Annie Davidson sent our tiny aging, nostalgic, and usually goofy Zoo group (we have known each other since, what, 1970?) a provocative essay contra the Linnaean binomial system. I think she was poking a stick in an anthill, but I am afraid it pushed a few buttons! I was provoked to editorialize…
“The author’s criticisms are valid, her conclusion unjustified. Linnaean terminology is bad but everything else is WAAY worse. I espouse and defend, here and elsewhere, a small c conservatism– what works (and with many patches it has & does); rules known, universally accepted against chaos and a million competing schemes & memes. Think how losing the Latin Mass for idealistic reasons shattered the Catholic church– I was there– but she argues for tearing down a system that, I’m sorry, represents something even more universal.
“She is a bit historically uninformed, and naive besides. For the first, she states (always beware any use of ‘obviously’!): “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.’ But no SPECIFIC name can change without reassignment to another species– only generic. Nomenclatural priority. It even allows stupidity– Buteo jamaicensis for the redtail because it was first collected there, Canis niger, “BLACK dog or canid”, for the red wolf, now an endangered “taxon” because it may be a natural hybrid but still nominally black… one stable name. WE ALREADY HAVE THIS, bound about by formal rules. She goes on: ‘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.’
“Because who cares about toast, as long as you get it? Every language has many common names but there is only one formal name and even Russians (ie, those with a Cyrillic alphabet) and Chinese acknowledge it.
“The only schemes seriously offered to challenge Linnaeus are cladistic and ‘correct’ but are not NAMING systems which I expect are hardwired in our brains evolutionarily– “Rational monsters” that would take a PhD to explain. I have heard it seriously offered that an organism’s proper– what, term?– is a printout of a tree of however many pages showing its descent. I would find this an excellent adjunct of great interest- but what do you CALL it?? ‘Cladistic tree # 545,353’? Instead, we are naming animals, doing what the late Vicki Hearne metaphorically called “Adam’s task”, calling the animals by name to know something about what they are, to be able to talk about them- inadequate but a start. To name is not to know but is there any knowing without naming in a speaking species?
“Systems like the author’s, using pop names, are worse– breathtakingly ignorant of history– one popular book in favor, understanding the nature of whales, wants to “popularly” reclassify them as FISH. NO, NO, NO, NO! NO!
“Last thought: high in the Kazakh Tian Shan nearly a decade ago, a friendship formed when ornithologist Andrey Kovalenko, whose English is as awkward as my Russian, lifted his eyes above the peaks and breathed “Gypaetus barbatus!” I knew to look to the sky because I knew he wasn’t seeing a snowcock on the ground, an accentor in the bush– he was looking above the skyline to show me my first Lammergeier.”