My Take on Taxonomy

Names are a human creation.

Scientific names are a human creation that is meant to link to species, a somewhat concrete way to classify plants which often works and sometimes doesn't work.

Classifying is useful. It's one of the things the human brain is really good at. Some of us (many autistic people as one example) are compulsively driven to classify and categorize and sort things.

Scientific names are meant to represent the evolutionary history and relationships of organisms. The hierarchical nature of scientific names is a very effective tool, though the different levels of classification, such as genus, species, and subspecies, are also somewhat arbitrary. Recently, new sorts of genetic analysis technology has allowed for us to learn even more about how species are related. Most scientists think genetic analysis can be used to track species lineages.

Scientific names - the Linnaean taxonomy system- are also the anchor for iNaturalist, necessary for iNaturalist to work at all.

New ideas about how species are related often appear in scientific literature. Some people on iNaturalist feel that the second any new possible evidence comes out, the scientific names should all be adjusted. These people have been put in charge of the species database of iNaturalist and for whatever reason also given moderator duties. Thus names are changing constantly.

The constantly changing names become less useful as tools, and much harder to use in database used to monitor biodiversity. There is some benefit to acting on new information, but there is a downside too that is always ignored. In fact some taxonomists become quite hostile when asked about it.

It's unfortunate that the people in charge of iNat have decided to go the 'constant taxonomic change' route. The site is meant to 'connect people with nature' and since that is largely done via identifying organisms, when the names don't work, inaturalist doesn't really work.

In the conservation world, there are always limited time and resources. Time and resources needs to be spent dealing with constant taxonomy change. It isn't just an irritation, it is a problem. No doubt thousands of hours of ecologist time has been wasted on excessive name changes, probably resulting in much less ecological inventory and possibly even resulting in species extinctions.

Ways to reduce these issues could consist of limiting the rate of change, limiting the frequency of change (release taxonomic changes only once every few years), limiting 'splitting' (splitting is dividing one species into two or several based on minute and obscure differences) and applying splitting to subspecies instead of species (subspecies are finer units that 'nest' within species). Some of this change could occur within iNaturalist but others are beyond the level of iNaturalist and lie within academia and other such places.

Unfortunately suggesting these things makes many taxonomists Very Angry. The names must always conform to the latest science, even if the latest science isn't settled science at all. Questioning the relative value of splitting and change, or questioning whether it should be applied to iNat, are a good way to get harassed by a lot of people on here. Some people of well established social status are able to 'bend' the iNat guidelines much more than others without consequence, the guidelines are not consistently enforced largely because the majority of people with moderator power are taxonomists or similar and will actively push non-taxonomist curators away. I find it all very frustrating, so instead of continuing to bicker with taxonomists i will make this journal post and link to it.

iNaturalist used to do a better job balancing change with stability, but unfortunately that is not the case any more. Hopefully in the future it will be again. I've changed back to displaying common names instead of scientific names because they are more consistent and useful. That says a lot doesn't it?

Note: Disagreeing and debating is fine but if you are going to come on here and tell me i don't know what i am talking about because i don't agree lock-step with taxonomists, you might as well just not do so. I'm fully aware of the issues involved, i just disagree with how taxonomy is practiced.

Posted by charlie charlie, July 08, 2022 02:05


I truly agree that specified times to release new names would do the entire world some good. I have no idea where the governing body is that changes them or when they do it or why. Usually, I don't care. But when I can't "research" on Google because of it or see errors (but are they errors? is what I usually ask), I just give up for the day. Is there even an official spot to see what changes have happened?

Posted by andreerenosanborn 5 months ago (Flag)

My experience is it is totally freeform and all you have to do is publish a paper. This may be totally false, but it's my cynical experience with plants. It's probably even worse with other less understood taxa. There is supposedly a botanical congress which ahs some control over taxonomic names and changes, but they seem pretty light handed and in favor of splitters... and readily accept names like Chamaepericlymenum canadense and Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani which seem ridiculously long and pointless - some data collection methodologies require writing entire scientific names on a datasheet, and these names basically break databases with their absurdity. It's completely unnecessary. Maybe they have poetic latin meanings but someone seems to forget that others actually have to use these names for data collection. Sigh.

Posted by charlie 5 months ago (Flag)

The common dandelion is a case in point. Does a new or otherwise amateur naturalist really care whether there are hundreds of microspecies? From an ecological point of view, they're all Taraxacum officinale. I would venture to say that to someone using them for food, winemaking, or medicine, they're all Taraxacum officinale, too; that is, the different alleged microspecies do not have different culinary or medicinal properties. It might not be so bad if the users who so pedantically bump every observation back to Section Taraxacum ventured to identify some of those alleged microspecies, or explained what features they would look for in order to do so; but you never see that, do you? At best, all you get out of them is that the earliest leaves of the season look a bit different, and as the season goes on, the differences disappear. To most of us who aren't militant splitters, that says a lot.

We don't do this with banana cultivars. All cultivated bananas are triploids, hence can only reproduce asexually, but we don't call every cultivar its own microspecies.

Posted by jasonhernandez74 4 months ago (Flag)

yeah i mean, i'm not a new naturalist, and while i find taraxacum geneology somewhat interesting, i dont classify microspecies during surveys and most likely never will.

Posted by charlie 4 months ago (Flag)

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