A philosophical dissertation.
Truth = N+(N+1): Non-existent in the singularity of plant classification. (By restricting itself to only that which can be quantified, measured and observed by the physical senses, science confines itself to a black hole from which scientists will never escape.. (see also Fritjhof Capra, The Turning Point, and other writers who seem to be free)… aspirant and practising plant taxonomists do not seem to class even as scientists.
Enigma 1. Another open letter.
Enigma 2. The real enigma in Haworthia.
Enigma 3. The haworthioid rocks of the Aspho Delay Sea
Enigma 4. The haworthioid rocks of the Aspho Della Sea
Enigma 5. Cabbages and kings.
Enigma 6. A change of title – Predictiveness in science.
Enigma 7. ICBN vs. Larry Leach and Col.C.L. Scott.
Enigma 8. Does the ruling body of the ICBN know what it has done
Enigma 9. Ditto 8.
Enigma 10. Ditto 9.
Enigma 11. Titles of talks mutate.
Enigma 12. N+(N+1) As the title of a presentation.
Addendum 1. Haworthia – where do we go from here?
Addendum 2. Notes of talk – Omaha June 1988.
Addendum 3. Gist of talks – USA June 1988.
Addendum 4. A paper on Oxalis.
Addendum 5. A letter to a prospective taxonomist.
Addendum 6. A review of “The World of Haworthias. Vol.1”
Addendum 7. A manuscript for the Journal Asklepios.
On the strength of his positive comments, I asked a leading botanist who had seen a draft of this series of essays, to write a foreword. I asked three times and have received no acknowledgement of my requests. There were a number of errors in the draft, and I can perceive what the problem is. But my conviction remains that plant classification is a free-for-all with complicated rules which ensure that it stays that way.
To paraphrase another writer – “As far as Haworthia is concerned, the watchdogs of science are asleep at the switch.” Asleep the watchdogs may be, but the ravenous scavenging hunting dogs of intellect (both high and low) are always restless for the kill.
That comment should be expanded and could generate another essay. As it is my thoughts may now waken the dogs, and I do not doubt that they will bite both friend and foe. I am no great shakes and to have had any credibility at all is something to be grateful for. However, if the source of that credibility is not recognised, there can be no authority to complement it. If there is no authority, the credibility vanishes in a puff of smoke
Cape Town, March 1999.
I wrote an article (CSJUS 70:183, 1998) where for the umpteenth time I tried to explain where the origins of confusion were in understanding the classification of Haworthia. Almost simultaneously a paper appeared in Haworthiad (12:79, 1998, Borgmann & Breuer) which carried all the fruits and seeds of more confusion. I had anticipated this paper and am even credited in the acknowledgements for ‘hints’. However, these do not seem to have done much for the paper. In fact I had seen a manuscript on the same topic by the second author which I had suggested should be re-written. It was, but with conceptual errors that I had observed in the first version. I intended initially to simply ignore the paper and the shortcomings I predicted that would be there. However, my intentions were short lived and I found myself borne away by my mind, trying to find a haven in this wild sea of continuing confusion. Friends advised me (as they have in the past) to simply ignore this kind of work and refrain from pointed and aggressive comment. I feel that to do so would be to simply renege on the past and whatever else I have done and written. Therefore I have now set out my thoughts in a series of manuscripts. The intention was to write a single commentary on the Haworthiad article. This resulted in a chain of thought and many manuscripts. They each carry the same intentions of necessity, kindness and truthfulness. They are directed specifically at the taxonomy and literature of the plant genus Haworthia and contributions thereto, but could equally be directed at the literature of botany at large, and elsewhere. I apologise if my writing in the initial chapters appears harsh and judgemental. Also for the tightness of my own writing and its shortcomings. My thoughts are that as human beings we should be careful and accurate observers of ourselves and the world around us, and I was brought up to think that in reading and writing, this goal could be achieved. I feel that we must be here in this creation for some purpose, and that we cannot hope to find what this is unless we pursue this goal with vigour and with honesty.
