Woke birders win: McCown’s Longspur renamed because McCown was a Confederate general (though he made contributions to ornithology and repudiated the Confederacy)

August 13, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Five days ago I wrote about a campaign by two birders, operating under the name Bird Names for Birds, that had singled out a number of birds whose common names honored people who performed actions seen as odious or unsavory in modern lights. Those included John James Audubon, whose oriole may now be renamed because he did this:

 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.

Judging from the numerous comments on my post, readers were unanimously opposed to this renaming. (It appears that only the common names will be expunged, as it’s much harder to do that with the Latin binomial since it’s against formal taxonomic rules.) Nevertheless, the woke birders have won, as recounted in this article from Science (click on screenshot) and the linked article from Birdwatching Daily (BWD)

As you see, the canceled bird, formerly McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii) was named after a Confederate general, and so is to be renamed the “thick-billed longspur.”  The decision was made in a second vote by the American Ornithological Society (AOS). From BWD:

In 2018, Robert Driver, a graduate student at East Carolina University, wrote a formal proposal to the NACC arguing that the longspur should no longer be named after McCown.

“McCown has the distinction of being the only individual who had a bird named in his honor and also served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War,” Driver wrote. “He led campaigns against Native tribes along the Canadian border before being moved to Texas to serve in the Mexican War. He later fought the Seminoles in Florida and served several other positions before the onset of the Civil War. It was during this time that he collected the longspur, and that [George N.] Lawrence named the longspur in his honor.”

Originally the AOS voted 7-1 against the name change, with one abstention. But that was in 2018, and things have changed, namely the murder of George Floyd and the new tide of renaming coming in its wake. So Driver wrote a new proposal that was voted in. And this despite the facts that McCown had not only made contributions to ornithology, but also had second thoughts about the Confederacy, which he eventually repudiated.

From BWD (my emphasis):

The new proposal to change the name, dated July 24, 2020, was co-authored by Driver and NACC chair Terry Chesser, an ornithologist at the Smithsonian, and it was written “in consultation with the AOS Diversity and Inclusion Committee.”

The proposal covers McCown’s contributions to ornithology in the mid-1800s, including his collecting of specimens of the longspur, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Olive Sparrow, all of which were new to science. The document also gives a detailed account of McCown’s military career but doesn’t mention the campaigns against Native tribes previously noted by Driver.

The proposal then consider the longspur’s name “against the background of today” with the following reflection:

“Confederate symbols across the U.S. are currently being removed because of associations with white supremacy or a racist past that has rightfully been rejected. The continued use of Confederate symbols and honorifics ignores the propagation of racism and white supremacy that followed the Civil War and persists to the present day. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color continue to experience profound prejudice, discrimination, and violence.

The names McCown’s Longspur and Rhynchophanes mccownii were not initially associated with the Confederacy; the bird was scientifically described ten years prior to the Civil War. These names are therefore not directly equivalent to the many overtly racist symbols created to recognize individuals for their roles in the Confederacy, often intended to perpetuate the racism associated with slavery and later forms of oppression. The social question here is more nuanced, involving the symbolism linked to this name due to post-naming events. Notwithstanding McCown’s accomplishments as an ornithologist and his eventual misgivings about the Confederacy, he is perceived as a symbol of slavery and racism by many in today’s ornithological and birding communities. This broader association of McCown with the Confederacy and what it represents has damaging ramifications for promoting diversity and inclusion within ornithology.

“Ornithology is not exempt from racism. Racial minorities are underrepresented as birders, naturalists, and ornithologists, as was recently highlighted by the Twitter movements #BlackBirdersWeek and #BlackAFInStem. This underrepresentation is complex and multifaceted, but it is exacerbated by the presence of microaggressions, such as an English name honoring a high-ranking Confederate officer, regardless of when or how that name was originally created. There is obviously much work to be done, but removing an especially problematic eponym represents a step towards dismantling barriers for a more inclusive ornithological community.”

