Enigma 5. Cabbages and kings

I try again

I do not know how Galileo and Copernicus were really treated in the Dark Ages or of the persecution they were subjected to for their beliefs.  But I know how they suffered.  I feel exactly the same fear in trying to explain to any single person never mind a group (and never mind a group of scientists), how my belief system, based on all my life’s experience and knowledge, influences me as a scientist.  Why, in explaining how I try to understand what a Haworthia species is and arrive at a classification, cannot I say that the simple creative event which scientists hypothesise is fundamental to the problem.

The reason for my fear is that I am hounded by religion on the one hand and by orthodoxy of science on the other.  These two aspects are embodied in my two closest friends.  As a free thinker I feel terrorised by society to a point where he cannot remotely feel allowed to say why my system of classification gets what little recognition that it does.

What I have here before me is the masterpiece, the piece de resistance of my entire life, the summum bonum of efforts to be a scientist and a writer.  It is all these prepared talks of mine reduced to a single paragraph:-

You have repeatedly invalidated me as a science writer and denied me the role of a taxonomist on your insistence that classification and taxonomy is a matter of opinion and therefore an art form and not science.  You do so also through the binding power of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature which in effect says “The value of your scientific classification hypothesis is equivalent to saying that I am an artist commissioned to paint the same picture that some unknown artist is going to paint in the future.”

I have a problem that even as a mediocre scientist I have the knowledge and the authority to give two talks.  But you as my audience will not grant me the credibility and the authority to really listen to what I say.  In terms of the current paradigm in the scientific arena you will have to make a quantum leap in your understanding to be prepared to credit that what I say might be true.  That is if what I know can be presented to you in a form which you can digest.  Can I make noises here which hold your attention and allow you to absorb what I say.

In this presentation I have in fact four different discourses each representing a stage in my struggle to reach that point I hoped would be where you could appreciate what I want to say.  My whole discourse from repeated efforts, and the invalidation I get from my efforts to test this on my friends.  If my friends reject me, what can I expect from those who do not and cannot even give me an empathic ear.

The problem is compounded.  That this simple summum bonum is still short of a truth that I am not free intellectually to proclaim.  In my continuing efforts to reduce my talk to twenty minutes, I came down to the one paragraph and find to my horror that I am suppressing a book.  I say horror because it is a cliche that everyone holds the subject of a book in their minds.  It horrifies me that I may be driven by my frustration at trying to say what I need to say, in as few words as possible.  Bearing in mind that I feel the need to say anything at all.

I have not told you up to now, what my response to Myron Kimnack’s two letters were.  This response is presented in my addenda by the notes of a talk I gave at the CSSA Midwest Convention at Omaha (June 1998 – see addenda)).  Also in my addenda is my summary of the six other talks I gave on that visit to the States.  This talk is published in Desert Breeze, the newsletter of the Tucson CSS, 3,7:6 (1998 – see addenda).  It is the notes of my Omaha talk which come the closest to explaining the title of my talk.

Dr John Rourke once said to me “the ship of many a taxonomist has been wrecked on the rocks of the Liliaceae”

Liliaceae, Asphodelaceae, spelt more phonetically Aspho Delay Sea.  Aspho Della Sea to convey a little better what I want to say.  Often in my early years I used to read articles in Readers Digest Magazine on “my most unforgettable character” or something about “words that influenced my life”.  I used to yearn for something like this in my own life.  Now I realise that perhaps what John Rourke said to me can be regarded as those very words.  What I I have said to you, amounts to claiming that I have sailed that turbulent sea succesfully and have reached a peninsula.  On the other side is another sea of greater proportions.  I have navigated very very carefully to get this far.  I see many many little ships floundering and they see the navigation equipment I used as as valuable to them in their plight as a walking stick.  This interpretation of the skills I have used, is equivalent to thinking that the Aspho Della Sea, is perhaps a physical feature on the dark flat side of the moon.

In my Omaha talk I said “All too often the view is expressed that classification is an art form and that it expresses the opinion of the individual”.  In 1987 I prepared a manuscript for Aloe which was titled “Haworthia, where do we go from here”.  I cannot remember if it was ever published or not, but it is also in the addenda.  I thought that I might have put the words in that scathing assault on attitudes, but it must have been too mild. The Omaha talk goes on to say “if imagination, fantasy and ignorance are the qualifications for the work (of the taxonomist), then indeed art is what one may get.  In truth classification is a science that is based on physical and measurable data.  That data has to be accessible to all.  Statements must be verifiable and if they are contested, new data must be presented to verify the new and proven statement.  This gives rise to a structure of knowledge and information in which the names are really meaningful”.

How I ask you, can you build any sensible hypothesis in the fields even closest to classification itself, if you do not have a sound foundation.  My conflict in the very organisation that is nationally consigned saddled with the very task of providing this foundation, was around the realisation that priority for the function was very low indeed and sinking lower.  Instead of moving in the direction that I was hoping it would (Fritjof Capra – The Turning Point!).

How can you talk sensibly about a subject like phylogeny, or ecology, or about anything biological at all, if you do not have a sound reference base.  I would like to point to evidence more directly to indicate exactly the kind of problem I am referring to.  This could be, however, be very, very destructive direct and I am immensely frustrated in my inability to convey what I am compelled to say, in a manner which is true and which is kind.

Already my presentation holds the large germinated seeds of unkindness.  In my horror as I see this twenty minute talk growing into a book, is this seed going to be allowed to grow into a mighty tree.  No, I will not allow it to.

