“First they came for the bird names. . .” Woke craziness creeps into bird taxonomy

August 8, 2020 • 12:00 pm

The latest gambit of Woke politics is to trawl back through everyone’s history, and, if you find something unsavory, that person must be canceled. Now sometimes this is okay, as when statues are taken down that honored Confederates, particularly postbellum statues meant to solidify the established system of segregation. (I’d prefer, however, that those statues be left in place with a prominent caveat.)

But when you do that with scientific names, it causes a problem.  Sometimes a “problematic” person is part of a species’ name, either the common name like Audubon’s shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri), or both the common name and the Latin binomial, like these birds: Audubon’s warbler (Setophaga auduboni), Townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi), Hammond’s flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii) , and McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). These names confer instant communication between birders and other biologists, and the Latin binomials are entrenched in the literature and can’t be changed without a taxonomic revision that shows why the name is somehow taxonomically incorrect (the species might, for example, have been previously described under another name).

I used these names because, in a new op-ed in the Washington Post, two birders have proposed canceling at least the common names of the species given above (and of course why not the Latin names?), for they’re named after people who did bad things in the past. (The authors are described as “ornithologists and birders who created the website Bird Names for Birds.”)

As the authors argue:

Eponymous [species] names serve as verbal statues: They are a memorial both to the colonial system that wove the fabric of systemic racism through every aspect of our lives — including the birds we see every day — and to the individuals who intentionally and directly perpetuated that system.

Sorry, but there is not “systemic racism” in every aspect of our lives, and when you see sentences like that, you should push back. But onward:

Click on the screenshot to learn which names must be canceled and changed, and why:

I’ll just give you the misdeeds that have damned Audubon, while the others are recounted in the article (my emphasis):

Few figures tower over the study of American nature like John James Audubon — and small wonder. His “Birds of North America” was the first work to catalog most of the continent’s native species in vivid color, introducing them to a wide and enthusiastic audience that endures today. He also described an astonishing 25 new bird species, while two other species — Audubon’s shearwater and Audubon’s oriole — bear his name. Surely, most of us might think, this is an entirely fitting honor for someone who did so much for our understanding of the environment.

Yet science never exists in a vacuum, and Audubon’s story has a dark side — one that goes beyond his notable penchant for exaggeration and scientific fakery. After the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, when mostly White Texans defeated a Mexican army not far from present-day Houston, Audubon scoured the battlefield for the remains of Mexican soldiers. He decapitated several bodies and sent the heads to Samuel George Morton, a notorious practitioner of phrenology, a pseudoscience that attempted to use skull dimensions to prove the superiority of White Europeans to other races. For Audubon, this might have been just another way of practicing science — but his actions hardly align with modern values, and his scientific contributions do not excuse him from judgment.

And of course who are those empowered to give “judgment”? Why Foley and Rutter, of course! Did you think that somebody else should decide? Twitter?

So we get this (there are five illustrations like this, all by Sergio Peçanha for The Washington Post):

and another:

One reaches a point (and I am there now) where this kind of renaming has its downside—in this case, impeding scientific communication. The upside, which is somehow seen as perpetuating racism (seriously? Does this do that?), has to be balanced against the palpable confusion of renaming not just these bird species, but every species on Earth named after someone “whose actions don’t align with modern values.” That is, if there even exists an upside, and here I can’t see a meaningful one.

The fact is that even our own actions today won’t align with moral values in 150 years. For example, those who kill animals for food, or run meat-packing or meat-selling operations (I’m looking at you, Colonel Sanders), might be seen as barbarians in a future when we can produce meat in Petri dishes—if we even want it.  Yes, there are some people who should not be memorialized, and if they were, the names should be removed. I wouldn’t fight the removal of an Adolf Hitler Hochschule in Germany, of course.

But there are degrees of justifiable cancellation, and renaming long-established animal species is, for me, beyond the line of “unacceptable”. Others may feel differently, but when I ask Grania’s Question: “Does the proposed change palpably change society for the better?”, I have to say no. Taxonomic pecksniffery is a waste of time, and I feel sorry for those who feel it’s an important endeavor. It does nothing to ameliorate or eliminate racism. It is virtue flaunting, pure and simple. (I guessed that both authors were white, and I was right.)

By the way, Andrew Sullivan referred to this in his latest Weekly Dish as a “Woke Alert”, and he said this, reproducing the birders’ tweet (my emphasis in the text):

A reader flags an Onion-like article from the WaPo and writes:

As an academic and biologist who has written a preprint on bird taxonomy, I found your summary of critical theory helpful in understanding a very vocal movement among my peers to get rid of eponymous English names for birds. This week, that movement took its goals to the broader public square.

