A few days ago I posted a photo of an über-cute monkey, a juvenile snub-nosed golden monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana). The species lives in the mountains of central China and is endangered because of habitat loss.
Curiously, in today’s New York Times’s Opinionator column, Richard Conniff details a tiny controversy about this very beast. The question is who gets credit for “discovering” the species. Conniff says:
Not long ago, for instance, I wrote that a 19th-century French missionary and naturalist in China, Pére Armand David, had “discovered” the snub-nosed golden monkey. A reader sent me this somewhat testy comment: “The answer to the question ‘who discovered it’ is actually the Chinese.” Père David had merely “observed it and introduced it (and many other animals) to the West and into the Western zoological system.”
There has increasingly been talk, in these postmodern times, about who gets credit for “discovering” stuff. And there is a point: it now rankles a bit to hear that Columbus “discovered” America when, after all, people had been living there for over ten thousand years. How far does this apply to “discovering” species?
David himself may never actually have seen these mountain-dwelling monkeys in the wild. Instead, his Chinese hunters brought him six specimens in the course of a long and productive expedition into western Sichuan province. David shipped the specimens back to Paris, along with more than 100 other mammal species. There, in an act of blithe cultural hodgepodgery, a French naturalist described the golden monkey in a scientific journal and gave it the species name roxellana to commemorate the Ukrainian wife of an Ottoman Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, because monkey and wife both had distinctive up-turned noses. You can see how this might leave people in China feeling a little left out.
Indeed. Some countries, such as Brazil, wary of “biological imperialism,” have passed strict regulations about what kind of material can be taken out of the country by foreign biologists. The species of a country are not simply a resource to be plundered by—or used to advance the careers of—biologists from other places. And we’re becoming more sensitive to this: scientists from more biologically-savvy nations are involving locals (who, after all, often help them find the species, and know an enormous amount of natural history) in the scientific descriptions of new discoveries. You will often see strange one-word names, for example, on papers describing new species from New Guinea or Indonesia: those are the locals who helped find the species or made other contributions to its discovery. I rarely saw that when I was in graduate school thirty years ago.
Do read Conniff’s column, for he describes a nearly forgotten chapter in the history of zoology: how skilled but amateur naturalists, such as the missionary Pére David, made significant contributions to natural history. You may have heard of another species he discovered, the rare and eponymous Pére David’s deer, Elaphurus davidianus:
(Pére David’s deer is another interesting story. It has been extinct in the wild for a thousand years due to overhunting, and was discovered by Pére David in one place: The Emperor’s hunting park near Beijing. It was exported to Europe, where it was bred in zoos, and subsequently disappeared completely from China. It was reintroduced to China in the 1960s.)
Conniff concludes that we shouldn’t stigmatize early Western naturalists as imperialistic, because their work
. . continues to save lives and protect resources today. The best evidence of its value is that every country from China to Gabon to Colombia now employs this scientific system of discovery and classification as a better way to understand not just our world, but theirs.
Well, I’m not sure whether the use of Linnaean taxonomy is the greatest contribution of these naturalists. After all, research has shown that indigenous peoples generally recognize the same species (although, of course, giving them different names) as do Western taxonomists. In Speciation, Allen Orr and I describe Ernst Mayr’s observation (made in the 1920s) that the tribesmen of the Arfak Mountains of New Guinea had 136 vernacular names for the 137 Linnaean species of birds they encountered, so even before Western taxonomists “invaded” the country, the distinct forms of bird life had already been correctly distinguished. The names are just a way of formalizing new species and placing them in relationship to others already described.
It’s not so much the nomenclature that Western biologists contributed to the countries they explored, then, but the calling of the world’s scientific attention to new species (their description does involve nomenclature, of course). This immerses them into mainstream biological research—and, when species are endangered like Pére David’s deer, helps bring them to the attention of people who can save them.