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 AM

Comments

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 7 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 7 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 6 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 6 months ago (Flag)

Wow, agree with all that ^^^^ there should be a buffer. Maybe even a "pending taxon change" change flag, that might be best, and a metric so that one publication does not shift the entire world so immediately. I have found in every venue, forum, resource, or event, you are going to find johnny-on-the-spot, so it's best to expect that. Additionally, on the birding side of things I've seen subspecies given names that no person on earth has ever heard haha... power corrupts :)

Posted by rudyard 26 days ago (Flag)

@charlie Re: this post as well as the comments on this flag (https://www.inaturalist.org/flags/603109). I'm extremely sympathetic to your position, I can entirely empathize with your feelings of not being listened to, and I wholeheartedly agree with some of your points. I've also been very frustrated by both the constant taxonomic changes and the specific methods that curators/staff have decided to either use or to not use in order to implement those taxonomic changes. Same goes with some identifiers' very strict, impractical, and counterproductive IDing policies. In fact, I definitely have very strong lumper tendencies outside of the context of iNat. However, I think iNat should really be a splitter rather than a lumper. After all, one of the purposes of iNat is for it to be used for research. iNat can be extremely useful in helping make decisions about species delineations, species descriptions, biogeography/distribution patterns, habitat requirements, and so on- but this is only possible if we are able to test hypotheses and map out data by dissecting out lineages into multiple groups. It may be annoying, and definitely incurs a number of costs, but the constant taxonomic updating helps to advance science and makes iNat a more authoritative and useful tool overall.

On the topic of the costs, I'm wondering- how do taxonomic changes negatively affect your ability to use iNat in a professional context? Taxon splits and other changes can usually be counteracted fairly easily in my experience. One of the great things about iNat is that it has a lot of hidden functions that allow you to search for and display exactly the kind of data that you want to see. You can search for multiple taxa, you can exclude specific taxa from your results, and you can also search for identifications and not just the community taxon. It seems to me that most of the time these tools would be sufficient to make up for the taxonomic changes, no?

Posted by davidenrique 26 days ago (Flag)

@davidenrique thanks!
I get why people want to split, and i understand that my somewhat extreme view isn't realistic for iNat either, i just want some balance. I would remind you that not all research iNat is used for is taxonomy. I'm a genearlist ecologists who uses vegetation, soils, hydrology, and other factors to assess wetlands, and to me the constant taxonomy change makes my research harder, not easier, to the point where i use iNat less directly for my job than I used to. I had aspirations to connect my inat observations with my plant database so i could use iNat to conduct my inventories and then import the data to my database. But with iNat's current policies that won't work because every taxon change causes database issues and it just wastes too much time dealing with that. If it were one set of changes every few years it would be doable but for the constant stream it just isn't. I manage my own database and don't have anything fancy, i don't have SQL skills or anything. The impact is significant enough that it just isn't worth it and I can't justify the use of iNat to skeptical state policymakers who already had two strike against it due to general luddite-ism. So I don't use iNat for more than a general 'field notebook' or for fun now. It isn't a tool I can use for applied ecology any more. I'm glad taxonomists are able to use it, but to me the tradeoff doesn't seem worth it.
I recognize others want to use it for other purposes and i won't always get just what i want. I just wish more people who were not taxonomists were included in this discussion. We all have to use the taxonomy that iNat adopts, if we want to use the site. I personally think a 5-10 year freeze on taxonomic changes on iNat until the more level headed science can catch up to the taxonomic frenzy around genetic analysis and such, but i recognize theres about zero chance that will happen.

Posted by charlie 26 days ago (Flag)

Ah, thanks for elaborating. I can totally see how taxonomic changes would make it really difficult to import/synchronize between different databases. Maybe iNat staff will eventually implement export tools that allow you to automatically reconcile certain taxonomic differences as you export the data, but I assume that the priority for getting something like that done is pretty low. I'm sure it would still be a big pain anyway, and some taxonomic changes wouldn't be able to be reconciled at all.

Posted by davidenrique 26 days ago (Flag)

Yeah, thus far they have not showed any sign of concern or sympathy for this issue, which isn't to say they don't care at all, but they seem to just want to follow any proposed splitting as 'the most current science' which to me is not the way to go and isn't actually always good science. I am surprised more people don't speak up about this issue, but i suspect most people just lose interest and leave iNat when confronted with an increasingly unusable database, or else are low experience amateurs who just assume species ID isn't accessible to them at all, which is too bad.

Posted by charlie 26 days ago (Flag)

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