My next door neighbor and good friend is a noted evolutionary biologist at Harvard. He's a theorist (not an experimentalist) with unbounded curiosity and good fellowship (thus, not surprisingly, an Aussie to boot). One of my favorite pastimes of a late Friday or Saturday afternoon is to share a bottle of varying grades of wine and BS on subjects that invoke, among other things, law, adaptation, selection, philosophy of science, consciousness, game theory, and faculty politics. This is merely to explain how I happened to get two papers from the scientific journal Taxon (Issues 2 (pages 613-616) and 4 (1188-1195) of Volume 59), which came out in April and August of this year. He thought that I, as a lawyer, would find the subject matter interesting, and handed the pages over the fence early yesterday morning. I do, because it sounds so much like the debates over corporate governance, namely, is the institution being governed a representative democracy or not? (Full disclosure: I have no clue about the International Botanical Congress, but I tend to side with people like Steve Bainbridge on the shareholder democracy issue: a corporation is NOT a democracy. That's because I don't buy the democracy metaphor to begin with, but more of that below.)
This is apparently a raging issue in the field of botany, but it takes a while to understand just what's at stake here. The issue is one of botanical nomenclature. There are substantive and procedural rules and recommendations for "conserving" the name of a genus, and they are set forth in the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (the "Code"). It looks to me like it's the analog to what ICANN does for domain names: making sure that there is uniformity in the use of particular signs as identifiers of something, whether it's a page on the World Wide Web, or a particular kind of plant or organism.
In 2005, somebody proposed that the name Acacia Mill. be conserved with a new type (Acacia penninervis Sieber ex DC.) lest something like 1000 taxonomic groupings in Australia be required to go by a new name Racosperma Mart. The effect of this would be to deny the name Acacia to the African-Asian A. scorpiodes (L.) W. Wight (= A. nilotica Karst.). As you can imagine, the Scorpiodes camp objected to the attempt of the Penninervis camp to appropriate the Acacia name by way of taxonomic legislation at the 2005 Intenational Botanical Congress in Vienna.
But the botanical community is now beyond the merits of the debate and into matters that invoke the very rule of law. The reason is that the Nomenclature Section debated and voted on the issue, and rejected the proposal, with 45.1% in favor, and 54.9% against. But to quote the paper at 59 Taxon 1188 (2010): "Surprisingly, the proposal was treated as having been approved by the Section's administrators, who ruled that it only needed to receive a 40% positive vote to be approved." Here are the argument headings in the paper:
(1) Use of Article 14.14 allowing only a 40% positive vote for passage of [the Acacia proposal] was unjustified.
(2) Decision-making authority to amend the Code lies with the Nomenclature Section and International Botanical Congress, not with any Committee.
(3) Decisions are made only through a majority vote.
(4) The Vienna Nomenclature Section's own rules of procedure were not followed during the vote on [the Acacia proposal].
Can a corporate board take action (say, instituting a poison pill or maintaining a classified board or a particular executive compensation scheme) that, in its judgment is in the best interest of the corporation and the shareholders, even if a majority of the shareholders disagree? Under the governance provisions of the Code, can the General Committee (which is composed of the secretaries of the other Committees [Spermatophyta, Pteridophyta, Bryophyta, Fungi, Algae, and Fossil Plants], the rapporteur-général, the president and the secretary of the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, and at least 5 members to be appointed by the Nomenclature Section) conserve or reject botanical names in the best interest of the scientific world as a whole, even if a majority of the members of the Nomenclature Section disagree?
Well, I think this turns out to be a metaphor problem, akin to the burning question whether Goldman Sachs's role in marketing synthetic CDOs is more aptly seen as "bookie" or "trusted confidant." Is representative democracy the appropriate metaphor for corporate entities or scientific congresses? Inquiring minds want to know.