Introductory sources on biological classification
June 9, 2014 6:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm beginning a project that looks partly at biological classification, primarily in western science. I have no background in this, and so I'm digging around. I'm interested to know more about the current rules for nomenclature, and also to know more about historical, philosophical, sociological, knowledge practice, ethnographic, anthropological, science technology and society (STS), sociotechnical, etc., approaches to the study of biological classification. I'll take monographs, articles, papers, web sites, etc. I have access to a university library. What are some good sources that can introduce me to this? Many thanks!
posted by carter to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Do you mean Taxonomy? Because taxonomy these days is mostly driven by genetic analysis.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:01 AM on June 9, 2014

Response by poster: Yes! Thanks, Chocolate Pickle - I'm adding a tag.
posted by carter at 7:06 AM on June 9, 2014

Best answer: If you have some time for a whole book, I highly recommend reading The Naming of Names by Anna Pavord. Most people start with Linnaeus, but she goes deeper and further back. It is an amazing read.
posted by 9000condiments at 7:10 AM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Do you have access to the librarians at the university library? This is exactly what they're good at! You might search your library catalog for "Biology Classification History" (no quotes, just those words) in the subject field.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:39 AM on June 9, 2014

Best answer: Another useful tag/key word would be 'phylogenetics'. As Chocolate Pickle says, modern taxonomy is driven by genetic analysis--what that means is that genetic analysis (in combination with morphology and fossils) is used to derive evolutionary trees, and then things are reclassified based on our new understanding of their relatedness. My favorite starting point for taxonomy and phylogenetics is the Tree of Life Web Project. It is beautiful, detailed, and well-sourced.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:41 AM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ornithology naming conventions are pretty structured and there are several international organizations that formalize new names or species. In North and Central America, it's run by the American Ornithology Union. Here is the official checklist of all birds in the area. Here are details on the changes over the last year. Here is a list of species that don't 'exist' anymore.

Other taxa also have formal organizations that name species.

I'm not sure if this is what you're interested in based on your update. These are all nomenclature issues, not taxonomy issues. I.e. whether a group of birds is a full species or a subspecies isn't based on a taxonomic definition although that may weigh into the decision of how to list it. If you're interested in taxonomy and genetics, that's a whole other set of papers.
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:41 AM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so far, everyone!
hydrobatidae, that's a useful distinction between taxonomy and nomenclature. I am just starting to think about this - and there are unknown unknowns, etc. Some of the people I'll be working with have described themselves as evolutionary biologists engaged in systematic biology. So one thing I want to do (after a while) is have an informed basic conversation with them about their work, publications, etc. They are also working with collections that can have some old (19C) specimens in them, so I'd like also to understand how taxonomic and nomenclaturial practices have changed over time. Hope this makes sense ...
posted by carter at 7:58 AM on June 9, 2014

Best answer: This might be interesting to you too then.

Here's the list of the different names that the current 'Arctic Loon' has been found under over time. So if you have an 'Arctic Loon' specimen from 1890, it's going to be called 'Black-throated Loon Urinator arcticus'. If you have one from 1940, it could be labelled 'Pacific Loon Gavia arctica pacifica' or 'Arctic Loon Gavia arctica'. And one taken recently would be back to 'Arctic Loon Gavia arctica'.

I work with museum specimens and you have to know all the alternate Latin names because the tags are attached when skins are prepared and not updated with nomenclature changes.

Another site for nomenclature is ITIS which shows you how names have changed over time (and probably why) for, e.g. Green Frog Lithobates clamitans (listed in some of data as Rana clamitans).
posted by hydrobatidae at 8:19 AM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The answer to this question is very group specific; so, talking with microbiologists will give you a completely different answer than talking to biologists specializing in animals or in plants (with additional differences between plants and animals). You're looking at a huge, multi-faceted project here.

I'm familiar with the Bacteria/Archaea* species naming process. This will get you started:

All new species must be published in the "International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology" (1998-present), which used to be called "International bulletin of Bacteriological Nomenclature and Taxonomy" (1950-1966) and then "International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology" (1966-1998).