Harlan Ellison, the American writer, is quoted by Terry Dowling in his book “The essential Ellison”.  Ellison says that he believes that everyone is entitled to an opinion, only if it is an informed one – and that we have an obligation to educate ourselves.

I do not have a major problem at all with the essence of what Myron Kimnach said to me which on the one hand validates me and other wipes my credibility away by placing all Haworthia “specialists” on an equal footing (and the word “specialists” may be euphemistically said to be synomymous with “authorities”).  My problem is this one of trying to build a castle of rock on a foundation of sand.  If we have a classification which is built on art (impressionistic), we are expecting to put a structure on it built by science.

In a talk I gave at an Aloe and Succulent Society Congress at Johannesburg in 1996 entitled “What is an Haworthia species”, I said, “Haworthia is not the problem genus it is supposed to be, and the object of the paper is to suggest that the problems that do exist are largely the product of poor judgement and human failing”.  In a parallel paper entitled “Haworthia. What is the shape of an elephant?”, I was saying that if we cannot recognise the species adequately, how can we possibly extrapolate the implication that we have done so, sensibly to other topics.  I said that cladistics attempts to relate species using a language that no one understands, to explain what is not understood.  I think I quoted a forgotten author who said that that the language of cladistics did nothing more than strain good will.  In the case of Haworthia, I tried to explain that there was little sense in trying to use any classification of the genus at generic level, while we could not even define and understand the relationships at species level.

I must know the late Larry Leach better than anyone.  In preparing my presentation I am absolutely stunned to find that what Larry Leach was fulminating about, what he was so angry and frustrated about, why he was such a lonely lonely man, may have been absolutely true.  Gideon Smith wrote a wonderful obituary and tribute in which he succeeds in describing Larry almost as I knew him.  I do not know what the exact context of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was where he picks up Yorick’s skull and says “Alas poor Yorick, he was a noble man”.  I guess it is that in life Hamlet regarded him as a downright scoundrel.  In retrospect I am stunned to think that this is what we all, to a man, have done to Larry.  I reacted to a comment in a very brief obituary which appeared in the CSSJ (US) which said of Larry “(Alas) He was a kind and gentle man”.  I wanted to write and say “Balderdash, Larry was anything but.  Even he would have been hurt to the core of his being by these words”.  At the same time I could not reconcile my thoughts about Larry to say he was both the most remarkable man described so well by Smith and also the angry, fulminating, pigheaded, self-interested individual that often evidenced itself in my relationship with him.

I had the privilege of being closely associated with Larry for many years.  Every time we met (on a daily basis), I had to be extremely careful not to catch his ear to suggest I would listen to the outpouring of a very lonely mind.  I cannot remember the times I willingly or unwillingly listened to his story of Euphorbia candelabrum and the nomenclatural and intellectual debris it detailed.  The topic of his second diatribe was the ICBN and all its articles and recommendations.  Woe betide you if if you got them both in one day!.  I really cannot profess that I understood either, and there is no one that can claim they did – as I discover.  I could partly understand his frustration in the candelabrum story, but his diatribe against the ICBN was far and away above my head.  I just listened with sympathetic nods here and there while I fidgeted to get on with my own life.

Now the truth of what he was saying is suddenly clear to me.  We have maligned an extraordinary man who had penetrated the code of the ICBN in a way in which he may never even have appreciated himself.  Dr A. Cronquist, also a great man I had the privilege of meeting, presented a paper at a conference to discuss the import of the ICBN in New York (in 1988).  The title of his talk was “Do we know what we are doing”.  The answer Larry Leach would give is unequivocal, now that I understand what he was saying.  It was this:-

“If you follow these provisions, it is tantamount to saying that unless I have precognition, unless I am a soothsayer, my credibility is absolutely at the mercy of any idiot in the future who intentionally or unintentionally tampers with my typifications.  You are condemning me to death in the intellectual taxonomic arena, and I will not be able to defend myself.”

I am appalled that I missed the import of what he may have been saying.  I am suffering now in the same way, maybe on a lower scale.  It reflects my personality and the excessive sensitivity I may have for criticism.  I sense that and compensate for that.  It does not justify the fact that in the case of taxonomy, the code empowers all and sundry to do this to a man.

It is not a question of pride, or of authority or of credibility.  It is a fundamental question of the integrity you bring to your work, and the recognition of the effort which you put into being a scientist.  I say effort, because that is what it takes.  If there are a hundred of you so-called scientists here, I wonder if one of you can claim to be a scientist in terms of Philips’ principles.  This Australian soil scientist said that there are four fundamentals of science.  These are universality – your findings and hypotheses must be true for everywhere; communality – they must be free to everyone regardless of race, colour, creed or sex; no personal gain – you must not practise science to enrich yourself at the expense of anybody else, or to gain advantgae over anyone, or to salve your ego; and finally organised scepticism.  You must like Stephen Gould, the American naturalist be able to say “When see what is done with the things I do understand, I must question what is done with those things I do not understand”.   This is organised scepticism.  The scientist does nothing to deride what he thinks intellectually may be rubbish, because he knows that his intellectual capacity is constrained in terms of his upbringing, his experiential environment etc. etc.

I do not think Larry was a scientist either.  But he died a lingering intellectual death described by Smith as – “he wasted much of his life in futile refutation”.  He wasted his life only because he was making the wrong noises to attract our intention.  He drowned in the stormiest sea of human ignorance and nobody could put out a hand to help him.