The manuscripts were co-incident with a belated invitation to speak at the International Congress on Succulent plants held at Kirstenbosch during 1998. The final manuscripts will partly explain why I recused myself. The real explanation may not be anything other that I have no place in the intellectual fog of the written word. Already I see publications emanating from the Congress which are polished and erudite intellectual works of a science which I do not think has advanced anywhere in the last 50 years as regards real insight and understanding. Technically yes, but philosophically no.
What my formula N+(N+1) is about, is this:-
If we have a truth which we want to express, it is in our conscious and unconscious mind. If we wish to express this truth it is either through the spoken or the written word. In the case of the spoken word there is a direct personal contact between speaker and listener and there is empathic assistance to communication. The written word is unassisted. In all three conditions there is fragmentation aggravated in the very first instance by our own ignorance. In trying to prepare a presentation for the IOS Congress, I found that my truth was expressed as a written one (N) and then by what I might actually say as a speaker, (N+1). I could not predict what my final presentation would be and hence that truth eluded me. It suggests to me that this same problem lies in the way of a general theory of everything, ever being expressed in the spoken and written word of science.
I see little evidence that what I have written over the last 30 years or so has really led to any understanding of the problems of classifying Haworthia. Particularly disconcerting is that even practising and professional botanists seem unable to judge the value of a classification. The question of classification as science or art seems to remain unanswered, and the definition of the species similarly remains nebulous. There is no doubt now in my mind that classification is nothing but impressionism driven by feeling and emotion. Taxonomic botany can be exceedingly trivial as two very recent experiences again suggest to me. The one involves the description of a new species of Bulbine (B. caput-medusae which is surely just B. namaensis, and the other is the incorporation of Poellnitzia rubriflora in Astroloba (to quote ‘nothing but a bird pollinated Astroloba‘, when in fact it is just an embarrassment as a monotypic genus). These are by no means the only incidents I am aware of.
Bruyns (Kew Magazine 4:148, 1987) wrote that C.L. Scott’s book on Haworthia represented a retrogressive step of 40-50 years in the taxonomy of the genus. Had this been the only book, it would have been hailed as an advance. Because there were three books (Bayer 1982, Pilbeam, 1983 and Scott 1985), and because of this simple fact alone, Haworthia taxonomy has been regarded as confused. There does not seem to be a climate of cognitive thinking in which these books can be assessed. Pilbeam’s book was simply based on Bayer, and the authors were in close communication about the purposes of their works. Recent publications and manuscripts by the latest aspirant to revisionary work do not encourage me to think that classification has advanced since Von Poellnitz died in 1945, or that it ever will. The foreword to the work ‘The World of Haworthias – Vol.1’ is a further example of the empty platitudes that I find so discouraging. It sets the tone for the book, and is to my mind unfortunately appropriate. Prof. H. Ihlenfeldt, himself a taxonomist of repute, has written of Scott, Bayer and Pilbeam, ‘Unfortunately these authors used different taxonomic concepts in the treatments on this taxonomically complicated genus; this is an impediment to the connoisseur of succulents etc.’. It is apparent to me that the writer has not applied any analytical thought to the matter, and if asked to say what these ‘very different’ taxonomic concepts are, would have to then sit down and do so. What I would like him also to explain is why he considers Haworthia a taxonomically complicated genus. This is an untrue statement and the so-called research by Salm-Dyck, Berger, Schonland, von Poellnitz and Jacobsen is nothing but the naming of different looking plants as ‘species’. In modern times it is stretching the imagination to call their observations on the limited material available to them, research. I repeat my contention that their work was just impressionism. If Prof. Ihlenfeldt had applied his mind to the problem, he would have found that the classification of the specimens in the Compton Herbarium is indeed satisfactory. Not only that and, looking further afield, he would find that a satisfactory classification does exist for the broader picture too. His last paragraph regarding ‘characteristic complex features’, is also fallacious. My oft repeated comments are that complex characters (my published research on Noctuid moths and Oxalis) do not provide the solutions we so vainly imagine. What attempts have been made in Haworthia prove this. Furthermore, this statement is at variance with the earlier one that Haworthia is a complicated genus. If Haworthia is indeed complicated it is because there are no ‘characters’ which mark discontinuities. Detailed distribution has in fact been studied and is the basis for a ‘satisfactory’ classification – if one is available and possible. I also take issue with Prof. Ihlenfeldt on his statement.. ‘reason for limited interest in this genus among amateurs’. His opening remarks make a statement about ‘considerable interest..’. While amateur interest may be taken to be the source of the myth of confusion that surrounds Haworthia, there is no doubt in my mind that it is the shortcomings of professional botanists that have fuelled it. Prof. Ihlenfeldt’s comments prove my point. Prof. A. Cronquist commented that classification was ‘artful science’. He probably did not mean that in the true dictionary definition of the word ‘artful’, but my experience suggests to me that he may have. We have a complex nomenclatural code for botanical nomenclature which regulates everything to a fine degree. The problem is that it apparently fails to make any statement about the objects it is legislating nomenclature for, nor about the integrity, motives and objectivity of the persons doing the work.