Current rules (condensed; see here for more details):

1) It must be published in this journal
2) The name should be spelled correctly, in Latin or in Latin-ized Greek, and with some other restrictions on naming
3) It should be stated that the species is a new species
4) It should not conflict with known species in other fields (plants, animals, fungi, ect.)
5) A description or reference to a description must be made
6) A type strain must be kept in 2 different culture collections in two different countries.

Please notice the LACK of certain criterion here, such as stating what differentiates one species from another. There are not set rules on this in microbiology, although there are conventions, such as percent hybridization (i.e. similarity) of DNA.

The culture collection aspect can be a weird one, as there are plenty of plants, animals, and fungi that we know of, and that have names, but that we cannot get to reproduce in captivity. This is a requirement for bacteria, leading to several species of bacteria that are fully, genetically sequenced but that do not have any name because we cannot grow them in the lab. The SAR11 group of bacteria make up approximately 1/3 of bacteria in the ocean, and their existence was known about way, way before lots of them were cultured and given names in the early 2000's. Anther issue are bacteria that cannot be grown in pure (single species) cultures, as they require another species for growth.

If you are interested in how the rules have changed through time, look at the author's instructions found in these journals through time. Most universities with a significant biology program have this journal, as it's THE microbiology nomenclature journal.

List of current, accepted bacteria species names (only 10,000+, which is approximately 0.001% of probable bacteria species [and even that estimate is a guess]. For comparison, there are 850,000 - 4,000,000 beetle species and 600 oak tree species.)

Viruses are another matter that is completely different, due to the convention that they are more like escaped sets of genes and proteins more than independently replicating organisms. They do not have fully latin names, unlike other biological organisms.

* What are the Archaea? Think of an organism approximately the same size of bacteria (normally), but as different in biology as bacteria are to humans. Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukaryotes (things with a nucleus; think of 99.9% of the life that you see on a day-to-day basis — if you're not a microbiologist...) make up the three branches / categories of life. They were discovered in the 1970's. Yes, that's right, microbiologists are currently discovering completely new and crazy branches of life. This is what makes us awesome.
posted by Peter Petridish at 8:40 AM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would highly recommend checking out the Berkeley evolution and phylogenetics website to get a good idea of how current taxonomy and classification is used/works (how to read trees, understanding systematics and evolution, etc.). I use this a lot to help students understand some basic principles in systematics when I teach evolutionary biology (of which a huge component is understanding and using classification/taxonomy). Check it out! It's an excellent resource to supplement anything else you may be using. Not sure how to properly link, but here it is:

Also, based on your update, I suspect you are more interested in understanding taxonomy/phylogenetics rather than how nomenclature works (I am an evolutionary biologist who works in systematics, I rarely talk to most people about nomenclature unless it's a really technical point in a publication I am working on, I'm usually talking about bigger picture things (how to do we know we have a new species, that sort of thing). Nomenclature can be complicated, but isn't very interesting to talk about most of the time).
posted by PinkPoodle at 11:21 AM on June 9, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, this is all really cool and useful stuff. I'm probably looking at animals to start with, but a good intro to microbiology is very useful as a comparative case study, so thanks Peter Petridish! Also the 'Naming of Names' looks fascinating, 9000condiments. And thanks for the link to the Berkeley evolution and phylogenetics website, PinkPoodle.

As I said above, the distinction between taxonomy and nomenclature is very useful for me, they are definitely focused on taxonomy, although once you go to the actual specimen trays, the descriptions of specimens are often given in terms both of taxonomy and nomenclature (because some of the specimens are pretty old and have a range of labels attached) and also individual collectors and curators (thanks again hydrobatidae).
posted by carter at 1:53 PM on June 9, 2014

Best answer: The Platypus and the Mermaid by Harriet Ritvo is a really fascinating history of how the systems of classification developed, how finding certain new species made old systems impossible to use, etc. I actually read it for a graduate literature class, so it could be a nice counterpart to some of the more scientific materials.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:30 PM on June 9, 2014

Best answer: One way to learn about classification is to see exactly how not to do it.

This article on Scientific American is a great overview of how one person - if they're really determined - can make things a total nightmare for everyone else researching a particular type of animal. It explains the various concepts in excellent detail so you can really grasp the horror of what's been happening to Australian snake taxonomy. Lots of detailed links and interesting and informative comments follow the article. It's also pretty funny.
posted by coleboptera at 9:38 PM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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