Out With the New — In With the Old


Taxonomy — the art, or perhaps slightly artistic “science” by which people name things — is not an unfamiliar subject around this blog. So you will notice a few things should you click on that tag at the bottom. For the sake of this subject, let me stress I will not weigh in on politics any more than I have in the past, save to say: Taxonomy can be political, just as the people who do it are, and for much the same reason; and the sciences in which taxonomists operate are themselves political. This leaves the subject fragile, and open to incursion from non-purely scientific purposes. Be that as it may, taxonomy is wonderful, and it allows us access, in many ways cognitively, to anatomy, the maths underlying behavior and action, and the animals themselves.

So you will have noticed in recent years a resurgence in names old and new that had been otherwise relegated to the dustbins; and of the newer sent back in favor of the old. Brontosaurus is real. Nanotyrannus is real. Torosaurus is … not real. Syntarsus, one of the earliest depicted dinosaurs with feathers, is a beetle, and we gained Megapnosaurus (“big dead lizard”) instead. The cruelty of a nematode specialist made us regret the beautiful name of Ingenia for a bird-like dinosaur that has vastly deserved a more thorough description, and we’ve gained Ajancingenia instead. some of these subjects may be debated, and for different reasons. Species concepts; the role of ontogeny in discriminating specimens of species; the vagaries of not cross-checking with other taxonomists on your names; and many more other variances.

But the point of this is not to suggest some rule about how we should go about these things. While these names matter, they matter far less than the organisms they represent. More important, then, we should focus on the descriptive and sometimes even reproductive biology, research revealing the persistence of viable tissue long past the apparent destruction of it via fossilization, biomechanics, ontogenetic trends thereof, and their environment, their ecology and trophic relationships. These organisms are interesting, significant, important, and the names help encapsulate that; but at the same time less so than these organisms often seem when so much focus is spent on their names. (I’ve been guilty, too).

Step away from quibbling on subjects older than dirt and focus on the animals, and the name ultimately won’t really matter any more. And that means putting aside notions that the names you call something is a point worthy of debate itself.

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2 Responses to Out With the New — In With the Old

  1. Mickey Mortimer says:

    I disagree. I find taxonomy/nomenclature (which is closer to law than art) to be more interesting than e.g. ecology or biomechanics. People have different interests, and one field is not better than another. The Nanotyrannus and Torosaurus examples aren’t even about taxonomy, they’re about ontogeny.

    • I’d argue that taxonomy and nomenclature are closely tied to ecology, physiology, and ontogeny. Evolutionary trends in behavior, morphology, and development make more sense in light of phylogenetic relationships between species, as opposed to studying species as isolated ‘units’. Hence the importance of taxonomic comparison, especially with cladistic analyses.

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