Darwinius: Named at Last!

By Carl Zimmer | May 21, 2009 8:07 pm

In a remarkable feat of commenter-blogger synergy, the Loom has helped give Darwinius its name back.

As I posted yesterday, some commenters on the Loom pointed out that, amidst all the hullaballoo over the unveiling of this primate fossil (oh, don’t get me started), it looked as if the scientists who wrote the paper failed to follow the rules for naming a new species. The people who make the rules (the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature) require paper copies of a scientific paper, not just a digital one, as was the case of Darwinius.

Today, the executive secretary of the ICZN used the Loom to confirm that, yes, Darwinius was not yet Darwinius.

But at last, it is. Here’s an update from Peter Binfield, the managing editor of Plos ONE, the journal that published the paper.

Regarding the requirements for making the name Darwinius masillae nomenclaturally available in the eyes of the ICZN, we have been in discussion with Ellinor Michel (the ICZN Executive Secretary) and have additionally consultated with Richard L. Pyle (an ICZN Commissioner). They have advised us that by doing the following, we have met the ICZN code and therefore the name should be considered nomenclaturally available.

A print-run of fifty copies of the paper has been created on May 21st. The top sheet of each copy has the following text appended to the footer: “This document was produced by a method that assures numerous identical & durable copies, and those copies were simultaneously obtainable for the purpose of providing a public and permanent scientific record, in accordance with Article 8.1 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Date of publication: 21st May 2009”

Apart from this wording, these copies are identical to the electronic version that is freely available from our web site at: http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchObjectAttachment.action?uri=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0005723&representation=PDF

These copies are now obtainable from our offices at 185 Berry Street, Suite 3100, San Francisco, CA 94107, USA. Anyone who requests a copy, and tenders a fee of $10 (towards the cost of postage and printing) will receive a copy.

Having made the printed copies available, we have been told by the individuals named above that we have conformed with the relevant ICZN codes. They have also indicated that the proposed resolution is an interim step, which should meet the requirements of the Code until a formal amendment is published within the next few years.

We are very grateful to the ICZN for their actions to resolve this matter.

Richard Pyle of the ICZN thought that Peter’s update required a small clarification, which he just sent in:

The pending proposed Amendment to the ICZN Code for allowing electronic forms of publication (see: http://www.iczn.org/electronic_publication.html) is currently in review, as is required for all such major amendments to the Code.  This process will likely be completed within the next year, and if adopted, the amendment should go into effect at that time.

What will require “a few years” to be published is the next (Fifth) Edition of the ICZN Code (see: http://iczn.ansp.org ). Presumably, this Edition of the Code will also support the electronic publication of nomenclatural acts (especially if the proposed amendment to the existing 4th Edition of the Code is approved).

To those not steeped in species, genera, suborders and suprafamilies, all of these bylaws and codes may trigger vertigo. But keeping the world’s biodiversity in order is not for the faint of heart. With 1.8 million species on the books, and tens of thousands of new ones being added every year, taxonomists need an intricate set of rules to keep it all straight. The fact that taxonomists share a set of rules, no matter how intricate, was one of the great advances in the history of biology. (See my lecture [audio] for a sense of the chaos that came before.)

But who knows how Linneaus would have dealt with the Internet….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Darwinius, Evolution, Meta

Comments (18)

  1. Didn’t the copies have to be ‘deposited in at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself’ according to Article 8.6, though?

  2. p.s. loved that last paragraph – so true

  3. In reply to Karen James:

    “Didn’t the copies have to be ‘deposited in at least 5 major publicly accessible libraries which are identified by name in the work itself’ according to Article 8.6, though?”

    No — this (Art. 8.6) only applies to publications “produced by a method that does not employ printing on paper”. As it happens, distribution of PDF files via the internet doesn’t even get this far into the Code, because they do not involve “durable” media (Art. 8.1.3). It’s also explicitly excluded by Art. 9.8.

    So….if the durable media on which PLoS published the article was something other than paper (e.g., CD-ROMs, memory sticks, etc.), then they would have not only needed to distribute at least 5 copies to major libraries, but also would have needed to have identified those libraries within the publication itself (see Art. 8.6).

