October 14, 2005


Looks like it's not easy keeping track of all the names for all the various species cropping up these days:
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….

A major reason that no one has kept track of all the species names is the surprising Wild West sort of freedom that allows names to spring up pretty much anywhere. Let's say a person discovers what she believes is a new species. If she publishes a description of the organism with her newly created name for it, by the internationally accepted rules of science, the name officially stands. But while she might publish in a carefully peer-reviewed scientific journal, she might also publish it, as Dr. Polaszek lamented, "in the little local journal that your neighbor produces in his garage."
Here's a more in-depth look at how to classify various species; looks like a barrel of laughs, that job.

Also, not that I know too much about it, but in a somewhat unrelated vein, this naming business seems like it gets particularly messy when trying to classify the various evolutionary stages of a given organism, since, in theory, you've had a near-infinite number of gradations over the years. Is homo erectus a separate "species" from homo sapiens? Could they mate? Okay, then what about two ancestors, 1000 years apart, that could breed but are slightly different? Hmmm. In the Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins runs into this problem now and again, although ultimately it didn't seem like the biggest deal in the world—the fossil record luckily has enough gaps that it's easy enough to assign different names to the different "species" we happen to know about, rather than forcing us to assign each gradation a number or some such thing. (Similar to measuring height versus classifying people as "tall," "short," "medium"...)
-- Brad Plumer 5:20 PM || ||