What’s in a (scientific) name?

[Editor’s Note: This is the first of many guest posts from our classmates and friends with academic and personal interests in linguistics, writing, cognition, and English. Enjoy!]

Ben Finkel is a junior at Duke University. He is spending fall 2011 in South African parks studying ecology and conservation. He’s currently blogging about his experiences here.

South Africans and Australians are feuding. I can’t help but notice this whenever my professor mentions the Aussies and feigns a spit over his shoulder. They say it’s a sports rivalry. Still, to an outsider, this conflict seems like niche competition. Here are two ex British-colonies, rival members of the small club of southern hemisphere powerhouses. I’ve quickly learned that nothing earns a spitting rebuke quite like equating South African and Australian accents—or worse, sports teams.

Even so, the most heated fight between the two right now is not on any athletics field. It’s at the International Botanical Congress (IBC). Every six years, a formal meeting of the world’s plant experts convenes. With power from the International Code of Nomenclature, the IBC’s goals are to discuss and revise species phylogenies to reach a standardized and streamlined system. This is how algae, fungi, and plant species get their Latin names or lose them.

So how has a labeling issue has South Africans frothing at the mouth? Renaming the Acacia.

You’ve seen the acacia before—whether in The Lion King or nature documentaries. It’s “quintessentially African,” those majestic trees that rise angularly from the savanna. Phrases like “an acacia sunset” or “an acacia savanna” are commonly used here in Kruger National Park. It’s a symbol of national pride.

In the face of a widely circulated petition and broad opposition within Africa as a whole, scientists decided to split up the genus Acacia. A 2011 vote of those taxonomists resolved to uphold a previous decision and give the name to 948 Australian species. Now the losers in this battle, the South Africans, now have to split and rename 176 species of South African Acacia into the genera Senegalia and Vachelia.

The Aussies argue that, although Africa has the type specimen, they have the majority of Acacia diversity and have produced more of its descriptive literature.

In the words of my botany professor, “The Australians are saying, ‘f— sentimentality, we’ve done all the work.’ This is the cold hard edge of science. It’s like changing the name elephant or lion. South Africa will fight these bastards.”

But that will be harder than just crossing arms. Scientific journals automatically reject any submissions that name species incorrectly—“no matter how groundbreaking the research,” according to my professor. This threat looms large over botany researchers, who make up a large part of the opposition here.

As an ecology student in South Africa, I learned the name of Acacia tortillis, which exhibits that classic flat top canopy, first. Going back into my data to rename it seems like a waste of time. The name acacia already belongs to an entire continent. That’s a license that cannot be taken away, right?

African scientists could decide to boycott the change. Some surely will. A mass boycott could stall the shift and maybe even garner some sympathy. More likely, though, it would create conflict. Focus would turn to this symbolic issue rather than more pressing ones like conservation. Such controversy would slow down scientific dialogues.

Scientific research is now a globalized institution of collaboration. One group cannot operate by their own rules.

This cooperation depends everyone using the same language and terms. Species names help biologists communicate with one another to compare and see patterns. Nowadays, naturalists have the pleasure of an organizational structure. A species’ whole title goes from kingdom (e.g., Animalia) all the way down to the genus (e.g., Homo) and species (e.g., sapiens), which most of us Homo sapiens recognize. Name the genus and a scientist will probably immediately know what broader categories it belongs to.

Research would move at a gastropod’s pace if it weren’t for these tools.

One problem is that nature doesn’t like cut-and-dry categories. As Sandeep said in a previous post on new words, language strives to achieve stability, while natural systems are dynamic. Ask just two biologists to define “species” and you will almost certainly hear more than two answers. Where does one species end and another begin? Infinite variation often leads to arbitrary boundaries.

Taxonomists’ conferences like the IBC exist because of this fluidity. We are still discovering new species or even entire phyla in the microscopic world. Reordering occurs constantly at the behest of new DNA analysis tools. Naming Earth’s life is a process that will never be finished. (For instance, did you know that termites no longer belong to their own order Isoptera? They’re now grouped with cockroaches under Blattodea!)

So what’s the best next step for the African naturalists’ mob? Acknowledging the useful—while imperfect—scientific naming process results in a bitter answer: Australia wins. “Suck it up,” some have said. Continuing to use “acacia” as the genus’s common name will result in little change for most people.

Another possible scenario: some South African naturalists vow, “I’ll call it Acacia until the day I die!” Well, when they do, Acacia will fall out of use. Then, a generation from now, the IBC reconvenes under new evidence to declare the genus Acacia for Africa, and the debate begins all over again. Frustrated students moan over changing lexicon. Researchers grumble about edits to their papers.

It’s possible. In the dynamic world of nomenclature, nothing is forever. That’s the language of science.