Why Australia's plant phrase-naming system is more interesting than it seems (Part 1)

For the last decade or so, Australian botanists have been doing a very interesting thing (we've actually been doing lots of interesting things, but this blog is about just one of them). We’ve been naming taxa (or at least, putative taxa) outside the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants (the Code), using a parallel but carefully formulated and controlled nomenclatural system.

This is the phrase-naming system, standardised by Bill Barker on behalf of the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria (CHAH) in 2005 (see Barker, W.R. Standardising informal names in Australian publications, Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 122, 11–12, 2005).

A phrase name is a name constructed under the agreed CHAH standard, with the form “Genus-name sp. Phrasename (Voucher specimen identifier) Source”. Some examples are Acacia sp. Ambathala (C.Sandercoe 624) Qld Herbarium, Sauropus sp. Jabiru (C.R.Dunlop 3381) NT Herbarium, and Typhonium sp. Kununurra (A.N.Start ANS 1467) WA Herbarium.

The phrase-naming system was standardised at the time the Australian Plant Census (APC) project was initiated. This is no coincidence – the APC was an initiative to checklist accepted vascular plant taxa across Australia, and a standardised phrase-naming system was required for that effort.

At first glance, our vascular plant phrase-naming system may seem prosaic and uninteresting - what's so special about putting tag names on plants? However, I reckon it's actually much more interesting than it seems. Firstly, to the best of my knowledge, it's globally unique: no other country has an agreed, formal, multi-jurisdictional standard for naming taxa outside the normal provisions of biological nomenclature. But beyond it's uniqueness, I think it establishes a precedent and a model that could provide much-needed flexibility in naming throughout modern taxonomy and systematics.

Names and namespaces

Technically, names are GUIDS (Globally Unique Identifiers). A GUID is a key (a number or text string) that identifies a thing, and that the system designer can assert uniquely identifies that thing and only that thing within the system. If this is the case, a GUID can then stand in for the thing itself. GUIDs are particularly important in globally distributed systems (like the internet, or biology), where the Globally Unique part of GUID means exactly that.

To ensure that GUIDs are globally unique, a control system and a set of rules are needed, which together control the assignment of GUIDS to things, and the resolution from GUIDS to things. If such a control system is present, and it results in global uniqueness, the system is called a Controlled Namespace. A great example of a controlled namespace is the DNS (Domain Name System), which controls how domain names (like notobiotica.posthaven.com) are assigned and managed. If the DNS didn’t control domain names as GUIDS, and two separate websites could each have the same domain name, the internet would quickly unravel.

Taxonomists around the world are very familiar with controlled namespaces, because that's what the three Codes of Nomenclature (the botanical, zoological and bacteriological Codes) are. The Codes are complex sets of rules that control how names are assigned (rules of validity), are deemed to be correct or incorrect (rules of legitimacy), and are resolved when several valid and legitimate options exist (rules of priority). The rules ensure that one taxon has one valid and legitimate name (that is, each taxon has a GUID). 

The Codes, while exceedingly important, are not perfect, largely because they evolved at a time when controlling the biological namespace was effectively impossible. Taxonomists wore funny wigs, spoke Latin, printed their taxonomy in books using Gutenberg presses, and distributed them by slow boat or a new-fangled and very cool thing called a postal service. If the internet had been invented at that time, it would be a complete mess. The fact that biological nomenclature isn’t a mess (it’s actually pretty good) is testament to the great workarounds that our nomenclatural forebears put in place at the time the Codes were consolidated in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

As well as being imperfect, the Codes are not magical: they're useful only because of the controlled namespaces they enable. And if good reasons emerge to set up more controlled namespaces, there's nothing to stop us doing just that.

The fourth namespace

This is why I think the Australian phrase-naming system is interesting. It's a fourth controlled namespace. (Remember that it combines a standard rule for forming names, and a process - the APC - that ensures uniqueness, hence the phrase-name system in a formal sense is a controlled namespace.) In fact, while we often call phrase-names "informal", in contradistinction to the "formal" names created under the Codes, in many ways they're just as formal. 

This fourth namespace was created to solve a specific problem in Australian botanical taxonomy, which is that we have a bottleneck: taxa (at least, putative ones) are being recognised in Australia faster than we can deal with them under the normal mechanisms of taxonomy and name them under the Codes. The phrase-naming system was invented as a "parking bay", to enable names to be given to these taxa - with all that that implies for communication, conservation etc. - while they await "formal" naming. It's a neat partial solution to the taxonomic impediment, which of course is what causes the bottleneck in the first place. 

The thing I find interesting about this is that there are many dimensions to the taxonomic impediment, and formal phrase-names established under a controlled namespace, like the Australian vascular plant phrase-naming system, could play a larger role in dealing with these. In a later blog I'll try to draw out some of these possibilities, and to show that this fourth namespace could play a larger and more interesting role in our overall taxonomy than it does at present. It could, for example, be extended to the whole of Australasian biology, allowing the formal (informal) naming of organisms other than plants. In doing so, it could play an important role in rapidly capturing, with unique names, all our taxon concepts, even those that are not yet ready (for a variety of reasons) for naming under the Codes (or indeed, and here's a thought, ones that we have no intention of naming under the Codes).

Coming up next - extending phrase-names to the whole of life, and to more than just "taxa"...