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Overviews are provided for traditional and phylogenetic nomenclature. In traditional nomenclature, a name is provided with a type and a rank. In the rankless phylogenetic nomenclature, a taxon name is provided with an explicit phylogenetic definition, which attaches the name to a clade. Linnaeus's approach to nomenclature is also reviewed, and it is shown that, although the current system of nomenclature does use some Linnaean conventions (e.g., certain rank-denoting terms, binary nomenclature), it is actually quite different from Linnaean nomenclature.
The primary differences between traditional and phylogenetic nomenclature are reviewed. In phylogenetic nomenclature, names are provided with explicit phylogenetic definitions, whereas in traditional nomenclature names are not explicitly defined. In phylogenetic nomenclature, a name remains attached to a clade regardless of how future changes in phylogeny alter the clade's content; in traditional nomenclature a name is not “married” to any particular clade. In traditional nomenclature, names must be assigned ranks (an admittedly arbitrary process), whereas in phylogenetic nomenclature there are no formal ranks. Therefore, in phylogenetic nomenclature, the name itself conveys no hierarchical information, and the name conveys nothing regarding set exclusivity.
It is concluded that the current system is better able to handle new and unexpected changes in ideas about taxonomic relationships. This greater flexibility, coupled with the greater information content that the names themselves (i.e., when used outside the context of a given taxonomy or phylogeny) provide, makes the current system better designed for use by all users of taxon names.
Nomenclatural systems are structured around classification, and together they enable increasingly informed communication about biological diversity. Challengers of Linnaean classification and nomenclature have proposed the PhyloCode, a new set of rules that would govern the way systematists classify and name the diversity of life. Monographs and floras are two fundamental vehicles for communicating information about plant diversity. These works provide a comprehensive foundation of botanical research upon which other scientific studies are based. Information conveyed by monographs and floras is utilized directly or indirectly both within and outside the scientific arena by a wide range of consumers, such as educators, agronomists, ecologists, conservationists, amateur naturalists, and even lawmakers, to name a few. Both classification and nomenclature are essential to the process of synthesis that leads to monographic and floristic treatments and the communication that they facilitate. Conversion to a new system would have far-reaching consequences for the flow of information from systematics to other scientific disciplines, and to society. The purposes of this article are to address the proposed conversion from the perspective of monographic and floristic research focused on Neotropical plant diversity and to point out some difficulties in applying the PhyloCode to the Neotropical flora. Although we welcome improvements in the current nomenclatural system, we conclude that the PhyloCode is not prepared to replace the Linnaean system as a new way to communicate information about Neotropical plant diversity.
Acceptable methods of defming taxon (or clade) names in the draft PhyloCode, or so-called phylogenetic nomenclature, are “node based,” “stem based,” and “apomorphy based.” All of them define a clade name by pinpointing a node; whereas node-based and stem-based definitions require two or more taxon “specifiers” to define names, an apomorphy-based defmition requires two specifiers of different types; namely, a single-taxon specifier and a character specifier. The taxon specifier in an apomorphy-based definition is completely different from the “type” in the Linnaean system. Taxon (or clade) names in the PhyloCode are characterized in two entirely different manners: One is a name that does not change, either in its orthography or in the contents of the taxon referred to by it (or its meaning) over time; the other is a name that is just like a pure mark and thus has no meaning. Communication through such PhyloCode names is very ineffective or impossible.
