Thursday, October 13, 2005

What's in a name?

NY Times: In the Classification Kingdom, Only the Fittest Survive

"Between 1.5 million and 2 million species have been named, and a deluge of what could be millions more appears imminent. As a result, scientists have once again been seized by 18th-century paroxysms of fear that the field of classification could descend into chaos with precious information lost. For while the Linnaean method for organizing life is still followed and has held up well, no one oversees what has become the rapid and sometimes haphazard proliferation of species names...

But while scientists agree that the proliferation is out of control, there is no consensus on who should be in control. And every new initiative has a different flavor and agenda. ZooBank, for example, proposes serving not only as a list keeper but also as gatekeeper, becoming the only official registry of animal names and mandating that all animal names receive ZooBank approval before being considered legitimate, ensuring that all animal names follow the rules of the nomenclature commission's code. BioCode, in contrast, proposes that botanists and zoologists each give up the separate parochial codes of naming they've developed and instead adopt a new universal BioCode, the first step in creating a single, unified registry of life. Then there's uBio, which has sidestepped the question of codes and regulations altogether and instead aims to record every single name ever used for any organism, scientific or common, correct or incorrect, down to the last variation and misspelling, as a way of linking all information ever recorded about an organism together."

Fascinating. The underlying assumption in each case is that information that cannot be found is effectively lost. But classification is about more than search-ability. As the BioCode proponents elaborate:

"Biological nomenclature is not an end in itself. It is not even a part of scientific endeavour; it is, rather, a regulatory system that seeks to serve the needs of science."

I'd argue that nomenclature is actually an integral part of scientific endeavour, but for now I'm more interested in what are considered to be the needs of science. Their list includes securing funding and getting away from "fragmented images" and "apparent divisiveness". In other words, to present a unified front that can be easily circumscribed and supported.

I appreciate the practicality of the BioCode approach, but I think uBio does a better job of representing the actual processes of scientific sorting. After all, by including any and all of the names used over time, nomenclature and taxonomy do not appear so objective, natural or true for all time and space. Instead, the naming of things is revealed to be something that actually happens on the ground, according to particular contexts and objectives, and changes over time. Most notably in relation to the other approaches, it does nothing to hide fragmentation and divisiveness within expert knowledge.

In my mind, the most important issue is not whether things are classified from the top-down or bottom-up, but rather if people have the means to access and (re)use multiple classification schemes over time.


Anonymous James Boardwelll said...

But isn't there a tension between nonclamenture being stable enough for scientific endeavour to agree [and to get funding !]- for there to be a common, transferable meaning - and showing "the actual processes of scientific sorting" [e.g. ubio] where people can see and 'play' with language openly? to "to access and (re)use multiple classification schemes over time"?

Blogger Anne said...

Yes, there are tensions. The reason we can communicate at all is because of shared meaning, but for culture to be (re)produced we need access to our histories and the means to forge new futures.


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