Addendum 1. Haworthia – Where do we go from here?

(Written January 1986)

Col. C.L. Scott’s revision of Haworthia has recently appeared and I have seen three reviews of this book.  Both David Hardy (Aloe 23:52, 1986) and Michael Kimberley (Excelsa 12:107, 1986) quote Dr L.E. Codd’s introductory remarks to the book on Haworthia being a ‘complex and baffling genus’.  Infinitely more baffling is that, notwithstanding all the many words already written about Haworthia, we still remain so confused by them.  I did write a reply to Gordon Rowley’s Review (British.Cact.Succ.J. 3:?,1985) published in that same journal (4:45, 1986).  There is also an article in Excelsa (12:91, 1986) in which I touched on some of the attitudes that can be presented, and also complained that it is now barely possible to write about these plants without suggesting that someone is unsound.  Certainly that is not my intention and neither do I enjoy the suggestion that I am.

All three reviews loose arrows rather wildly into space and I am baffled by the level of discrimination of these salvos.  No one merges with any credibility and least of all Haworthia, which is what we should really be concerned about.  Neither of the reviewers seems to be familiar with the existing literature, nor to have taken more than a cursory glance at the books in question.  I would have to ask on the basis of the reviews, if the reviewers have an adequate grasp of what ‘species’ connotes, because Col. Scott does not actually give a species concept as they suggest.  He does discuss the characters on which his species purport to be based, but the relationship between this and the revision itself is obscure.  There is not a lucid or rational generic concept which, had the reviewers read cognitively, should have evoked some reaction and comment.  Both the genus and species concepts given, neglect basic floral morphology and so reduce the systematics to nonsense.  Certainly this is inconsistent with the exclusion of Astroloba and Poellnitzia from Haworthia, which depends primarily on this.  It recalls uncomfortably to mind the comments of a prominent botanist to whom I voiced objection of the amalgamation of the smaller aloid genera on the basis of the arguments given, that ‘small details were being ignored’.

The reviewers also seem to have weakened on what constitutes good information.  Gordon Rowley for example gives credit for habitat information which is generally false, while Michael Kimberley acknowledges the citation of soil pH.  Anyone with knowledge of soil science would know that a pH figure without any added rider, is about as useful as a racehorse without one either.  David Hardy praises the excellence of the photographs but fails to notice that they often incorrectly portray the species and he also misses the inaccuracies of the distribution maps, however nice they may look.

All reviewers comment favourably on the publication to the extent that they seem more concerned with appearance than with content.

David Hardy states that Scott and Bayer disagree ‘on at least 40 points’ and bewails the lack of communication.  I do not like this implication of mutual default which completely misrepresents the situation.  Firstly it is not a question of disagreement.  Science is the organisation of knowledge and not a question of personal relationships.  Secondly, my book and other publications already existed for Col. Scott to have built on.  It is hardly my fault if private communication and even predictive publication (viz. leaf spiral in Haworthia, Bayer in Aloe 11:31, 1973) have also been missed or ignored.  Thirdly had Hardy himself used any available channel of communication himself, he could have produced a more meaningful review.  When anyone now uses the hackneyed and overworked phraseology that taxonomy is just a question of opinion, I should like to spit.  If for example in Haworthia, the observer does not perceive or chooses to simply ignore the real major floral characters hat exist (and they truly do exist), is that observer competent to venture an opinion at all and then at lower levels of definition?.  This, of all the questions that Hardy would like to ask, requires an answer.  Michael Kimberley in similar vein says ‘Nobody can really say who is correct’ (ie. of Bayer or Scott).  With this as a starting point, was it worth writing a review?.  Kimberley also asks in defiance of taxonomy’s unattainable ideal ‘When will finality be achieved?’ and uncritically accepts Dr Codd’s reference to this complex and baffling genus.  David Hardy writes cryptically of ‘too many closely related species, too many unanswered questions’.  There is something dramatically wrong somewhere.  The problem is not lack of communication.  There is quite enough of that.  The problem is the sheer unwillingness of the human mind to discriminate and objectively look at and assess available information in a sensible way.  There is a wonderful expression in Afrikaans which in translation reads ‘In the kingdom of the blind, the man with one eye is king’.  This is what happens when we do not use the little vision we have and choose instead to wallow in some mudhole of ignorance.