Money quote from the op-ed:

We cannot subjectively decide — especially if the adjudicators are White — that some names can be retained because they are associated with less abhorrent pasts than others. We must remove all eponymous names. The stench of colonialism has saturated each of its participants, and the honor inherent within their names must be revoked.

Our reader adds, “the op-ed was promptly and roundly set on fire in the comments section.” Dish fave: “First they came for the bird names, and I did not tweet … ”

I have to say that that comment made me laugh out loud. There are now 711 comments on this op-ed in the paper, the vast majority making fun of or criticizing the piece. I keep hoping that the tide is finally turning against this kind of extreme policing of history.

71 thoughts on ““First they came for the bird names. . .” Woke craziness creeps into bird taxonomy

  1. It must be nice for this columnist to be so privileged as to get paid writing this useless drivel in the WaPo while punching down by saying all white people regardless of social class (or unemployment status) have privilege.

  2. From the article:

    his actions hardly align with modern values, and his scientific contributions do not excuse him from judgment.

    Of course they don’t, but neither do his actions outside of his scientific contributions belittle his scientific accomplishments.

  3. It is almost hard to believe but again, I think this is just another case of children attempting to learn something in history and applying their 21st century judgement on it. I would say to all of them, come back after you grow up. What would these wokies like to do, dig the guy up and cut off his head?

    1. The terms “master” and “slave” are ubiquitous in computer science, typically to describe the relationship between two processes. There have been calls to stop using them. I’m not sure it that will happen or what they’ll use instead.

      The analogy is a very strong one. A master process typically controls the lifetime of the slave process, tells it what to do and generally monitors it. Of course, no one talks about the color of those processes, nor does it honor or encourage slavery. The terms are completely and accurately descriptive.

      1. Also commonly used are “parent” and “child” in some coding. I think that’s probably better.

      2. My experience in tech is that while “master” is still in use, “slave” was largely retired years ago. Replacement terms for “slave” include “secondary,” “standby,” or “replica.”

      3. Oh, wait! What about ‘male’ and ‘female’ connectors used in wiring, or male and female threads using in screwing stuff together?

        A juicy bit of Woke cred just dangling there, waiting for someone to write an op-ed about.

    2. Master, mistress, slave: what are those into B&D going to do now since dominance and subjugation are essential to the theory and practice?

  4. By the logic outlined, then America should be renamed as many of Amerigo Vespucci’s actions do not align with modern values.

    For example, in his Letter to Seville (1500) he admits to fighting with and killing many of the indigenous peoples he encountered in the region we now know as Brazil. He also states that he burned down a number of their villages.

    1. To take this idea one step further: All non-indigenious inhabitants of the continent who is unjustly called America should go back to the countries from which their forebears immigrated.

  5. The madness will metastisize. Why stop with birds? Obviously, Agassiz’s tortoise will have to go.

    In fact, the very name Linnaeus must be stricken from the classification system he developed and that is named after him because of his views on race.

    1. Indeed, we must change OUR OWN NAMES. My name, Louis, honors a French king who did some unsavory things. Edward, George, Henry, you must all change your names because they honor colonialists or imperialists. Elizabeth, Victoria, change your imperialist names.

      And since almost any name must once have belonged to someone unsavory, we must now order all new names to be composed of random syllables. These new names should preferably unique to each person, so that we don’t have to change them every time someone else with the same nonsense name does something shady.

  6. Well, the American Ornithological Society has indeed renamed McCown’s Longspur (to Thick-billed Longspur) this morning.

    So now they have two options: they can mount a project to change the other about 150 or so eponymous species whose names they control. Or they can change some of them on a case-by-case basis. (“Okay, what about Anna’s Hummingbird? Let’s see, she was a French duchess, was she a colonialist?”) Both are a can of worms.

    1. “Thick-billed”? I’d say that’s “lookism,” and lookism that parallels certain human racial/physical stereotypes. So that’s gotta go.

  7. A prediction: not being content with changing the common names of birds and other organisms, the woke will eventually argue the necessity of changing the names of the human descendants of problematic historical figures. After all, those descendants are also “named after people who did bad things in the past.” You read it here first…

  8. How ridiculous. Inevitably, among millions of species some will end up with controversial names, like the Hitler beetle.

  9. The American Ornithological Society announced yesterday that one name has been just officially changes: the McCown’s Longspur is now extinct, now being called the Thick-billed Longspur. I have seen the bird and the new name is actually really an excellent description. As an ornithologist I have mixed feelings about this. The names only become offensive when people dig into the history and they mostly do that to find out if they should be offended. I think we have bigger fish to fry. That said, having studied birds for half a century , lots of common names come and go: I do not mourn the loss of the marsh hawk (now northern harrier) or rufous-sided towhee (now split into spotted and Eastern towhees). Once names are changed, very quickly people will get used to the new ones. And the latin names will remain, even containing the names of the people they are now named after, so there should not be scientific confusion. I do agree with the generally sentiment expressed here though—where does it stop?

