What Names Shall We Use?
G. G. Nearing, Ramsey, New Jersey
The shocking article* in the October Bulletin, threatening to change the names of two Azaleas, R. nudiflorum and R. roseum, calls for immediate action. If we accept this change, it will reduce the value of every book in our libraries which deals with or even mentions these two plants. And there are many hundreds of such books.
*"A Question About the Names of R. nudiflorum and R. roseum." Lloyd Shinners, page 242.
The ARS should demand that each of these names, nudiflorum and roseum, be declared a nomen conservandum, a name which cannot be changed. This has been done in the past for many names of plants which have economic importance. For every time the taxonomists change their rules (and that is frequently) they threaten to destroy our libraries with name changes, and public protests have compelled them to establish the nomen conservandum. Indeed, why should not every plant name be a nomen conservandum?
If the nomen conservandum status should be refused for these two Azaleas, then we should stand together in continuing to use the established names and refusing to accept the new ones.
Perhaps you wonder who the taxonomists are, and why they claim the right to change established names. Taxonomists include some of the most admirable minds in science, but the majority tend to a peculiar type of nuttiness, and the rules are adopted by vote of the majority.
The word taxonomy means arrangement of names. Why do we give names to plants? In order to discuss them with each other and to record facts about them. Names are words in language. The value of a word depends on the number of people who know its meaning. If you change a word known to a million people, and for it substitute a name known only to one, you have destroyed the value of that word as a means of communication.
But taxonomists have lost sight entirely of the reason for naming plants. Their basic concept of the arrangement of names would do credit perhaps to a philosopher of ancient Egypt, but certainly not to anyone who has read Darwin. It is based on the idea that each species was created by a personal god with a mind very like a man's, and that all variants between the species are hybrids.
Since the general acceptance of evolution, we know that the species are not creations of a personal god, nor even fixed units of nature, but rather arbitrary divisions invented by man for his convenience in discussing the plants and animals around him. Potentially there is an infinite expanse of individuals, each differing from every other in some respect, and with all possible intermediates between any groups into which we wish to divide them. Actually in many fields the intermediates have died out, leaving races markedly different from their nearest relatives. It is these cases which lead us to the misconception that each species is a natural unit.
In other very numerous cases, no matter how we divide the groups into species, there is an uninterrupted series of intermediates. There are hybrids too. but in most cases the vast majority are natural variants. In these cases we should of course draw arbitrary lines defining the species, and we should all agree to recognize the species thus arbitrarily named. For there is no way of dividing them to the complete satisfaction of the mentality that believes they were created by a personal god.
Yet in order that science may progress, we have fixed names for natural or artificially segregated entities, and so arranged that the normal mind can grasp them. The binomial system established by the followers of Linnaeus is probably as well adapted to human understanding as any that could be devised. In any case it has established vast numbers of names, and on these our botanical libraries are founded.
But the vicious institution of taxonomy, instead of fixing the names by arbitrary agreement, as common sense demands that it should do, is continually shuffling species and genera, stirring up the difficult areas where intermediate forms predominate, rearranging and renaming them, though there is no hope whatever of finding an arrangement substantially more comprehensible than what the majority of botanists in the past have already more or less agreed upon. And our libraries, the basis of scientific progress, are progressively destroyed.
So many changes have been made that some species have had as many as fifty different names applied to them, and as the taxonomists wade recklessly on, the number may soon go as high as a hundred. And all to no purpose. There is absolutely nothing to he gained by these changes. Then why do the taxonomists make them?
They have established a rule that every time a name is used it must be followed by the signature of the namer. Thus Rhododendron nudiflorum Torrey robs Linnaeus of his name Azalea nudiflora Linnaeus. There have been nine other legal robberies of this name, all equally senseless. and all serving the personal vanity of some taxonomist. (And some taxonomists have incalculable vanity.) Now after the nine robberies of this name, must we have a tenth? How long are we to endure this ludicrous game?
Taxonomists are well aware of the crimes against science which they are continually committing. One said to me: "Look, you take your group and I'll take mine, and we'll make it so that nobody else can understand it. Then anyone who has any questions to ask will have to come to us." There are not many such rascals. but this one made a mess of a large genus of plant exactly as he proposed, and it will not be cleared up in our lifetime. The system of taxonomy, as now established plays directly into the hands of such rogues.
Shall we endure this nonsense, or shall we take some action to help science shake off taxonomy? I suggest that the ARS arbitrarily draw up a list of the names in the genus Rhododendron, taking those most widely recognized, and refuse to accept any more changes.