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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2002 Feb;77(1):39-55.

A review of criticisms of phylogenetic nomenclature: is taxonomic freedom the fundamental issue?

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Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Regina, SK, Canada.


The proposal to implement a phylogenetic nomenclatural system governed by the PhyloCode), in which taxon names are defined by explicit reference to common descent, has met with strong criticism from some proponents of phylogenetic taxonomy (taxonomy based on the principle of common descent in which only clades and species are recognized). We examine these criticisms and find that some of the perceived problems with phylogenetic nomenclature are based on misconceptions, some are equally true of the current rank-based nomenclatural system, and some will be eliminated by implementation of the PhyloCode. Most of the criticisms are related to an overriding concern that, because the meanings of names are associated with phylogenetic pattern which is subject to change, the adoption of phylogenetic nomenclature will lead to increased instability in the content of taxa. This concern is associated with the fact that, despite the widespread adoption of the view that taxa are historical entities that are conceptualized based on ancestry, many taxonomists also conceptualize taxa based on their content. As a result, critics of phylogenetic nomenclature have argued that taxonomists should be free to emend the content of taxa without constraints imposed by nomenclatural decisions. However, in phylogenetic nomenclature the contents of taxa are determined, not by the taxonomist, but by the combination of the phylogenetic definition of the name and a phylogenetic hypothesis. Because the contents of taxa, once their names are defined, can no longer be freely modified by taxonomists, phylogenetic nomenclature is perceived as limiting taxonomic freedom. We argue that the form of taxonomic freedom inherent to phylogenetic nomenclature is appropriate to phylogenetic taxonomy in which taxa are considered historical entities that are discovered through phylogenetic analysis and are not human constructs.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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