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CSS colloquium: Joeri Witteveen, University of Copenhagen

Taxonomic freedom and scientific governance

2019.08.26 | Randi Mosegaard

Date Wed 09 Oct
Time 14:15 15:45
Location G4 (1532-222)


Taxonomic names serve in vital epistemic and communicative roles as identifiers of taxonomic groups. Yet most taxonomic names are poor vehicles for communicating taxonomic content – names don’t wear their meaning on their sleeves. For taxonomic names to have meaning, they must be associated with fallible and subjective judgments about the proper circumscription of the taxonomic groups they refer to. So while the practices of naming and taxonomizing are principally distinct, they are also closely connected. With a twist on Kant’s famous dictum, one could say that “nomenclature without taxonomy is empty; taxonomy without nomenclature is blind.”

The Codes of Nomenclature that taxonomists rely on to validly name groups respect this separation between naming and formulating taxonomic hypotheses. The principles of naming from these Codes govern the application of names to taxonomic groups without laying down how those groups should be recognized and circumscribed. What counts as a ‘good’ taxonomic judgment is not codified but is left to taxonomic science and the individual taxonomist. In recent years, this so-called "principle of taxonomic freedom" has come under attack in scientific journals, on taxonomic mailing lists, and in the popular press. It has been argued that in the contemporary age of extinction and biodiversity crises, the principle of taxonomic freedom is doing harm to the integrity of taxonomy as a policy-relevant science. Policy makers for conservation efforts require stable, univocal, and unambiguous ways of telling what grouping a name refers to. Therefore, taxonomic freedom should be restricted and constrained. However, opponents of such reformist proposals counter that they are fundamentally scientific and do more harm than good. To impose restrictions of taxonomic freedom would be to undermine the entrenched principles and practices of naming that the entire edifice of biological taxonomy rests on.

In this talk, I provide a closer look at recent arguments for and against the principle of taxonomic freedom. I will suggest that we should distinguish between different versions of the principle and argue for a pluralist solution to respecting and reforming taxonomic freedom in different areas of biological taxonomy.

Coffee, tea and cakes will be served before the colloquium @ 2 pm

Lecture / talk