The Acacia name change – botany and emotion

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. See also our recent publication (available as pdf):

Kull, Christian A. & Haripriya Rangan (2012) Science, sentiment and territorial chauvinism in the acacia name change debate. In Peopled Landscapes: Archaeological and Biogeographic Approaches to Landscapes, edited by Haberle, S. G. & B. David. Canberra: ANU E-Press, 197-219.]

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6 Responses to The Acacia name change – botany and emotion

  1. J. B. Friday says:

    Auwe! More work for us foresters to learn new names.

  2. Thanks for your good article. I also honor emotions. And the compromise from Mr. Brummit seems to be a possibility to lead “the world” out of this impending axe-fight.

    Let me comment on the species numbers. I am not a botanist, but a chemist. My hobby are the trees and I have two main specialities: the Acacias (which are not at home in Europe) and the beech trees (which are the main tree species in Middle Europe).
    There are strictly spoken only eight beech species worldwide. If you are generous: Make it twelf. But there are over one hundred varieties. These varieties show very different form and/or different color/s of the leaf, different growth habits, even some modification in the bark – and all kind of combinations of these features. They are very well documented in two books by Mr. Gerhard Dönig. And you can find pictures of Fagus sylvatica ‘xyz‘ all over the web.
    On the other hand the Acacias, where each small difference (not only in flower or fruit) leads to a new species.
    As there is no Government regulation as to what a plant has to show to become a separate species, the scientific community decides, what it wants.
    Curiously in the case of beeches, botanists decided to keep the number of species extremely low, in Acacias its the opposite. Thats what I learned as an “amateur”.
    Wolf

    • tony says:

      This is highly simplistic. If Acacia was a European genus, then we would probably have 30 000 varieties recognized. A variety is a variation within a species. A species is a group of plants which interbreed with one another and not other species. I would not be surprised that if the same criteria were carefully applied across both genera, that the Beeches may well have less than 8 species or that Acacia would have a very lot more than 1000! Strictly it is the plants that “decide” on what a species is and scientists merely document this. The two problems are that some scientists “read” more finely than others and that some plant groups havent quite “decided” who they breed with.

  3. Eugene says:

    Although Christian Kull notes that “scientists have compelling evidence that the genus acacia should be split into three genera” that view represents one point-of-view held but some (maybe even many) in our contempory world. Take the time and read Frank White’s ochlo species paper (and by the by the Frank White I knew must be writhing in his grave right now with all these futile arguements and gerrimanderings going on) and you will see that his view was that by splitting genera into a whole bunch of new and much smaller genera leads to less exciting questions regarding evolution. Instead of splitting acacia into more genera why not keep it as one big genus(which, by the way, has served us well thus far on the planet) and investigate questions of evolution of the differences. Wolf-Achim Roland has summed it up quite nicely for Fagus, yet in acacia we are tearing at each other and the genus – for what end.
    Make Melbourne a place that bring people together rather than tearing them apart as has been done by Brummitt and Maslin at Vienna.

  4. Anon says:

    The case for subdividing the Genus Acacia is far from compelling. The past 100 years of Acacia nomenclature has not inhibited taxonomy of the group. Confidence in the taxonomists arguing for change is tribal. Funding for future taxonomic study will become increasingly difficult for in- depth study. It was hard enough to persuade the Australian government to launch the Flora of Australia back in the 1950/60s. Eucalyptus taxonomy has been soow sloow and underfunded with the foresters largely responsible forprogress. M.Ian H. Brooker and David A. Kleinig deserve an A.O. for lifting the taxonomic game.

  5. [...] is a topic on which we wrote several blogs last year in the run-up to the Melbourne IBC conference (1, 2, 3).  We review the acacia battles as a manifestation of long-standing struggles in science [...]

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