A revolution in botanical nomenclature

Since January 1, botanical terms are to be named in English rather than Latin, changing a centuries old practice.

European policy makers have put some ecological initiatives on hold due to the economic crisis [GALLO/GETTY]

Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain – This year, Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque Country, has the honour of being the European Green Capital 2012 – a title it has gained, in large part, thanks to the fact that it has “a high proportion of green public areas, ensuring that the entire population lives within 300m of an open green space“. It is, therefore, one of the most auspicious places in Europe today for thinking about and re-evaluating human relation to plants.

Against the backdrop of the economic crisis that has gripped Europe, however, policymakers have put cultural and ecological initiatives on hold, judging them to be superfluous and insignificant. The same applies to the plants themselves, insofar as we treat them as nothing more than ornate, resource-laden, but, in any event, inconspicuous backgrounds for our lives.

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It is not surprising, then, that a genuine revolution in the world of botany has gone relatively unnoticed: in its new version, effective as of January 1, 2012, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) has dropped the requirement to describe newly found species in Latin in favour of “descriptive statements in English“.

In any other academic field, such an overturning of centuries’ old methodologies – in this case, going back at least as far as Carl Linnaeus and traceable all the way to the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder – would have caused significant controversy and would have been submitted to public scrutiny. Not so when it comes to botany.

Aside from a few enthusiasts, the public is still largely indifferent to plants that, while stirring poetic and artistic imagination, do not stimulate our intellection, let alone elicit strong moral responses on the par with the outrage felt in the face of animal suffering.

Those who disregard the pioneering research of neurobotanists and scientists associated with “plant-intelligence studies” continue to attribute to plants the kind of unresponsiveness that transforms vegetation into perfect and perfectly mute material for scientific study and manipulation. And systems of classification facilitate, precisely, this domineering relation to plants.

What is behind the seismic change in the way plant species are catalogued? No doubt, concerns with efficiency, given that another methodological modification, included in the same document, now allows botanists to publish their findings exclusively online, so as to speed up the divulgation of new species to the scientific community and to prevent any representatives of the flora from escaping the wide classificatory nets of botanical nomenclature. This operation is not an end in itself, knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

As James Miller, the Dean and Vice-President for Science at the New York Botanical Garden, explains, the simplifications in the new Code make the “exploration” of each species potential to serve as a source of raw materials, food and medication more assured: “If a species becomes extinct before it is found – a phenomenon known as ‘anonymous extinction’ – there is no way to explore its potential. We must prevent that from happening“.

According to this logic, it is imperative that each plant species enter the vast system of classification, in as speedy and easy a manner as possible, receiving a name and being assigned to uniquely human purposes. English nomination facilitates, precisely, this harnessing of vegetal potential under the assumption that plants cannot possess any intrinsic value, unrelated to human uses. 

The adoption of English in particular, as the new lingua franca of botany is also a sign of the late, linguistically mediated, imperialism. The powerlessness of plant communities and species, turned into objects at the hand of certain scientists, gets magnified manifold when what we do know about vegetation is coded and over-coded in dominant, imperial languages of Latin and English.

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Just as, up to and including the age of Descartes and Spinoza, no one took philosophy and other fields of inquiry seriously unless the treatises were written in Latin, so the contemporary production of what counts as credible (or, at the very least, effective) knowledge adheres to the gold standard of English and translation into English.

This is not to say that we should be nostalgic for arcane Latin locutions that carried with them a different set of hegemonic traits superimposed, for instance, onto plants. Rather, we ought to realise that rethinking human relation to plants is not only a matter of ethics, but also of survival, for all species, kingdoms and the planet as a whole. 

The task at hand is, indeed, enormous and it requires both patience and a great deal of philosophical and scientific imagination. Instead of devising new and ever more efficient modes of exploiting plants, it requires nothing less than a conviviality with them, a cross-species and cross-kingdoms project of living together in a community with non-human beings.

At bottom, what is at stake is a paradigm shift more drastic than the replacement of one imperial language with another in an attempt to safeguard the relevance of an old system of classification. We should strive to be still more – not less – anti-Linnaean than the ICBN would allow and we should do so, for instance, by insisting on the displacement of the human relation to and the knowledge of plants from its nominalist base, still frozen in the antiquated categories of Scholasticism. Although the task is fraught with difficulty, it is worth undertaking for the sake of extending the status of exceptional “Green Capitals” to the entire “Green Planet”. 

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010) and numerous articles in phenomenology, political philosophy, and environmental thought. His new book, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life will be published by Columbia University Press later this year. His website is michaelmarder.org.