However, the honorific is not for McCown’s participation in the Civil War on the Southern side, but for his contribution to birding. On my principle that if a name or statue honors an individual’s positive achievements, it needn’t be changed, I don’t see a good reason for such change. It is not a statue of McCown in a general’s uniform, nor was it meant to remind Southerners of white hegemony before the war.

Note as well that the underrepresentation of racial minorities as birders is imputed to racism and microaggressions, when in fact we have no idea whether this is the case (note, though, the case of the black birder in Central Park who had the cops called on him by a racist white woman). Note too that McCown first fought with the Union Army but then went over to the Confederacy. I have no idea why, but Wikipedia says he was court-martialed and later repudiated the Confederacy:

McCown and other senior generals petitioned Jefferson Davis to relieve General Braxton Bragg in favor of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Davis refused to relieve either Bragg or the rebellious generals.[6] McCown ran afoul of Braxton Bragg, who blamed McCown for the loss of New Madrid and labeled him “his worst division commander”. In March 1863 Bragg had McCown court-martialed, ostensibly for disobeying orders at Murfreesboro, but more likely for criticism of Bragg and Confederate officials, including Davis. McCown was relieved of his command as the commanding general of the Army and was tried and found guilty of disobedience of orders on March 16, and sentenced to suspension from duty for a period of six months. McCown declared the Confederacy was nothing more than “a damned stinking cotton oligarchy… gotten up for the benefit of Isham G. Harris and Jefferson Davis and their damned corrupt cliques.”  

No matter; he served with the Confederate Army and so his name must go. And I truly doubt the contention that McCown’s name is “perceived as a symbol of slavery and racism by many in today’s ornithological and birding communities.” Seriously? Do birders who use that name really think that? I doubt that most of them even know who McCown is.

At any rate, this honorific, assigned before the Civil War, is meant to honor McCown’s contributions as a birder. At least the species name in the Latin binomial, mccownii, won’t be changed—yet. But perhaps that’s coming. After all, the Woke Birders have a Little List (well, it’s not really that little):

From Science:

But antiracism advocates say much work remains. Bird Names for Birds, an initiative that has compiled a list of species with what it considers problematic eponyms, counts 149 additional existing names that warrant changing. “McCown wasn’t just a singular anomaly that has now been ‘solved,’ but a single expression of far more deep-rooted issues of colonialism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices that have gone unchallenged for too long,” says Alex Holt, a co-organizer of the effort.

Yesterday, a study posted on the preprint server bioRxiv found that, although 95% of the bird species that researchers have described since 1950 live in the global south, 68% of their names honor scientists from the global north. “As we increasingly reflect on the social foundations and impacts of our science, these findings show how research and labor in the global South continue to be disproportionately translated into power and authority in the global North, upholding and re-enacting imperial structures of domination,” the authors write.

So even if you didn’t defend the South in the Civil War, your bird might be renamed because the honoree was simply from the northern part of the globe.

This seems really crazy to me—a kneejerk reaction that not only does no good, but impedes communication between birders. And in the case of McCown, who made tangible contributions to ornithology, and even repudiated the Confederacy, it’s even more misguided.

Now perhaps if the bird was named Hitler’s Longspur you’d have a case for renaming, but I retain my criterion for deep-sixing a statue, a building name, or, especially, a bird name: if the honorific is meant to honor positive contributions of an individual (in this case to ornithology or biology), it should stay. If it was meant to call attention to someone famous for their bad deeds, well, it’s worth discussing.

On the bird front, at least, the Woke are winning. It’s all because people are afraid of being called racists. To stand up against renaming McCown’s Longspur will brand you as exactly that.

Is this madness ever going to abate?

91 thoughts on “Woke birders win: McCown’s Longspur renamed because McCown was a Confederate general (though he made contributions to ornithology and repudiated the Confederacy)

  1. Braxton Bragg was known as one of the most contentious officers in the US Army. He was stationed in a small post with his Company before the war, where he wore the hats of company commander, supply officer, and post commander. As company commander he made out a requisition that he then refused as supply officer, finally over-riding himself as post commander. When the requisition was finally submitted, his commanding officer observed, “By god, Bragg, you’ve argued with every officer in the Army, and now you’re arguing with yourself!”

