The upcoming confrontation about the scientific name Acacia continues to inspire frustration, passion, and grumbling on all sides. It is rarely about the science behind it (which is pretty widely accepted), but about institutional rules, about perceived injustices, about egos, and, of course (where my interest comes in), about symbolism, sentiment, national rivalry, and geopolitics.
Here I post some email correspondence, from two key participants in the debates, to which I was party in offline conversations after my initial posting on the topic. Dick Brummitt defends his compromise proposal, despite voicing agreement with the original ‘keep Acacia for Australia’ decision. Bruce Maslin encourages anybody who is interested and affected by the decision to attend the Melbourne meeting (paying one day’s IBC registration suffices for the right to vote at the Nomenclature sessions). He obviously hopes for votes in favour of the original decision, and not having to use Racosperma as the moniker for Australia’s wattles. I also present a chart that summarizes some of the different options on the table.
Dick Brummitt is a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (England), and was Secretary of the Committee for Spermatophyta which entertained the 2005 acacia proposal. His email, which he suggested I post, is here (I’ve cut out the initial pleasantries):
“…. Unfortunately the Acacia issue has got completely out of control and I am not prepared to participate in mindless abuse, so I shall not be coming to Melbourne. But my views on cladistics have not changed and will be presented at the Congress in my absence.”
“Of course you [Brummitt refers to the author of another email here] may opt out of the miserable Acacia mess if you wish, but I hope not everyone in Australia will do so. Despite my career-long devotion to African botany, the case for applying the name Acacia to the Australian taxa seems to me overwhelming when I consider the criteria usually applied in nomenclatural committees. If we are talking about nomenclatural stability, we can start with the number of species affected, where the hard figures are incontrovertable (1012 vs. c. 80). And then there are the international industrial importance (multibillion dollar industry), local economic importance (one nurseryman told me he sold some 340 species for landscaping, horticulture etc), ecological importance (half the African species are now referable to Senegalia and ‘Acacia woodland’ in Africa is now ambiguous), social significance, and particularly familiarity of the name to general public, etc. From the start I knew I had to put aside my personal bias, but others in the African scene did not see it that way. I have been appalled and ashamed at some of the effusions from the African side.”
“They seem to feel that they were cheated at Vienna, but that is not so. They just didn’t understand the system. The vote required to overthrow a committee decision was made perfectly clear before the vote took place, and they failed to achieve it. Later the Rapporteurs invited them in Taxon to submit a new proposal, but they refused to do so. Apparently, it seems to me, they knew they could not make anything like as good a case as Australia has. All the pro-Africa side’s arguments avoid the fundamental issues and centre on procedural and personal matters. Their increasing tendency to personal invective just emphasises how poor their arguments for an African type are.”
“However, in an attempt to reach a conclusion acceptable to the African side as well as those in Australia, I published a new proposal in the December Taxon which would allow both sides to retain the name Acacia while still maintaining separate genera. A little nomenclatural slight of hand is needed, but this has been matched by a similar proposal by the Vice-Rapporteur in the June Taxon (with my comments alongside). There is no reason why we cannot adopt my proposal. This should allow us to escape the acrimony which is so dividing the botanical world. But the reactions I have had from the African side have been negative and in some cases just pathetic personal invective. Oh well, if one has to either laugh or cry, I will try to laugh.”
“But, as I have said, I think it would be a pity if everyone in Australia just opts out. Australia has a very strong case for having one of its species as the type, and if the African side will not see sense and support the December compromise proposal, this is in danger of being reversed. The Australian side should be properly organised, as they were before the Vienna Congress when I received 250 messages in support of an Australian type. This time round I hope for the compromise position and an end to the divisive arguments.”
Bruce Maslin is author of the original proposal to keep the name Acacia for the large group of plants found largely in Australia and some nearby places. He is Senior Principle Research Scientist at the West Australian Herbarium. Edited portions of Maslin’s email response to Dick Brummitt’s message above (both of which were copied to me) are reproduced below (with his permission).
He first wrote in response to the above email first of his sadness that Dick Brummitt wouldn’t attend the IBC: “… it will a sad loss not having access in Melbourne to your gigantean knowledge of the Code, your familiarity with the Acacia issue, your sound and logical reasoning and persuasive arguments…. I can only sincerely hope that there will be enough voices of reason at Melbourne to effectively articulate the case in support of the Vienna outcome.”
