Field of Science

Of Taxonomy and Rabbis

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Keesey brought up a point where, it seems, the ICZN doesn't actually say what everyone has always thought it says. The tone of the ensuing discussion reminds me of a story that a Jewish friend of mine once told me. It concerns a disagreement that the famous rabbi Akiba ben Joseph* once had with a group of other rabbis on a point of law (hush up if you've heard this one before).

*Well, to be honest, I'm not sure if it was actually Akiba that was the subject of the story. It might have been some other influential figure. For the sake of maintaining a narrative, let's just say it was Akiba.

Anywho, the argument had apparently been raging for some time - Akiba holding out for one interpretation, all the other rabbis in the room holding to the other - and had evidently reached something of an impasse. Eventually, frustrated at his failure to get his point across successfully, Akiba exclaimed that if he was in the right, then the tree standing at the door of the synagogue should uproot itself and walk away. Amazingly, this is exactly what happened at that very moment. But the other rabbis were unimpressed by this miracle - after all, they demanded to know, what would a mere tree know of the Holy Law? Akiba then made another oath, that his correctness should be demonstrated by the river running outside the synagogue turning back on itself, and flowing uphill. Again, the river did this very thing (and according to the story, it still does today). But once more the other rabbis only scoffed - what does a river know of the Holy Law?

His frustration at a peak, Akiba appealed to the highest authority he knew of, exclaiming that if he was in the right, G-D himself would speak in his favour. And at the point, the clouds opened, a light shone down from the sky, and a great voice could be heard - "Rabbi Akiba is right!" Hearing this voice, the other rabbis turned to face the heavens, and spoke as one:

"And as for you - stay out of this!"


  1. Sounds like people are very unwilling to consider there may be something wrong with the ICZN.

    This is a case of a favorite system being held on to for dear life, which has of course never ever happened before in science. Ever.


  2. I don't know nothing about no rabbis, but my back yard had about 50,000 thrips per square meter last weekend. 4700 identified species of thrips, more than all extant mammals! 600 in North America alone! Tiny! Bug-eyed! Aieeeee!

    There's only one way to save the ICZN, and that's to cut binomena entirely loose from phylogenetics. Let each species keep its binomen untouched (subject only to split species -- after the occasional merge, a retained synonym harms nobody), and let the taxonomists do their best to keep up with phylogenetics without bothering people who have work to do. Sure, the genus names will begin to take on a fantastic, alice-in-wonderland quality, but so what? At some level, a name's just a name.

    Really, Chris, how christopherous are you in an average day? When was the last time you made a nice matching jacket and trousers?

  3. Kai and ncm (Mike doesn't need to be told this), there are some things very wrong with the ICZN. To be fair, though, there are going to be problems with any taxonomic system, because you're trying to represent in a simple hierarchical form an inordinately complex reality.

    ncm, uninomial systems have been suggested, and in hindsight it would possibly have been better if we'd had them from the start. Of course, the biggest challenge to introducing a uninomial system now is the 255 years of inertia behind you...

  4. We already have a uninomial system, we just put a space in the middle of the name. All we (well, taxonomists) need to do now is leave it the hell alone so everybody who memorized raftloads of those split uninomena -- at an age where they still could! -- can continue working unmolested.

    Nobody but taxonomists care much about families and orders, so taxonomists can go wild fooling around with those without bothering anybody. Probably they would need to introduce another ply to take over the present role of the genus, mostly matching present genus names, for the moment.

    It would be weird to say "D. melanogaster is a member of Sophophora (or whatever, at the moment, maybe something else later!) but people would get used to it quickly, and nobody would have to die.

  5. This is off-topic, but congrats on your new genus!

  6. Thanks. I was going to put a couple of words up about it yesterday, but I ran out of time.


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