After Scott’s book and the published reviews, I complained in Excelsa (12:91, 1986) that it did not seem possible to write sensibly about Haworthia any more without maligning anyone or using unkind adjectives. Exactly as Bruyns predicted, the book has set back Haworthia to Von Poellnitz’ time. It would be quixotic in the extreme to think that Von Poellnitz and the likes had any conception of what they were doing with Haworthia other than describing new taxa. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that Von Poellnitz had a better view of plant taxonomy than even botanists of his time. His post-graduate degree concerned the milk-supply to Leipzig and this does not suggest that he was equipped for plant taxonomy. It is doubtful if even qualified botanists of the time were so. Recent controversy in Haworthiad, for which I seem to be taking the blame, is resulting in the expression of negative statements about my attitudes and tone of my writing. I never wrote about Haworthia for the sake of making a taxonomic or nomenclatural statement. I wrote to organise my observations and my thoughts about plants that are important to me, and to be able to communicate with like-minded persons about them. Persons have felt insulted and offended by what I have written in commenting on published ideas. In response I would like to say that very little can compare with the hurt, the frustration, the irritation and the insult I feel arising from 40-50 year reversal of history that Bruyns noted. There are writers today, encouraged by the absence or mediocrity of comment, imagining they are following in the footsteps of the great (eg. Von Poellnitz, J.R. Brown, Uitewaal, G.G. Smith, Scott). All they are succeeding in doing is perpetuating an illusion that Haworthia will be better understood once they have organised their own limited images of the genus.
In the article which I wrote to the US Cactus and Succulent Journal (July-August 1998), I said I chose to retreat in the way that G.G. Smith had done in 1947. To do so would be surrender to mediocrity and ignorance. I am not pretending to know more than anyone other than this – I have spent a lot of time in the field and I really know both the scale and the extent of the problem. If there is any anger and frustration in my writing it arises from the wish to bring people from that regression in time, back to the present. It is a plea to at least read and consider what and why I wrote what I did. The starting point of research is such a literature overview.
My classification of Haworthia has never had a chance. It has been lumped with the works of Scott and Pilbeam and that of anybody else who has something to say, with no critical analytical assessment by anyone. The ultimate authority in South African Botany, contacted me personally to ask what system of classification should be adopted in listing the South African plant species. Whatever my answer, the result was a hodge-podge of names from all authors. The specimens in the Pretoria (PRE) remained in their higgle-piggledy state and included Astroloba, Poellnitzia, Chortolirion and even Aloe specimens. Now we have another aspirant taxonomist starting off from the paradigm of the early days of J.R. Brown, Von Poellnitz, Smith and contemporaries.
Curiously in the Cape Argus Newspaper, January 30, 1999, the column by ‘The Wanderer’ includes his choice of ‘Man of the Millennium’. It is none another than Walt Disney. I felt it was so appropriate to my problem. The facile and superficial thoughts of Mickey Mouse and company, are reflected in the science of our time, and in the trivial taxonomy we see.