Homo taxonomicus, Rrrr…racosperma, and Acacia thingummy

June 15, 2011

A guest blog by my colleague Priya Rangan on the acacia name issue.  Taxonomists be warned, you’ll either laugh or cry at this engaged, humorous, but deadly serious satire of the history of botanical nomenclature, the science of taxonomy, and the current wattle wars.  The solutions Priya proposes are important and novel.

Priya writes:  “The views, discussions, and comments regarding the Acacia name are fascinating.  I am glad to see that finally the cards are on the table: the name change issue has little to do with so-called scientific objectivity and rules of nomenclature, and everything to do with the feelings and tastes of concerned taxonomists.  Although I’m mangling the quote here, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave,” when we use science to deceptively conceal our personal likes and dislikes.

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More on the Acacia name change: go to Melbourne and vote!

May 30, 2011

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.

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The Acacia name change – botany and emotion

May 10, 2011

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.

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The ‘natural resource rush’ and rural social movements in Madagascar

March 30, 2011

Today’s attention-grabbing environmental issues in Madagascar are certainly different than a decade or two ago.  At the time, deforestation and biodiversity conservation dominated attention, and social justice researchers worried about how the establishment of new parks and forest-use regulations affected rural communities living off the land.  Today, we add to these concerns a burgeoning litany of events representing a globalization of Madagascar’s environment: we read about agricultural ‘land grabs’, booms in gem mining reminiscent of the Wild West, the actions of international mining companies in exploration and major mining projects, land potentially sequestered for biofuels or carbon sequestration, illegal exploitation of tropical hardwoods, and the refocusing of biodiversity conservation towards reducing deforestation carbon emissions via the REDD+ process.  Barry Ferguson calls these new trends a ‘natural resource rush’ in his excellent blog posting.

The social justice impacts of these trends are as yet unclear.  They can provide benefits, but, given history in Madagascar and elsewhere, they have the potential to be problematic: farmers losing access to ancestral land, farmers unwillingly moved into low-paid wage labour, social divisions exacerbated by elite capture of the benefits of foreign projects. What surprises me is the apparent lack of rural social movements in a position to contest, shape, and negotiate with such trends, projects, and events.  Read the rest of this entry »

Acacia farnesiana in Australia and Fiji

March 25, 2011

One of the key questions of our current research project is how, when, and why the ‘mimosa bush’ or ‘cassie’ tree got to Australia.  Acacia farnesiana, also known as Vachellia farnesiana (if you agree with the splitting of the acacia genus) is presumed by many botanists to be native to a broad swath of the Americas, from Bolivia north to Texas.  Yet it exists all around the tropical and subtropical world.  The first British explorers of interior Australia found it growing all over the interior northern part of the continent.  How did it get there, then?  How long has it been there?  The answer matters, because environmental managers these days want to know if a plant is ‘native’ or ‘alien’, as this has repercussions (for better or worse) on how they approach it.

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