  2. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color continue to experience profound prejudice, discrimination, and violence.

    You always see assertions like this in these statements, but where’s the evidence? All those non-whites “continue to experience profound … violence”? I think the clear implication here is of white racist violence, not criminals of color shooting each other, but the reality of interracial violence is hugely disproportionately committed by people of color and against whites.

    And they all experience profound prejudice and discrimination? If that was the case, I think they wouldn’t have to resort to claims of invisible and systemic racism, since real, overt racism would be plain to see. And even the widely invoked systemic racism is largely just asserted. Test scores and career and academic achievement differ between the races, ergo systemic racism. In almost no case is a causal link to racism, prejudice, or discrimination actually proven, and certainly not a “profound” one.

    A bit off topic from the McCown’s Longspur, but I think emblematic of the uncritical acceptance of this ‘evil whites’ narrative that drives so much of the statue toppling and renaming of everything.

  3. I can’t get very excited if McCown’s name is kept or not. Birds are not statues or governmental entities such as state counties or military bases. However, the fact that he served in the United States army prior to the war hardly works in his favor. It makes him only a traitor. Per Wikipedia, he did not repudiate the Confederacy after his court martial. He was still fighting for it in 1865. Many Southerners did not like Jefferson Davis but still fought for the cause.

    1. A traitor like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, etc.? Also, was the South’s rebellion treasonous, especially when the “right” to rebel is explicit in the Declaration of Independence (Declaration of Rebellion?)? Lincoln, of course, was elected with less than 40% if the popular vote, but acted pretty much like he was a king.
      After the war, in 1869, all Confederate officials were awarded a blanket amnesty by presidential Proclamation, a proclamation having the same force of law as the Emancipation Proclamation. Former Confederates could not be tried and had, as enshrined in law, presumed innocence of any crimes they might have committed. Legally, they were neither traitors nor could they even be accused of treason in a court of law.

      1. If I had any doubts about the existence of neo-Confederatism, they are now gone. Is that what you and you buddies (or should I say confederates) talk about?

        1. What I talk about these days is how disappointed I am that someone authentic like Stacy Abrams wasn’t Biden’s choice for VP.
          In the Civil War, IMHO, the side that wasn’t pro-slavery was pro-ethnic-cleansing, at least its Commander-in-Chief was. Quoting Abraham Lincoln speaking in Aug. 1862 at the White House with five black men of the Washington elite in an effort to coerce them to emigrate, with government backing, to another country: “. . . but on this broad continent, not a single man of your [black] race is the equal of a single man of ours.” That looks pretty serious, and I’m not just whistling dixie.

          1. I am quite familiar with the issue of Lincoln and colonization. Throughout almost all his public career, he supported it. Indeed, in his message to Congress in December 1862, he once again proposed colonization. However, there is evidence that near the end of his life, he abandoned the idea. In any case, colonization was a fantasy. There was no way that millions of African-Americans would leave the country for Liberia or Central America. Also, much of the North was thoroughly racist. Still, Lincoln did issue the Emancipation Proclamation and advocated for passage of the 13th Amendment.

            Lincoln’s racial attitudes have been the subject of much scholarly debate and I am not going to write an extended essay. Let us just say it was complicated. As interesting as this topic is, it is irrelevant to the issue of whether Confederate generals were traitors. The short answer is that they were.

  4. I don’t give a fig for common names being changed, of course it can only be a suggestion, for better or worse people will call it what they like, no matter what field guides say, and has nothing at all to do with science. But is it not against internationally accepted rules for taxonomy to change a scientific name at any level except in the face of new scientific data? We do still have a diminutive blind cave beetle with the name of A. hitleri and there are few who wouldn’t love a change but it’s still not allowed, right? A handful of “birding while woke” or the “society of perpetually offended scientists” cannot alter the rules so easily, can they?