  10. Huge sigh of relief – they are not going after common names, and perceived sexism: saying you spied a blue mammary gland just does not roll off the tongue.

  11. Once you start cancelling peoples’ names because their behaviours do not pass the current cultures smell test then you lose sight of their shortcomings. You might as well give up on history and a large part of geography.

    Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

  12. It occurs to me that if you were to do a careful genealogy of Foley and Rutter, you’d probably find some ancestors who were anti-abolitionists, or worse – slave holders. It would behoove these pecksniffs to have there names changed. Their op-ed contributions do not excuse him from judgment.

  13. The only point I’d disagree with is that I think confederate statues should be relocated to museums. They were erected to honor those men and to refute the civil war’s outcome, and most were intended to be symbols of white supremacy and to remind blacks of that.

    They are, frankly, deeply offensive, and putting an explanatory placard in front of them, which would likely be very diplomatically phrased, is insufficient.

  14. Something has to be done about all the bird names with implicit sexism, like the Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus), the Great Tit (Parus major) and the Dickcissel (Psaltriparus minimus), not to mention the implicit racism of the Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster). Birds and their names have a lot to answer for, so we can no doubt look forward to official Diversity Statements from the Ornithology societies, if not from the birds themselves. As for other animal names—well, who is going to do something about the Scottish Blackface Sheep?

  15. There are common names out there that are objectionable in other ways.
    Pink Fairy Armadillo (mocks homosexuals)
    Crazy Ant (makes fun of mental illness)

    And of course several bird names, including…
    Bush tit
    Great tit
    Loon (again, with the mockery of mental illness)!

    1. Oops, posted in a hurry. That was meant to be “As a great journal paper, “What’s the Deal with Birds?”, once asked: “WTF?”

  16. There is a lot of revamping to do.

    Though, be aware that you are dissing gold-diggers and supernatural sanguisuges by saying so.

  17. Rule changes for naming biological species, along with correcting past errors that honoring the despicable, is soon to come. I just googled “agassizi” and “agassizii” — Louis Agassiz was a prominent racist zoologist who taught, at Harvard nonetheless, that each human race was separate species created by god — and got about a million hits. Lots of work there. Carl Linnaeus also had some controversial and nasty things to say about human racial categories, so I suppose he must go to.

  18. Better not name any after MLK. His suggestion that we be “colorblind” is already considered anathema. And, considering the pace with which cancel culture seems to be accelerating, we’ll probably have to rename species every ten to twenty years. Should provide plenty of job opportunities for otherwise unemployable Critical Studies majors busy, though!

  19. There has been a movement among anatomists and histologists to eliminate eponymous names for parts of organs, cell types etc., for some time. Things like “loop of Henle”, “Golgi neurons”, and so on. the rationale is that a descriptive name makes the structure easier to remember.

  20. I do agree with that. For example: nephron loop or ansa nephroni is descriptive. But each name should be more carefully chosen than the one assigned to the Golgi apparatus – dictyosome. Soma is great, as it means “body”, but dictyo means “a net” and so does not really convey the organelle’s actual structure or its mechanisms.

  21. Although many elements in this discussion of renaming birds (and other such now offensive names)are humorous and may spread to all terminology to correct historical incorrectness, the humor is evanescent. As has been shown here, a great many endeavors of humankind have such “offensive” names. Changing names does nothing to address the basic problems. However humorous, many of us are focusing on irrelevant issues such as these, rather doing the hard work to define and change the world in ways that reduce or, get rid of, inequities and inhumanities that effect living human beings. It is easier.

    At a minimum, we each can scan our own brains and behaviors for potential needed change.
    A great many of us were probably raised in households and environments that promote thoughts and behaviors that we don’t even recognize as racist (sexist, all other “ists”). I was. Change can and, must, begin with me and thee.

    1. I just hope it doesn’t result in an abridged version of Shakespeare and the loss to humanity of the original.

  22. I may be utterly wrong about this, but it seems to me that these people are desperate to believe that they are experiencing the same form of racism that their ancestors may have.

    1. Others are desperate to pretend that the racism inflicted on the ancestors didn’t have consequences that exist still, that there’s no problem anymore.

  23. After thinking a bit more about this, I wondered when we will stop eating and drinking chocolate, since its use as food originated in the ancient Mesoamerican cultures. You know, the ones with the institutionalized human sacrifices.

    At least we should change the words cocoa and chocolate, because their cultural heritage “hardly aligns with modern values” (WaPo).

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