Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly


Do you want to know the new name for a familiar plant, and why it’s changed? Today I was urged to promote and explain the changes to plant names that irritate and frustrate everyone. Or indeed, those that don’t. To be fair to Richard May, NSW State President of the Australian Institute of Horticulture, he said someone should do it, not that I should head home and hit the blog!

I’d be curious to hear whether this is general desire or not. It’s important and useful to use the correct botanical name, but would it make interesting reading? A few years back (last century…) I wrote a short series of articles in the Victorian Naturalist and then Society for Growing Australian Plants Victoria Newsletter, explaining the changes to plant names in Victoria.

As a start, below is the abstract of the talk I gave to the national Australian Plants Society meeting in Geelong a few weeks ago. It gives a sense of the approach I would take. I’d try and make it clear when a change is a good thing (not necessary easy or liked, but reflecting new scientific knowledge), an ugly thing (when for consistency and to solve arguments, the rules of plant naming mean we should use an alternative name) or a bad thing (when the change isn’t really necessary and causes unnecessary pain, or is contrary to good science). In most cases the taxonomic experts won’t accept a ‘bad thing’ but for a variety of reasons it may be necessary or preferable in some cases.

As to whether I have time to chase up the details or can keep track of the important ones, that’s another question. And I would continue to populate the blog with other bits and pieces of botanical trivia. But firstly, is there an interest?

THOSE NAME CHANGES (Abstract)

Generally in life we embrace new knowledge and welcome scientific discoveries. We learn more about the world around us, and live a healthier and happier life. But when scientists change the names of plants, we don’t always see this as reflecting good science. That’s because some name changes are more about book keeping than braving new frontiers. The system we use today for naming living organisms started in the eighteenth century with Carl Linnaeus, but the rules of nomenclature have evolved over time. So too has our knowledge of the living world – for example, Carl Linneaus was unaware that to an order of magnitude, live is unicellular.

I’ve always thought there are three kinds of name changes – the good, the bad and the ugly. All are necessary but some are more satisfying than others. Ugly is when we discover an older name that has fallen out of use and resurrect it. Following the rules of nomenclature we have to use the oldest name but often there isn’t much extra information in the change. Bad is where a name change is made for legitimate scientific reasons but we don’t have to make the change and we don’t get much or any new information content. The good? This is where we move from a flat to a spherical earth. The new name and classification better explains the world around us and allows us to predict new things about that world.

Remember that a scientific name (representing a taxonomic group) is always a hypothesis, and it should change or be rejected as more information becomes available. Each name is a reference point only – all life is interconnected, evolving and adapting – and our nomenclature and classifications are crude systems to make sense of this wonderful diversity.

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