Botanists from around the world are sharpening their battle axes for another fight over the Latin name of the group of yellow-flowered, pod producing plants known as wattles, mimosas, thorn trees, and acacias. Australians and their friends want to keep the name Acacia for their most common plant genus, and not to have to rename their wattles Racosperma. Others (particularly South Africans – who for example constitute 13 of 69 authors on a recent position paper) want to keep the name Acacia for the fever trees, umbrella thorns, and other emblematic trees of the savanna (as opposed to calling them Vachellia and Senegalia). Battle is expected in late July at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, and given the emotions involved, the atmosphere could be as charged as when the Wallabies and Springboks meet on the rugby pitch.
Proponents of different views refer to the rules of botanical nomenclature (that is, how plants get their scientific names), to statistics of numbers of name changes demonstrating various kinds of inconvenience, and to usage (or avoidance) of certain names in the scientific literature. They call for arguments to remain factual, and not emotional, nationalistic, or even jingoistic like some which emerged around the last battle, in Vienna in 2005. Yet they call for people to get involved, to possibly go and vote at the IBC Nomenclature Section in Melbourne (as in a recent email circulated to the Australian-based “Acacia study group”). What would motivate people to get involved? Clearly the issue is indeed emotional.
More importantly, I believe there is nothing wrong with that. Why shall we all hide behind supposed scientific neutrality and impartiality? If historical and sociological studies of science have shown us anything, it is that science has always been shaped by the social context. This debate about national symbols and the way words roll off our tongue (‘Racosperma…’, yuck) has caught the attention of taxonomists, botanists, scientists and the general public far beyond the few acacia specialists, and we care about it not because of nomenclatural rules or inconvenience to publishers of flora, but because we are human, and we give meaning to names, symbols, flowers, nations. Let’s call a spade a spade, and acacia Acacia.
The best proposal I have seen is that by R. K. Brummitt (here), who suggests that nomenclatural rules be bent such that all main groups of Acacia keep the name Acacia for most uses, but that for specialized botanical and taxonomical purposes, a parenthetical Racosperma, Senegalia, or Vachellia be added to the name for the three genera. So the silver wattle that blooms in the Melbourne winter would be Acacia (Racosperma) dealbata for the specialists (but just silver wattle or A. dealbata for most of us) while the iconic tree in the African savanna being nibbled on by a giraffe would be Acacia (Vachellia) tortilis (but just umbrella thorn, or A. tortilis, for common use). Makes a lot of sense to me.
The simplified back story (see also the paper by Jane Carruthers & Libby Robin, or the website ‘worldwidewattle‘ maintained by Bruce Maslin, the website acaciavote from Moore et al., or the references in the papers linked to above): Scientists have produced compelling evidence that the massive genus Acacia should be split into at least three new genera. By the rules of botanical nomenclature, the name Acacia would be kept by some 180 plants found in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The rest would get new names, including Senegalia for another 150 plants in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and Racosperma for over 1000 species in and around Australia. Herein lies the problem: Australia doesn’t want the ugly sounding Racosperma. So in 2005, botanists at a congress in Vienna approved a different name solution: Australia keeps Acacia, and the group that had originally kept the Acacia name becomes Vachellia. Now it was (mainly) South Africa’s turn to be upset, pointing out that Australians call their acacias wattles anyway and that in Africa, the trees are actually called acacias. Economic, nationalistic, numerical, and moral arguments were raised on both sides, including debate over the voting procedures. 2011 is the next International Botanical Congress, in Melbourne, and several proposals are on the table to raise the issue again.
[see more on this issue in the comments below, and in my new blog posting with more comments]