomy and nomenclature.

Another consequence of Linnaeus's Big Mistake: wastebasket genera.  This is the snarky term applied by taxonomists with 20-20 hindsight to the genera populated by taxonomists of yore who did not have the advantage of our current knowledge.  A 1920s botanist who wanted to describe a new species was compelled by the Linnaean system to find a genus to accommodate it.  The botanist couldn't just write, "This is either a neowatzis or a pseudopestia, or possibly a hysteriosa." Gotta make a decision, gotta find a genus for it, and neowatzis already contains a lot of plants with many of the same traits, so the new species gets published as Neowatzis detritus for later generations of taxonomists to take cheap shots at.  In trying to find a place for an inconvenient gesneriad taxon, one botanist used the phrase: "for want of a better place".  This wasn't any old person either, just the most eminent gesneriad botanist so far.

What is obviously needed is a naming system where the name, once assigned, does not change, even when scientific understanding of the organism's relationships changes.  We would not have to worry whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

The irony is that there already is an informal system with that property.  It is the much-maligned common name.  The objection to a common name like "strawberry geranium" is that the plant is neither a strawberry nor a geranium.  Why is that a problem?  French toast is neither French nor toast, but the world survives.

Once we settle that common names are legitimate and independent of Linnaean names, we can cease fretting about "florist gloxinia", "African violet", "calla lily", and "poison oak".  My name is Alan LaVergne, but none of my (known) ancestors were born with the name LaVergne.  Somehow, despite my lack of a scientific name, I get by.

(Yes, I know there are other objections to common names, most importantly, their imprecision.  In our new common-name system, we will fix that.)

It is essential to realize that the current situation is bad not just for those who are forced to dance to the tunes composed by others.  It is bad for the composers too.  The relationship decisions they make create name changes.  In widely cultivated plant groups, this engenders (at the very least) annoyance and (on occasion) outrage, hostility, and defiance.  The impacts do not stop with individuals and businesses.  Any laws or international conventions governing these plants will have to be revised.  The transition (which may last years, or a generation) will cause hardship and resentment.  There can be no doubt that these issues are rebounding on the people who are trying to disentangle the family tree of living organisms.  It was their predecessors, generations ago, who wanted control over the naming of living things, but they are the ones stuck with the results.  They get to be the villains.

So here's the taxonomic version of the maxim at the beginning:

Be careful what your predecessors wish for.