    1. Since you seem to be au fait with this world: how much work would it take if a slew of these animals were renamed? Let’s say…a hundred, from various species, all at once.

      How prohibitive would it be? I’m genuinely interested. I’d like to know whether it would cause chaos or whether the taxonomic world would be able to absorb it.

      Would it be

      – barely noticed

      – a minor annoyance

      – very inconvenient

      – a giant upheaval that would take a significant length of time

      – total chaos of Hieronymus Bosch-like proportions, man-eating-man, lion laying with lamb, heaven’s wrath drawn down, that kind of thing?

      1. An interesting question. What effect would it have to go back and change the scientific names of all species whose names cause offense to modern minds… after all, it would not stop at one bird species, or one genus, but potentially effect thousands of names at nearly every level of taxonomy. And of course it would set us up for changing these names repeatedly as new generations find new offenses, or new political ideologies take over. Perhaps I’m sounding alarmist but if we cannot agree on names in taxonomy, we cannot have a functioning taxonomy at all. That goes beyond simple names, as each binomial is essentially a working scientific hypothesis. It tells much more than what the scientific world should call an organism but also about its evolution and its relation to other organisms. That’s a pretty big deal. It’s not as if I like their particular name, and like most everyone else I knew nothing of the man whose name it bears. I personally dislike naming species after people at all, especially the pop culture nonsense we see today, like species named after Beyoncé, tRump, and Star Wars characters (love the movies, still think it’s dumb to names species after them). I would love to see a rule change that limited naming to descriptives only, but to go back and reapply the change to every single level of taxonomy, living and fossil? Absolute chaos. But perhaps my opinion matters not. I am not a scientist and I have no power. Perhaps a taxonomist would share their opinion. I merely sit on the sidelines and observe, with occasional cheers or facepalms.

      2. Many birders (myself included) don’t pay much attention to what self-important, self-appointed bodies like this ornithological society have to say. We’re not about to run out and buy new field guides. And we’re still using the name “myrtle warbler” for instance although these long ago were renamed “yellowrumps” by the societies. I’m sure that it will take years for people to stop using the names they have known for decades; by which time one hopes this unimportant fad will have passed.

    1. “Temminck has loads of species named after him, & he worked for the Dutch East India Company” – maybe it was spices they named after him?

    2. Havard zoologist Louis Agassiz, besides being irredeemably racist and a proponent of ethnic cleansing, was at the same time a radical abolitionist of the “ship them back to Africa” type. Agassiz was both famous and wildly influential in the years preceding the Civil War and had, I suspect, thousands of species named after him. Googling the terms “agassizi” and “agassizii” got me over a million “hits”.
      Agassiz had enough of a reputation to be made a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences and in early 1865 to be invited to the White House for a private meeting with his admirer Abraham Lincoln.

  5. He led campaigns against Native tribes along the Canadian border before being moved to Texas to serve in the Mexican War. He later fought the Seminoles in Florida and served several other positions before the onset of the Civil War. It was during this time that he collected the longspur, and that [George N.] Lawrence named the longspur in his honor.”

    Anyone else see the weirdness here?
    You kill native Americans, you’re good.
    Then you go kill some Mexicans, you’re good.
    Then you go kill some more native Americans, you’re still good.
    Serve in the confederate army…excommunicated.

    Now look, I don’t think we should glorify the confederacy either. But the elevation of the civil war above these other events, in terms of its moral weightiness, just seems a bit strange.

    1. Who says that those actions are good? George Custer fought valiantly for the Union during the Civil War. He was a great cavalry commander. If his career had ended then, he would be greatly honored today. However, those who have followed his post-war activities would probably deem him not worthy of honor despite his war record.

      1. The AOS says they’re good. Read the third indented quote (the one with the big bold section); it is obvious that the AOS removed his name because of his association with the Confederacy, and that his war record against other groups had absolutely nothing to do with their decision.