To really understand Dr Codd’s words ‘complex and baffling’ relating to Haworthia, I should imagine we would have to leave the cold and impersonal field of scientific fact and enter the realm of humanism.  Dr Codd would surely be the first to admit that Haworthia cannot present any more problems than most other genera, and in a very kind way was making allowances for our human deficiencies.  My own experience covers many genera and I have looked particularly for condolence in Oxalis.

The difference lies firstly in the number of species with Haworthia having 78 (after Scott) and Oxalis 201 (after Salter).  Secondly Oxalis is a much more successful genus in that species are often vegetatively prolific, highly variable, and the populations far less isolated in island-like habitats.  Thirdly , the Oxalis plants, in contrast to an Haworthia, displays an embarrassing richness of characters in bulb, stem, leaf and flower.

Despite these differences I find the same precepts apply.  The words ‘complex and baffling’ are here exclusive and wholly inappropriate to the realities of the situation.  Darwin in his Origin of Species wrote that the key to understanding lay in geographic distribution.  Why then do people still stub their toes on this lintel of understanding so many years later with so much more information at their disposal?.

All three reviewers plead for more use of technological sophistry, as I indeed did in my own book.  If they are already having difficulty coping with the existing information, there is little hope of this being put to better use.  In fact there is a lot of published and unpublished product of such sophistry which generates very little light.  It depresses me rather to find that it is often just abused.  Having listed so many titles of relevant works in my book, it is also discouraging that the reviewers remain apparently unaware of the works and imply that I have also not tried to penetrate further than that.  My contention is that the key to understanding Haworthia does not need to be sought in intellectual sophistication, nor in a vain search for another one-eyed king.  The key lies in the individuals own quality of discrimination and analytical thought.  Wisdom and intellectual brilliance are not necessarily synonymous and the presence of grey matter is signified by the willingness to use it.

It has been said that the problem in botany is that peer review is conspicuous by its shallowness or absence.  If the format looks good, the full-stops, commas and italics correct, and if there is a generous dollop of indigestible and incomprehensible nomenclatural argument, then the revision passes as an authoritative work.  My source asks me if this non-critical and superficial acceptance would be possible in any of the applied sciences

The measure of difference between Col. Scott’s work on Haworthia and my own, does not lie in Michael Kimberley’s painful count of species, subspecies, varieties and forms, and less so on David Hardy’s unqualified ‘forty points’.  The measure lies in the meaningfulness of these taxa.  The critical assessment lies in how these taxa are derived and whether or not it is easily possible to change their status i.e. are the classifications compatible.  John Pilbeam’s and mine are highly compatible.  Col Scott’s and mine are incompatible to the degree of major taxonomic rank (sub-genus).  The reviewers all miss this point and any other precepts that cause this incompatibility.  Hanging on my wall is a very cheerful glossary for research reports.  One item explains the overused statement which David Hardy also quotes viz. ‘It is hoped that this work will stimulate further work in the field’.  The glossary explains that this means ‘This book is not very good but neither are any of the others in this uninteresting subject’.  I can suggest other versions such as ‘This book suggests that further work should have been done before it was published’ or ‘I have/have not read the work and I wish someone would explain it to me’, or ‘This work is not very good and I cannot think of any reason why it was published’.

Haworthia is now in a bit of a mess and our reviewers have not made any useful contribution.  Rather than offer some sensible proposal for a way out of the mire, they have added to the chaos.  I am disappointed at the levels of perception that prevail.  The need of the collector for a sure-fire simple guide to the naming of their plants, is no criterion on which to judge an account of a group of plants.  It was said to me many years ago ‘Many the ship of a taxonomist has floundered on the rocks of the Liliaceae’.  A number of writers should quickly check their navigation equipment.