“The arguments this time round with respect to Acacia are different from those in 2005 and as a result I have not been able to participate very effectively in the ‘debate’: the issues this time are legalistic/procedural (of which I have little knowledge), rather than relating to the merits or otherwise of the Orchard/Maslin proposal (that latter battle was fought and won in 2005). I have nevertheless tried my best to do things that I think might contribute to a positive outcome in Melbourne, e.g. to encourage Australian Systematic Botany Society Members to attend the Nomenclature Session where their votes will undoubtedly be valuable…. I hope that Australians turn up to the Nomenclature Session…” (Maslin’s manuscript to the ASBS Newsletter)
“I have given quite a bit of thought to the issue of the compromises that both you and Nick Turland have put forward. Initially I liked the idea of a compromise, …. however, I am now tending towards the view that it is best to let things take their natural course in accordance with established rules and processes, without invoking any special exceptions to the Code. A consequence of this attitude of course is that I must accept the outcome of the Melbourne process, even if it is an outcome that I don’t like. Nevertheless, from what little I know about how things might be played out at Melbourne I feel confident that those conducting the Nomenclature Session meeting will do their very best to ensure that things are done in a fair and open way, so one cannot really expect anything more (or less) than this.”
When I wrote to Bruce and suggested that I’d love to be a fly on the wall in Melbourne, but cannot attend for travel reasons (and don’t feel, as a non-botanist, right to go and vote anyway), he responded:
“You have as much right as anyone to be at the Nomenclature Session, perhaps more so if you are a frequent user of Acacia names! I would hope that you can encourage appropriate people to attend the Nomenclature Session meeting in order to cast a vote …. but that of course would require people to put their money where their mouth (or sentiment) is and that might be too high a price for many to pay! I can understand your liking the Brummitt proposal and while I am sympathetic towards it I feel that in practice it will be awkward to implement. Still, at the end of the day I would certainly prefer Dick’s solution to having to take up the name Racosperma!”
Finally, I should report that a second compromise proposal has appeared on the official record (the journal Taxon). This proposal, by Nicholas Turland of the Missouri Botanical Garden (pdf here) suggests that Acacia be retained only for cases where the old, inclusive genus is used, and that otherwise the genus names be changed to Protoacacia (for a number of African thorn trees, among others) and to Australacacia (for the Australian wattle group). My initial reaction is that creating additional new names is less efficient and elegant than Brummitt’s compromise that I describe in my previous blog. I cannot comment on the technical and procedural aspects.
This table (below) summarize some of the different name proposals, I hope it helps. But be careful, the debates at Melbourne IBC are not about a simple choice between these, but instead over the procedures involved in the 2005 vote and how to proceed (in a procedural sense) in 2011.
I’ll finish with a note on my own feelings on the issue. When I first began working with wattles, following Acacia dealbata back from Madagascar to Australia, I was disgusted at the discovery that I might have to call it ‘Racosperma‘. Then, the more I learned about the issue – both the science and the argy-bargy involved - my heart began to sympathize with the African side. One reason is simply linguistic. Australians generally call their Acacias by the common name ‘wattles’, not ‘acacia’ (and the French call some ‘mimosa’). Meanwhile, Acacias in Africa are often actually called ‘acacias’ or ‘thorn tree’ (and the Greek ‘akis’, or thorn, is the root of ‘acacia’). I know the issue is about scientific names, not common names, and the rules of botanic nomenclature, but somehow this name thing gets under your skin. A good many people care about Acacia, from both sides of the Indian Ocean. All the more reason to find a way through the red-tape of the taxonomic Code to make room for a good compromise like that by Brummitt, so that everyone can keep using the name Acacia.
[This paragraph is an addition subsequent to the original posting]: I note that the proposal by Brummitt – continuing to use Acacia but for specialists inserting a parenthetical marker for the different new genera, as in Acacia (Vachellia) farnesiana - does not seem to be without precedent. In the table below – a screenshot from Wikipedia – the binomial name of the Caribbean pine (a favourite forestry tree here in Fiji), is listed as Pinus (Pinus) caribaea. It looks exactly as Brummitt’s solution would look. Seems to me like a non-offensive and sensible solution. Two disclaimers – one is that the middle Pinus refers to a sub-genus, not an actual genus (but see Jacques Vassal’s comments below); and another that this use does not appear to be common outside of the widely used Wikipedia.
In closing, I should note that I edited my previous posting (where, by the way, you can find some background info) in response to a correction suggested by Dan Murphy. I changed acacia from being the ‘second most common’ to being the ‘most common’ genus in Australia. My mistake.