        1. That doesn’t mean they think those actions are “good” though.

          I think everyone attaches more importance to certain, famous historical atrocities than they do to less famous ones. Look at how the Jewish holocaust is treated by comparison with, say, the Armenian genocide. The latter barely registers in the popular imagination when the question of 20th century atrocities comes up. That doesn’t mean anyone approves of it(although Erdogan might feel ambivalent, I don’t know).

          Not paying attention to certain, less famous events isn’t an admission that we think thy’re good, it’s just a result of our being finite human beings who have to prioritise certain pieces of information over others.

          1. And all the genocides before and since. We also tend not to remark on the millions of others exterminated by the Nazis beyond the Jewish genocide, which was atrocious by any measure. But, without hunting up the actual figure, there were millions of others killed by the Nazis: Romas, Russians, mentally challenged, etc. 11 million total is the number that pops into my head including all known killed. Historian can probably correct me.

            1. 11 million is a low estimate. Perhaps as many as 10 million civilians from the USSR died as a result of the German invasion alone. Then there were about 6 million in Poland, although I believe some of those were done by the Russians.

              The USSR also lost about 8-9 million through famine and disease, some of which can be directly attributed to Nazi actions. For example, the siege of Leningrad was designed specifically to starve everybody in the city to death.

          2. Saul, don’t be obtuse. If the AOC says they removed his name for reason X, the simplest explanation is that they removed it for reason X. Not that they removed it for reasons X Y and Z, all of which they view as important moral failures, but of which they just decided not to mention Y and Z.

            If an institution reviews a record of someone participating in the Indian wars and the Civil war, and they release a statement saying “after careful review, we’re removing him because of his participation in the Civil war”, then it is an unwarranted stretch and not supported by the evidence to claim they really removed him for both but just chose not to mention the former.

            1. Please don’t call me “obtuse”. I made a polite reply specifically to your claim that “the AOS says they’re good.”

              But that is an unsupportable claim, drawn from nowhere, asserting something that was never said by the AOS.

              The fact that they didn’t explicitly factor in a certain historical event in their decision-making doesn’t immediately give you license to claim they approve of it. That’s an absurd leap of logic and there’s nothing obtuse about pulling you up on it.

    2. It’s because blacks have a high social status in the US, whereas Native Americans are hardly present in the national discourse and their problems (like drug abuse and poor educational outcomes) are mostly ignored. A police shooting of an unarmed Mexican would not trigger any large riots and demonstrations around the world either.

      Amazingly, contemporaries seem to have hated the Confederacy less than some people today. Supporting it was wrong, but given 19th-century notions of honor and the natural desire to protect your home and relatives rather than destroy it, I would have probably made the same decision back then.

  6. What would the so-called progressives or their descendants say, if in 50, 100 years one decided to put away their contributions or even to delete them, because they then no longer correspond to the zeitgeist prevailing there?

    1. They would probably be disappointed, just as neo-Nazis today in Germany are undoubtedly disappointed that all the public monuments to Hitler and his crew are now gone.

  7. You can take away the name from the bird but you can’t take away the bird from the name. I’m betting birders will continue to call it McCown’s Longspur. Over a decade ago, for much better reasons, the name of Squaw peak in Phoenix was changed to Piestewa peak. Everyone there still calls it Squaw peak. If you ask about Piestewa peak, they look at you blankly.

    1. I’m betting birders will continue to call it McCown’s Longspur.

      Maybe, maybe not. Birders are used to name changes. Usually it’s because a form that was considered a single species is split into two or more species, thereby requiring at least one new name, and in practice all the species resulting from the split often get new names. In addition, more and more birders are entering their sightings over the internet into something called ebird, which will of course have the updated name for the longspur. Summaries of sightings are often sent to distribution lists and these summaries will have the new name.

      Maybe I’m showing my Eastern bias, but McCown’s Longspur (oops, Thick-billed Longspur), which I believe occurs mostly in sparsely populated areas of the mid-western and western interior, is a rather obscure bird, hardly an iconic one like Baltimore Oriole or Scarlet Tanager. I doubt many non-birders are familiar with it and I don’t know how attached to the name the minority of birders who actually see the bird will be. Baltimore Oriole was for a time lumped with Bullock’s Oriole and called Northern Oriole, which is what we called it until it was split out again. (It was discovered that the scarlet tanager is not actually a tanager, prompting some to call for a name change, but they wisely decided not to tamper with the name of such a well-known bird, although the French name was changed.)

