What's in a Name?
In most interactions between People and other species, those species
which are more conspicuous, or those which have the greatest impact on
People's activities, are most closely regarded. English has dozens of
names for Canis familiaris L. (Dog, bitch, whelp, pup, puppy, mutt,
mongrel, cur, hound, terrier, pariah, Dingo, Collie, sheepdog,
Dachshund, Rottweiler, Spaniel, setter, pointer, retriever, Otterhound,
Doberman, Poodle...) but we'll lump representatives of five kingdoms as
"scum," just because they're small, 'unimportant,' and not closely
related to us. The cultural point of view which systematic and museum
biologists have introduced to the world is that all species are of equal
value, regardless of how closely they are related to People. One lesson
systematics teaches is that it's not other species' responsibility to be
interesting to us, but our responsibility to find out about them.
The attempt to name all the kinds of organisms is the great scholarly
expression of this biological egalitarianism, and it has consumed the
efforts of naturalists for two and a half centuries. Ever since Linneaus
began this project in the 1750's, systematists have tried to group
species into 'natural' assemblages (taxa), so that as many of their
characteristics as possible fit the classification. A century later,
Darwin showed that the more 'natural' groups seemed 'natural' because
they were related by descent. A century after that, Willi Hennig showed
that the only scientifically practical way of delimiting 'natural' taxa
was by grouping together all the descendants of a single common
ancestor, on the basis of the derived characters that they share (and
that, as a corollary, similarity based on shared primitive
characteristics can't delimit a 'natural' group) [footnote 1].
"Reptiles," to use the classic example, can't be a class of Vertebrates
of the same rank as Birds and Mammals, because the traditional
'Reptilia' excluded those descendants of the ancestral reptile that
became Birds or Mammals. To a naturalist, then, every organism trails
behind it an ethereal branching pattern of ancestry, like a shadow
tree, tracing back into the mists of time, each node on the tree
memorialized by the names of the taxon composed of all the descendants
of this ancestral species. We build this shadow tree in our minds by
identifying the patterns of shared derived characters in morphology,
behaviour, biochemistry, or genetics.
One implication of this, which is not widely observed, is that in
English the names of each of these natural groups is a proper noun.
There has long been dissention among biologists and naturalists about
capitalizing the names of species, but the recognition of species and
higher taxa as historic individuals is an important advance in the
philosophy of biology over the past twenty years, and requires the
capitalization of their English names. Lower-casing the names of taxa is
an assertion that they are classes of objects that could be made up
anywhere or anytime, a convenient fiction for those who wish to ignore
their significance. Capitalizing names is an assertion that taxa are
individuals with a particular historical origin, duration, and extent
[footnote 2]. It is perhaps significant that among North American
Animals the main proponent of lower-casing names is the American
Fisheries Society, with exploitation embedded in its name, while the
main proponent of upper-casing species' names is the American
Ornithologist's Union, the first advocates of a group of Animals to
band together for their taxon's own sake.
Notice the similarity to the way groups of People are named: you can
become a 'liberal' or 'anglophone' on the basis of your own efforts, but
you can only become 'a Liberal' or 'English' through membership in an
existing institution or nation [footnote 3]. The capitalization of the
names of higher taxa assumes a kind of mapping of formal taxonomic names
onto the English names which has not usually been thought of.
"Amphibians" as commonly used is an English name for the formal
taxonomic 'Lissamphibia' (the modern Amphibia: Anura [frogs and toads],
Urodela [Salamanders], and Gymnophiona [Caecilians]), excluding the
antique Labyrinthodonts, Microsaurs, etc., and as such it deserves
The other side of treating the names of monophyletic taxa as proper
nouns, is that the names of 'paraphyletic' groupings that exclude some
of the descendants of the most recent common ancestor are not proper
nouns, and are not capitalized: thus 'invertebrates' vs 'Vertebrates,'
'Passerine' vs 'nonpasserine' Birds, marine 'fish' vs 'Mammals,' and
'Flowering Plants' vs 'fern allies.' On the other hand, it's improper
to make up names of non-taxa that have a taxonomic form, such as
'herpetile' to refer to Amphibians and reptiles. This kind of constant
attention to the evolutionary status of the species referred to by an
English name is unfamiliar to most writers and readers, but it accords
the history of the organisms named the same kind of importance accorded
to human institutions.
We try to be consistent in this usage in EOBM publications, but we're
breaking new ground here, and there's no body of precedent on which to
base our decisions. Certainly 'Coffee,' as a shrub (Coffea arabica) is
to be capitalized, but is the beverage derived from it also capitalized?
