Righting some misconceptions.

The article by Gerhard Marx in Haworthiad 26.2:41 is really excellent.  There is however some behind the scenes innuendo as well as repeated use of words like ”ignored” and “neglected” that need attention.  There are furthermore comments on “substantially different and unique characters”, “forcing” elements into synonymy and use of words like “truthfully” and “knowledge of the genus” that distorts a reality that is historically under stress.  This is totally unnecessary in an article that otherwise contributes so much in the real area of interest and information.

What we first could deal with is this vexing question of what science is and who is a scientist?  In the issue of Haworthiad the editor feels it necessary to state that he is not a scientists and both Al Laius and Stirling Baker imply that there are things that the uninformed dare not comment on.  Let me make it clear that most of the writing and classification of Haworthia has been done by authors with no formal training in biology whatsoever.  I could fill the whole of an issue with detail of how trained and experienced botanists (scientists) have made mistakes in their small contribution to our “knowledge of the genus”, or simply confounded it.

What the Gerhard Marx’s article actually does is ignore history and written knowledge of the genus.  He does profile himself on Facebook as a “succulent botanist” but I doubt if this meets the South African Association of Botanists requirements for membership.  Many taxonomists have not been scientists at all, and one cannot fault the enormous contribution that most ordinary people (education-wise) have made to botany. So who am I then?   With an MSc and a thesis on morphology and taxonomy, am I a scientist?   Does training and a formal qualification mean anything at all?  Am I really just another writer?  Perhaps not.  But…

My first bone of contention is the use of the word “ignored”.  This is because it is combined with the notion of unknown transitional elements.  This is plainly misleading and incorrect.  Von Poellnitz described H. mirabilis ‘beukmannii’ as a variety of H. emelyae probably as the first clue to some sort of transition between elements south and north of the Langeberg and Outeniquaberg.  Von Poellnitz cites several specimens from north of the Langeberg that he confused with H. pygmaea and what I later recognize as the totality of H. mirabilis.  As long ago as 1976 I published a map in Excelsa, replicated in my Updates, to speculate on the transition of the southern retusoids into the Little Karoo as far as Steytlerville.  In a recent treatise available to all I explained the remarkable similarity that I perceived in H. pygmaea  in the Herbertsdale area to H. emelyae a relatively short distance away north of the Gouritz Gorge.  Many years ago and lost in my writing is the extraordinary similarity of H. emelyae ‘major’ and H. mirabilis ‘paradoxa’.  While surely there must be a record there too of the extraordinary similarities that I observed of H. emelyae ‘multifolia’ to H. mirabilis ‘sublineata’ as well as to H. mirabilis ‘heidelbergensis’ and even to H. rossouwii.

As an aside I must just draw attention to Al Laius’s comments on what he refers to as H. heidelbergensis and H. magnifica.  This is because Marx also uses names like átrofusca’, ‘magnifica’ and ‘mirabilis’ with no appreciation of the realities of these names.  This brings me to the second bone of contention – the one of “neglect”.  One can only do so much, and if Marx can concede that then he can approach this from a more objective angle.  I have been fairly limited by opportunity and finance apart from the enormity of the task, but I can and have pointed to a multitude of situations that are no different from the area in the Little Karoo that Marx has easy access to.  I have not felt it necessary to venture there where activities of collectors and others have made it too often to ask the indulgence of landowners.  Also, when there is just so much else to do.  But one of the situations I must refer to is that of the “species” H. groenewaldii, the description of which was also instigated by Marx.  The explanation of this taxonomic deviant occupies almost all of Haworthia Update 7 that is available in hardcopy and also on the internet.  This explains some of the aberrations that filter through to Marx’s article.

Does that bring us to the question of “substantially different and unique characters”.  My MSc thesis had as the subject the nature and significance of complex morphological structure – albeit in entomology.  So I actually do know a little bit about characters.  I also know a little bit about the use of DNA strings as character sources.  More practically is the work that I have done in respect of characters in Asclepiads, in Drosanthemum, especially in Oxalis and even in chameleons.  A scientist unfortunately cannot restrict him- or her-self to what they think are the realities in one small area.  There is far more to life than Haworthia and it does not have any special problems.  There are any number of substantially differences and unique characters even in individual plants.  Marx throws this all away with a rather mixed final sentence and reference at the end of it to a “very consistent set of measurements”.  Stephen Gould once said that the strongest statement that one could make in biology was “hardly ever”.  A consistent set of measurements in biology is spelled out in the science of statistics viz. biometry.  Perhaps that article by Loucka and myself dealing with the statistics of H. mirabilis ‘sublineata’  needs to be unearthed.

So this takes me to the other bones of contention viz. “forcing” “truthfully” and “knowledge of the genus”.  I have written elsewhere that the taxonomic system is at fault, and I will not even try to defend that simple statement.  It is.  One of the difficulties is that things that are neither here nor there have to be unequivocally assigned to a taxon.  If this is coercion as Marx implies, then he is unaware of a very self-evident truth.  There is no place for the chemical equilibrium equation or the subtle variants that Marx even describes.  The sorry fact is that formal botany and the ICBN does not actually provide for “aggregates” and this is just a ploy to evade the issue of the definition of “species” and what it truly means.  Manning as a professional botanist needs more than ordinary opinion, in a very small field of interest, on which to base a formal list of names for a national catalogue of 23000 names.  To treat each genus in that list on the basis that Breuer and Hayashi have done would be unthinkable.

In closing we have this fudging statement…”Haworthia will remain a taxonomical argument problem for many years to come”.  It surely will when writers, editors and readers prefer the mileage they get from disagreement instead of properly informing themselves and working actively towards a common goal with “truth” as a commitment rather than as a word to discount what is already suggested.