    2. ” . . . the name of Squaw peak in Phoenix was changed to Piestewa peak. Everyone there still calls it Squaw peak. If you ask about Piestewa peak, they look at you blankly.”

      I came across Mt. FitzRoy in Argentina, after the captain of HMS Beagle. I wonder if it will occur to someone to push to change it. Same with Everest.

  8. Let’s hope that Alexander von Humboldt doesn’t have any skeletons in the closet (assuming that’s an acceptable phrase nowadays) or there’s a hell of a lot of stuff that will need renaming.

    And why use the language used by the slave-owning colonialist Romans for the binomials…

        1. More seriously, Dom, I’ve learned the hard way that lengthy comments are worth saving by clicking on them and choosing ‘Select all’ and ‘Copy ‘ from time to time while you create / ponder them. (It will be news to many here that my comments are ever pondered over, of course!)

          1. I talked about endonyms & exonyms & mentioned many Latin binomials have Greek elements or are latinised Greek, & that the scientific name is the important one & should not be frivolous, while local names are not written in stone eg the many common plant names for the same species like goose grass/cleavers… there! Much more concise!

  9. The prevalence of species named by and for (mostly) men from the global north simply reflects who was doing science at the time most species were described and named. It is a simple historical fact that modern science was “invented” in Europe. And don’t bother telling me about Chinese or Indian or Aztec technology. Technology is not the same thing as science.

  10. We have bigger things to worry about than which dead people have things named for them. As long as the renaming is in keeping with the march of history (as opposed to renaming birds Hitler or Stalin), then I don’t really care.

    If their habitat disappears through deforestation or global warming, or pollution renders their eggs too fragile, it won’t matter anyway.

    1. Thank you for your opinion, but please don’t imply that I shouldn’t care about this. It’s a symptom of the madness that is starting to take over the Left.

      Further, if we have bigger things to worry about, why worry so much about this one?

      As for it not mattering because the bird’s habitat might disappear, why is that relevant? If that was the case, many birds could go extinct.

    2. The “woke while birding” crowd disagrees. The Smithsonian article I first read had this quote:
      “I’ve been a member of AOS for two years now. I think that this should be their utmost priority.” -Juite Martinez, Ph.D. Student

      And why? Because:
      Everyone “should be able to conduct research on any bird without feeling excluded, uncomfortable, or shame when they hear or say the name of a bird.” -Robert Driver, graduate student

      It’s a bit like worrying about a hangnail on your severed hand. The priority should be preserving species and habitat, not feeling sad that a species was named after people we dislike for whatever reason.

      1. Now that I’ve seen PCC’s comment, to be clear, I’m not saying PCC shouldn’t worry about it, I’m saying the birding community as a whole seems to have misplaced priorities. That is also what I assumed the previous comment was saying but like always, I reserve the right to be wrong and to completely miss the point.

      2. Yes, exactly. I don’t much care either way about McCown’s name being attached or not to that cute bird. But this renaming effort is just busy work for birders who are looking for some kind of public recognition of their sensitivity. It accomplishes nothing toward resolving real racism, and it pisses off other people who see that this is just busy work masquerading as activism.

        1. As has been pointed out, many individuals not afflicted by the AOS’s exquisite woke sensitivity will continue to call the bird
          McCown’s Longspur anyhow. Thus, the dread microaggression will continue as long as the bird persists. This phenomenon tells us exactly what should be done. If we could render the offending fowl extinct, then those terrible microaggressions would be avoided. That would really be cancel culture.

  11. “It was during this time that he collected the longspur”

    So this is not a random honorific, the guy did discover the species. He deserves the honor.

