Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


A Profusion of Taxonomies

In “In the Classification Kingdom, Only the Fittest Survive,” Carol Kaesuk Yoon writes about the profusion of naming schemes for animals:

Then there’s uBio, which has sidestepped the question of codes and regulations altogether and instead aims to record every single name ever used for any organism, scientific or common, correct or incorrect, down to the last variation and misspelling, as a way of linking all information ever recorded about an organism together.

The All Species Foundation aims not only to record all names but also to find every species and describe it, all in 25 years. And then there’s Wikispecies, Species 2000, the Electronic Catalogue of Names of Known Organisms and many more. Some have already come and gone, or nearly so, and others are expiring for lack of sustained funds.

So ZooBank finds itself born in the midst of a Cambrian explosion of initiatives, a proliferation not merely of Web sites and databases but of ideas about how to accomplish the task of naming and organizing all of life. And though disorder may be the most abhorrent thing to a tidy taxonomist, sometimes a little chaos can be healthy. [mmm, chaos!]

And I used to think this was simple. But as Clay Shirky has pointed out, vocabularies are most useful for a particular task, and different tasks, even in the same domain, may require slightly different “meta-data.” (That is, the information about the data in the taxonomy.)

I’ll note that uBio sounds a lot like the CVE, which is a computer vulnerability concordance, (concordance at Wikipedia) even though not everyone agrees with that definition.