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Changing the Law of Strict Priority


The Law of Strict Priority
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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Going back to Darwin's day, there were so-called codes of nomenclature which said if there's a conflict between… if there are several names available for a particular species, how do we select the correct one? And there was a reasonable agreement among people that if, for instance, a Frenchman and a Russian both described the same species at approximately the same time, the… the one who has published the earlier description, that name should prevail. But this was written into the rules in a very… firm… in… in a manner that… that left no leeway and eventually it was… this was called the Law of Strict Priority. And eventually some unscrupulous authors discovered if they would go to the early literature where names were quite uncertain, the early authors would reject a certain name because there was something wrong with it they thought, even though it was earlier, and the other name confirmed as established in the year 1802 and was valid… the valid name until 1936, then somebody found some odd old name in the literature and said, no, that now has to be the name. And, in fact, according to the rules it had to be the name, and so the nomenclature was totally upset and disturbed and the whole idea of nomenclature was to have a handle for information storage and retrieval, and this Law of Strict Priority was most disturbing.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: Law of Strict Priority, 1802, 1936, Charles Darwin

Duration: 1 minute, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008