  12. Morton was a racist, but not a phrenologist. He used cranial capacity to rank races not bumps. It is also interesting that Steven Jay Gould manipulated Morton’s data to prove his own perspective. Not that he was a racist, just affected by his own biases.

  13. I dislike plenty of what the overly-politically-correct-left get up to but this is not the hill I want to die on, as they say.
    The guy was a confederate general, I can’t say I think it’s a travesty that he’s no longer associated with a beautiful member of the natural kingdom.

    As long as they don’t rename the bird Beyonce or something, that’d just drive me up the wall.

    1. Maybe the bird should be named the “Wap,” in honor of the Cardi B song, which I reasonably take to be a Woke favorite. No doubt one of the most rarefied, elevated sets of lyrics to ever grace a melody (if melody there be in this song).

      1. You cynical, cynical man Filippo…

        You remind me of my dad when he used to watch Top Of The Pops with me. The joy he got from excoriating the latest pop confection wheeled on-stage – I think that was when he was most happy.

    1. Blimey, that really is ridiculous. Rather like the school principal who was fired for using the word “niggardly”, even though it has absolutely no etymological connection to the N-word. If someone is disconcerted by a word because of an unpleasant but unrelated association, then it used to be considered an occasion for informing them of the true origin of the word and the lack of connection to the unpleasant association, so that they could cease to make the association. Now, it seems, people are considered incapable of making that de-linkage. Another example of the bigotry of low expectations.

  14. The woke birders are aware that it is easy to change the common names and much harder to change the species names because the latter changes re governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. The Code does not have a provision for name changes in order to “[achieve] a more inclusive ornithological community”. I predict there will be an irresistible push to change that, and to add a provision for renaming in order to eliminate eponymous species names associated with unpersons.

  15. It’s surely only a matter of time before re-naming in some field is done only for it to emerge that the newly honoured person also has a skeleton in their closet. It will be interesting to see what prevarications and special pleading go on then …

  16. I have a radical idea. If the goal is to help blacks and other minorities, why don’t we actually try to help them?

    To succeed, people needs jobs, stable families and a solid education. But fixing the real problems is hard while renaming a school or a bird is a piece of cake. We have been trying for decades and have largely failed. We need new ideas.

    1. But there’s this entire world of busybodies who exist only on Twitter and Facebook, so the only change they’re interested in and capable of is utterly superficial and performative.

      If I saw them campaigning on the street I’d be much more impressed…but I also suspect they’d have to be different people entirely to venture out and deal with the realities of effecting genuine change.

      Think of the mindset of someone who posts a tweet they wrote in thirty seconds calling for change…versus someone who goes out and tries to build bridges and push things forward in a political world where the solutions to problems aren’t as simple as just tweeting ‘this bird is now called something different’.

      Effecting change on Twitter is both incredibly easy and generally close to meaningless. Therefore it attracts idiots who don’t like dealing with compromise, complexity and the tediousness of working hard for incremental but crucial political rewards.
      On Twitter you get the immediate, explosive sugar rush of likes and retweets. …While some social service worker trying to wrangle better mental health care for her clients manages to wrest open the door one micron more than it was last week, and then goes home to no fanfare at all and a minimum wage.

      Is it any wonder that so much modern social justice activism is of the useless, performative kind?

      1. You say that as if eliminating social media would make this problem go away. I doubt it. This is what these people think fighting racism is all about. They would likely just find somewhere else to do it and, I assume, already do it in other places.

        Twitter and other social media platforms do provide anonymity and many of the Woke take advantage of it but the ones that force these changes on organizations generally do their dirty work and sign their real names to it. Eliminating Twitter might slow them down a bit for a short while but I don’t see why it would stop them.

        Not does the volume of response count for much. It’s real people doing things like writing letters to the linguistics association in order to take some honors away from Steven Pinker. It’s not just a Twitter poll.

        1. I think that racism is not the appropriate focus. It clearly is a problem but it is not the major problem facing the poor in this country. Jobs, family and education are more important.

          1. An argument can easily be made that racism is why many of them are poor, or at least an explanation why some stay poor. I doubt we can solve one without solving the other.