Probably not, on the model of 'french toast' and 'english' as the spin
on a tennis ball, though when back bacon is called 'Canadian bacon' in
the USA 'Canadian' is always capitalized. But right down at the heart of
the matter, capitalization is used to accord and recognize respect for
an entity. As no branch on the tree of life is intrinsically more
important than another, the English names of all taxa deserve to be
SCHUELER and KARSTAD PUBLICATIONS
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COMMENTS: We stated our basic policy on the capitalization of English names in the preface to Canadian Nature Notebook: "I have capitalized the common names of species because they are proper nouns and could otherwise be confused with description." (Aleta Karstad, p 7, 1979, CNN, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto. 144 pp.).
We were also part of the discussion a few years later, when the Canadian Field-Naturalist, under the editorship of Francis Cook, adopted this same policy of capitalizing the standard English common names of all species.
In the years since, especially in wrestling with the paraphyletic character of the organisms lumped under the term "herpetile," we realized that the names of all monophyletic taxa were proper nouns and their names should also be capitalized. Working with this idea in the pages of A Place to Walk (Karstad, Aleta, Frederick W. Schueler, and Lee Ann Locker. 1995. APTW: A naturalist's journal of the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail. Natural Heritage/Natural History, Toronto. 159 pp.), brought us to the stage expressed of the essay presented here.
This essay was composed in the search for a capitalization policy for the publications of the Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum. It failed to convince the members of the publications committee that the names of monophyletic taxa should be capitalized, though their objections did not refute the contention that these names were proper nouns, but centred around the unfamiliarity of the novelty of the practice. The journal Biodiversity, under the editorship of the late Don McAllister, on the other hand, did capitalize the English names of all taxa, with this:
"Policy of Respect: The fundamental policy of Biodiversity is to communicate knowledge of biodiversity and its conservation. In line with conservation, we view it as needful to engender and foster respect for all living species. One simple way to do this is to capitalize the names of all taxa within the journal's pages. This style of capitalization differs from the usual practice of lowercasing the common names of all organisms in many popular publications, and the varying practices found in scientific journals. For instance, common names for Birds are often capitalized, Fish names are not, according to their North American professional societies' rules, and so on.
"Capitalization has had a long editorial history of being used to draw attention to things that we deem important. This includes people's names, names of countries and other geographic units, religions, organizations like the United Nations, and many others. By capitalizing the names of all formally named species, Biodiversity reminds its readers that these species are an important part of the family of life. It is crucial for Humans to learn to live in harmony with the other species of the planet Earth, which sustain vital local and planetary support systems as well as proving biological resources and spiritual nurture. In addition, for purely practical purposes, capitalization makes it easier to search for name-based information." -- Catherine Ripley and Don McAllister - 21 Dec 1999.
It was interesting to us that for both the EOBM publications committee and Biodiversity, the argument that was advanced against capitalization of monophyletic names, other than unfamiliarity, was that opinions on the monophyly of groups might change with time: "Today's monophyletic group may be tomorrow's paraphyletic group. Molecular work is having surprising and contradictory results..." Our reply was that no document can be expected to anticipate future discoveries, and that if we differentiate those groups we think of as para- vs holo-phyletic we'll remind the future reader of the history of knowledge of the group he's reading about, just as 'Hyolcichla' now serves as a reminder of the history of our knowledge of the relationships of Thrushes.
The idea of capitalization is to communicate the author's beliefs about monophyly, not to divine the 'facts' of phylogeny. The basic point to us still is that the relationships and history of other species deserve the same importance we accord to the history and relationships of Human People and their institutions, and that if proper nouns are to be capitalized, no nouns are more worthy of this sign of respect than the names of natural taxa. -- F.W.Schueler - Janaury 2006.
footnote 1: He also, perhaps unfortunately, drew up a frightening suite
of words to describe these relationships. Shared derived characteristics
are 'synapomorphies,' shared primitive characteristics are
'sympleisiomorphies,' groups descended from a single common ancestor are
'monophyletic' or 'holophyletic,' and those that exclude some of the
descendants are 'paraphyletic,' etc., etc.
footnote 2: Ghiselin, M. 1974. A radical solution to the species
problem. Systematic Zoology 23:536-544; Ghiselin, M. 1987. Species
concepts, individuality, and objectivity. Biology and Philosophy
2:127-143; Hull, D. L. 1978. A matter of individuality. Philosphy of
footnote 3: We use "People" or "Human People" as the natural English
common name for our species, since we feel that the widely used "human
being" represents an anthropocentric commodification or abstraction or
immaterialization, or something, of humanity. People who call themselves
‘human beings' don't think of this of an English common name formed on
the basis of the same principles that they would use in calling
Dendroica petechia the ‘Yellow Warbler,' so it's an artificial common
name (like the made-up English names of many mushrooms, that were only
called by their names until field guide editors insisted that every
species must have an English name), for a species that already has a
perfectly satisfactory colloquial name.