    As it turns out, the durable media that PLoS chose in order to establish it as a Code-compliant publication was, in fact, paper — so Art. 8.6 does not apply.

    While all of this business may appear unbelievably pedantic, it’s actually quite important (as Carl points out above). There aren’t many conventions in science that have remained intact and relevant and important for a quarter of a millennium. Nobody is more acutely aware of the need for the Code to accommodate modern mechanisms of information exchange among scientists than the ICZN Commissioners themselves are. But there is also an extremely important historical legacy that should not (cannot) simply be ignored.

  4. Karen @2:
    No. Art. 8.6 refers to works not produced by ink on paper. Now that they’ve produced a paper edition, Art. 8.6 doesn’t apply. 50 isn’t a lot of copies, but Art 8.1 only specifies “numerous”, so I think they’ve squeaked by.

  5. This is invalid. The Ghost of Linnaeus was not invoked during the rule-fudging ceremony. I’m sorry, the fossil remains unnamed.

  6. But who knows how Linneaus would have dealt with the Internet….

    I think he would have been able to out-snark the best of them, entire clades of ugly parasites would have been filled with the names of blogospheric personalities.

  7. But I like parasites. They’re not ugly.

  8. The power of the blog rules ok

  9. Cromercrox Says:

    The power of the blog rules ok.

    Yes I agree with you Cromercrox.

  10. Just a thanks to those who helped save Darwinius, and D. massillae (two separate names!). First and foremost that’s the ICZN (‘The Commissioners’) who gave this their immediate attention, thought through the arguments eloquently laid out by Rich Pyle, Sven Kullander and others, and then gave Peter Binfield of PLoS a line of action to keep this high-profile taxon in the public eye without further flap about the legitimacy of the names.
    Thanks also to Carl Zimmer for reporting on it so thoroughly. Its been fun!

  11. Jaime A. Headden

    I am curious as to the interests of the ICZN and other publishing bodies:

    In what way do the official records of note and the ICZN concern themselves with the future prospect of non-print publishing, availability of digital information, and the reduction of environmentally-unsound production costs (trees for paper, petroleum for plastic), while maintaining sound production media for taxonomic purposes? Information now travels further and faster by digital means than it does by paper, and hardcopy can be transfered to printing from computers by any interested individual without having to aquire the paper material. This is, in fact, how many proofs and editing editions are handled, instead of paper media. It seems only natural if publication media were to conform to the faster digital communication era, and therefore taxonomic stability conform itself in some way to this.

  12. Sorry, six months went by before I saw this enquiry from Jaime Headden, which was and still is a timely question. The ICZN is currently considering an amendment to the Code to allow e-only publication. Access to the proposed amendment and much discussion is available here: http://www.iczn.org/electronic_publication.html

    It is a thorny issue, however. Note, first that the discussion is not about whether e-access to publications is good, as we all agree it is. Cross-linked references, PDFs, etc, make accessibility much better and speed up our science and are (probably) more sustainable than paper (though read about the power demands of Google and you’ll see the internet is not as footprint-free as it feels (http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/google-data-center-faq-part-2/)).

    For those of you who think a publication with nomenclatural content should be dealt with the same way as all other scientific publications, we’d like to underscore that nomenclatural work has not only a half-life, but actually needs to be accessible in its original form essentially into perpetuity. It also needs to be certain that the archived form is has not been tampered with since the time it became ‘legitimized’. On the latter, most of us have not made the jump to e-only for our most important personal documents (our deeds, birth and marriage certificates) which all still function with hard copy as paramount. That is changing, but has not changed yet for many aspects of legal treatment. Add on the requirement for archival survival into perpetuity, and you can see why the ICZN and ICBN are still a bit squirrely about signing up for e-only validity.

    The question is, should the definitive publications of nomenclatural acts be on media with untested archival qualities? Most people agree that the last edition of the Code made a mistake in presuming that CDs and DVDs would turn out to be archivally robust. They didn’t. Now we are assured by many that LOCKSS, etc, will be fine. But the jury is still out, the commentary still roles in, and the Commission still has to vote on whether the time is right for this transition.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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