        2. “You say that as if eliminating social media would make this problem go away.”

          No solution to a problem as thorny as this is ever going to be that simple.

          I’ve said it before, that removing anonymity and making real identities the default in most online fora might improve things. That’s as far as I go in prescribing a solution.

          I certainly don’t think we should eliminate social media. Even if we could put the genie back in the bottle there’s a huge amount of good that’s done by social media too.
          My focus was just on the people whose activism is as ferocious and manichean as it is shallow and performative. They’ve been given a platform to enforce conformity that they didn’t previously have.

  17. Shouldn’t we shame these people into really fighting racism instead of wasting time renaming birds? It’s as if they think cleaning up their small corner of the world is going to make a difference. “See, we birders and ornithologists used to be racist but we’re all right now!”

  18. A funny taxonomy story…
    Duvaucel’s gecko Hoplodactylus duvauceli from New Zealand is named after Cuvier’s stepson, Alfred Duvaucel. By mistake – he worked in India & the specimens were thought to be his before they realised the error!

      1. “This species is extinct.”

        “Hey, I just found one in my mousetrap!”

        “Oh, we miscalculated. There was actually one left.”


  19. There is a rock climbing route in the Shawangunks (NY) that was recently renamed from “Shockley’s Ceiling” to “The Ceiling”.

    Yeah, that Shockley! In addition to be being the Nobel-prizewinning co-inventor of the transistor, he was also an accomplished rock climber who made the first ascent of this route in 1953.

    His embrace of eugenics later in life destroyed his reputation.

    The naming honor was based on a climbing accomplishment–but the removal is based on one of Shockley’s non-climbing pursuits.

    My question: Did, or should the invention of the transistor enter Woke accounting?

    The transistor had real, net positive impact on the world. Shockley’s ramblings on eugenics are just a distasteful curiosity about the man.

    1. Yes… those renames should stop using transistors!

      I like some Wagner but that does not mean I share all his views, not that I know much about them… I suppose Parisians visit the Pompidou Centre but do not all share his politics, etc!

  20. At least it comes down to a vote.
    These decisions are clearly happening while in an emotional froth, and so it cannot possibly be reflective of an actual and deep cultural change in taxonomy. It’s being done in the heat of the moment.

    It would be best, I think, to at least wait a year or so before any more votes are done. If this is a cultural change in taxonomy that we are seeing, then people would still vote for it. After all, no one is really harmed if the old names of forgotten ornithologists stay a bit longer.

    1. I imagine these meetings consist of some fraction of the room basking in virtuosity at the thought of striking a major blow against racism and the rest hoping it will all be over soon without them being called “racist”.

  21. For the first time in history a thing has been not named for something, but unnamed. Of course, everyone will want to know the previous name. Eventually the name will be “bird formerly known as _____”.

    The thing the bird was unnamed for was ideology, I guess. Or comfort? Or anti racism?

    1. After reading, I guess the bird un-naming is the second un-naming for something.

      Is “unnaming” a word? My accursed autocorrect thinks so.. I’ll have to look…

      1. Facebook has already brought us the new verb “to unfriend”. We can now thank the AOS and others for the new verb “to unname”.

  22. A few of the things that get me about this are as follows:

    • it does not require knowledge of the thing being unnamed other than understanding the name part

    • it is utterly easy to root around to find things to unname

    • it seems to assume the naming of things is always to glorify or idolize the person for whom it is named.

    (Personally, I think it speaks of an idleness and lack of creativity, but perhaps that’s a cynical view).

    Some things I’ll look up for my own unnaming-watch list (except for Pythagorean theorem v. Gougu theorem- we handled that already ) in no particular order :

    Krebs Cycle
    Rayleigh scattering
    Maxwell equations
    Avogadro’s number
    Haber-Bosch process
    Gibbs free energy

    … and so on …

  23. The women in Central Park may have been racist nut she was also scared because the ‘birder’ threatened to do things to her and her dog that ‘she wouldn’t like’.

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