The Linnaean system of nomenclature has been used and adapted by biologists over a period of almost 250 years. Under the current system of codes, it is now applied to more than 2 million species of organisms. Inherent in the Linnaean system is the indication of hierarchical relationships. The Linnaean system has been justified primarily on the basis of stability. Stability can be assessed on at least two grounds: the absolute stability of names, irrespective of taxonomic concept; and the stability of names under changing concepts. Recent arguments have invoked conformity to phylogenetic methods as the primary basis for choice of nomenclatural systems, but even here stability of names as they relate to monophyletic groups is stated as the ultimate objective. The idea of absolute stability as the primary justification for nomenclatural methods was wrong from the start. The reasons are several. First, taxa are concepts, no matter the frequency of assertions to the contrary; as such, they are subject to change at all levels and always will be, with the consequence that to some degree the names we use to refer to them will also be subject to change. Second, even if the true nature of all taxa could be agreed upon, the goal would require that we discover them all and correctly recognize them for what they are. Much of biology is far from that goal at the species level and even further for supraspecific taxa. Nomenclature serves as a tool for biology. Absolute stability of taxonomic concepts—and nomenclature—would hinder scientific progress rather than promote it. It can been demonstrated that the scientific goals of systematists are far from achieved. Thus, the goal of absolute nomenclatural stability is illusory and misguided. The primary strength of the Linnaean system is its ability to portray hierarchical relationships; stability is secondary. No single system of nomenclature can ever possess all desirable attributes: i.e., convey information on hierarchical relationships, provide absolute stability in the names portraying those relationships, and provide simplicity and continuity in communicating the identities of the taxa and their relationships. Aside from myriad practical problems involved in its implementation, it must be concluded that “phylogenetic nomenclature” would not provide a more stable and effective system for communicating information on biological classifications than does the Linnaean system.
A critique of the draft PhyloCode is presented. Its stated goals cannot be met by the proposals in the current draft, which also fails to uphold its stated principles. Its internal contradictions include a cumbersome reinvention of the very aspect of the current Linnaean system that advocates of the PhyloCode most often decry.
The current advocacy for the so-called PhyloCode has a history rooted in twentieth-century arguments among biologists and philosophers regarding a putative distinction between classes and individuals. From this seemingly simple and innocuous discussion have come supposed distinctions between definitions and diagnosis, classification and systematization, and now Linnaean and “phylogenetic” nomenclature. Nevertheless, the metaphysical dichotomy of class versus individual, insofar as its standard applications to the issue of biological taxonomy are concerned, is an outdated remnant of early logical positivist thinking. Current views on natural kinds and their definitions under a scientific realist perspective provide grounds for rejecting the class versus individual dichotomy altogether insofar as biological entities are concerned. We review the role of natural kinds in scientific practice and the nature of definitions and scientific classifications. Although inherent instabilities of the PhyloCode are clearly sufficient to argue against the general application of this nominally phylogenetic system, our goal here is to address serious and fundamental flaws in its very foundation by exposing the unsubstantiated philosophical assumptions preceding and subtending it.
Promoters of the PhyloCode have mounted an intensive and deceptive publicity campaign. At the centerpiece of this campaign have been slogans such as that the Linnaean System will “goof you up,” that the PhyloCode is the “greatest thing since sliced bread,” and that systematists are “afraid” to propose new names because of “downstream consequences.” Aside from such subscientific spin and sloganeering, proponents of the PhyloCode have offered nothing real to back up claims of greater stability for their new system. They have also misled many into believing that the PhyloCode is the only truly phylogenetic system. The confusion that has been fostered involves several discrete arguments, concerning: a new “method” of “designating” names, rank-free taxonomy, uninomial nomenclature, and issues of priority. Claims that the PhyloCode produces a more stable nomenclature are false, as shown with the example of “paleoherbs.” A rank-free system of naming requires an annotated reference tree for even the simplest exchanges of information. This would be confusing at best and would cripple our ability to teach, learn, and use taxonomic names in the field or in publications. We would be confronted by a mass of polynomial names, tied together only by a tree graphic, with no agreed name (except a uninomial, conveying no hierarchy) to use for any particular species. The separate issue of stability in reference to rules of priority and rank can be easily addressed within the current codes, by implementation of some simple changes, as we will propose in this article. Thus there is no need to “scrap” the current Linnaean codes for a poorly reasoned, logically inconsistent, and fatally flawed new code that will only bring chaos.