The Linnaean system requires a standardized ending for the names of all the taxa at a given rank (at least at the level of family and below). In the zoological code, family names must end with the four letters idae, for example, and subfamily names must end with inae. If taxonomists decide that a group once considered a family should instead be ranked as a subfamily, the group must, under the rules of the current system, get a new name. This frustrates the PhyloCoders to no end. “It’s still the same tree,” Gauthier says. “Nothing has changed, except how we spell the names. In a day when all this information is going onto the Internet, this is a bad idea. It’s a constant change of PIN numbers.” Some taxa have gone through a number of different names over the course of just a decade. Several years ago, for instance, it was decided that the great-ape family Pongidae couldn’t exist at the same rank as the human family Hominidae because humans are a subset of the great apes. To fix the problem, researchers proposed that humans and their great-ape relatives be combined into a single family, Hominidae, and members of the family Pongidae become the subfamily Ponginae. This can make literature searches a real pain, Gauthier says: “To a computer, there’s a world of difference between iguanidae and iguaninae.”
Beginning in 1983, Gauthier and de Queiroz worked every Friday—“from whenever Jacques woke up until midnight,” de Queiroz says—trying to figure out a better scheme. Finally, in 1992, they published a rabble-rousing paper in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. The paper condemned the Linnaean system as “a body of conventions based on a pre-Darwinian worldview” and broadly outlined an alternate phylogenetic system of taxonomy. “My idea was that we’d let the traditional codes take up these ideas,” de Queiroz says. “But a lot of us figured we’d be waiting for decades.” He was reluctant to draft a new code on his own, knowing it would be a legalistic and intensely pedantic exercise. But eventually Philip Cantino, a botanist at Ohio University and an early adopter of the PhyloCode, agreed to help.
In 1998 a group of 27 scientists from five countries gathered for a workshop at Harvard University to discuss the new system. Two years later, a draft version of the PhyloCode—a preamble, 21 articles, and two appendixes—was posted on the Internet. That’s when things started to get ugly.
In Paris last summer, in the back left corner of the auditorium where the conference was held, a bespectacled and goateed 31-year-old Kurt Pickett studiously took notes. Pickett is a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History. He’s also a counterrevolutionary. Two weeks after the conference, he delivered a caustic, unscripted critique of the PhyloCode to the Willi Hennig Society, a group of taxonomists passionately opposed to it. His talk was titled, “A Brief Report From a PhyloCode Mole.”
Opponents of the PhyloCode have dismissed its advocates as spinmeisters, arrogant usurpers, and practitioners of “Orwellian antilogic.” They’ve compared them to communists one minute and fascists the next. James Carpenter, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History and director of the laboratory where Pickett works, has spearheaded the opposition. One of his colleagues says that at age 49, Carpenter is “not afflicted by the need to be politic.” PhyloCoders prefer to call him a human pit bull. On a recent afternoon at the museum, he was wearing a flower-print shirt, with his white hair pulled back in a ponytail. “I ignored the PhyloCode stuff for the better part of a decade, just assuming that because it was so obviously silly it would disappear,” he said. “Years later I was persuaded, against my will, to take it seriously and do something about it.”
Carpenter has written several papers condemning the PhyloCode. One critique appeared in a special issue of the journal The Botanical Review, with a cover illustration of Linnaeus flanked by the Swedish exhortation “Säg bara NEJ till fylokoden!” (Just say NO to the PhyloCode!) Nothing rankles him more than the PhyloCoders’ contention that the Linnaean system is nonevolutionary. “They want to present themselves as the new revolutionaries,” he says. “But that’s all just spin. The Linnaean hierarchy is—duh—a hierarchy. One hierarchy can be translated into another hierarchy. That’s all there is to it.” When the Linnaean names don’t map onto the evolutionary tree, they can be changed.
These changes may create some momentary confusion, Carpenter says, but it will be nothing compared with the chaos the PhyloCode will cause: “We’ve got 2 million or so taxa named under this 250-year-old Linnaean system, and they want us to go to something new. Their sophomoric philosophy misses the real point—that nomenclature is a communication system. There’s been no analysis by those sages of the real consequences of what they’re proposing.”
If the PhyloCode were adopted, biology textbooks would have to be rewritten, museum collections reorganized, legislation revised. The cost of rewriting the Endangered Species Act alone “could range in millions to billions of dollars,” according to one recent article in the journal Taxon.
Even the PhyloCode’s staunchest detractors admit there are problems with the current system. The zoological code alone is more than 170 pages long, and its rules and regulations can bog down the day-to-day work of taxonomy. Yet they believe the PhyloCoders are trying to tear down a house that at most needs a new paint job. “It’s what you might call an end run,” says botanist Kevin Nixon of Cornell University. “This would be very similar to a set of politicians who decided to bypass the Constitution to create a whole new set of laws.”
And they may well succeed: The PhyloCoders plan to start publishing papers using only their naming system. If they were just a bunch of hacks, no one would pay them much mind, but several are leaders in their fields. Carpenter calls their publishing plan “completely confused nonsense.” He compares it to an old joke about a communist bureaucracy: The leaders wanted drivers to switch from the left side of the road to the right, “but because this was a very complicated and delicate matter, they would begin on Monday with only party members switching sides, and everyone else would drive as before. Well, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
Carpenter assumed the editorship of Cladistics, the Willi Hennig Society’s house publication and one of the more influential journals in evolutionary biology, this past January. “As editor, I have every intention of outlining that our journal’s policy is to follow [the existing] codes,” he says. “You will do that or your paper will be rejected. It won’t even be considered.” Gauthier and de Queiroz call this censorship. “If they have to resort to that, they must feel threatened,” de Queiroz says. “Really bad ideas don’t have to have policies against them.” Gauthier is less circumspect: “They wouldn’t get away with that. It’s so unscientific. Hey, let it compete in the marketplace of ideas. If it sucks, people won’t use it.”
Scientific journals usually have rules requiring that authors adhere to the standard nomenclature, but few enforce them. As the PhyloCode gains publicity, however, more and more journals may return papers to scientists, demanding they follow the traditional system. One postdoc at the PhyloCode conference complained that he had shopped a paper around for more than a year before a journal agreed to publish it.
Gauthier says that Carpenter’s dire predictions of runaway costs are “scaremongering.” Costs, he adds, would be more than made up for by the benefit of no longer having to constantly rename taxa to accommodate new discoveries. He believes the PhyloCode’s improvements are so obvious that scientists will have no choice but to adopt it. “I can’t believe, once people realize the sky isn’t falling, that this won’t catch on,” Gauthier says.
Meanwhile, the movement does suffer from a recruiting problem: Most of its proponents are vertebrate paleontologists, a field particularly bedeviled by the old Linnaean system. Few, if any, study insects, fungi, or bacteria—groups that include far more than half of all described species—and getting those researchers on board will take a while. “It’s not going to happen in one generation,” says botanist Michael Donoghue, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University.
Like other PhyloCoders, Donoghue worries that jumping on an uncrowded bandwagon could hurt his career. He has had grant requests criticized, he thinks, because he supports the new system. “If a young person came to me and said, ‘Do you think I should really get into this?’ I’d have to say, ‘Maybe you’d better wait on that. Go publish some other stuff.’ ” Gauthier disagrees: “You’re a scientist. You’ve got to stand up and take the shots. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. This trail may ultimately prove a dead end, but that’s the name of the business.”