The purging of biological names that could possibly offend people continues. Since birds are now on the list for name-purging, the entomologists have gotten busy, too. Who wants to be left out? And so, according to an article from the ESA Bulletin, the familiar “gypsy moth” and the less familiar “gypsy ant” will be renamed. But that’s just the beginning, for the entomological pecksniffs will pore through all insect names and bin the ones that don’t comport with modern “progressive” liberal ideology.
Now in this case I have no objection to the renaming of two common names—the famous gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) and the gypsy ant (Aphaenogaster araneoides). That’s because to the Romani people (previously known as “gypsies”), the term “gypsy” is highly offensive. (The name comes from their presumed resemblance to Egyptians, though their genetic origin is India.) It is an ethnic slur. After all, it’s like having common names like the “Kike moth” or the “Hebe ant”, which would be unacceptable.
Although common names can be changed on the grounds of offense, it’s harder to change Latin binomials, which are embedded in the literature and would be very confusing were they to change, but in this case, as you see above, it’s not needed.
The change, which appears to be only the beginning, is described in this article from the Entomological Society of America (click on screenshot):
Here’s what they did, and I emphasize again that this is okay by me. What I fear is what will come now.
The existing common names for the moth Lymantria dispar and the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides were identified as containing a derogatory term for the Romani people. In June, the ESA Governing Board elected to remove the common names for both species from the ESA Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List.
Native to Eurasia, Lymantria dispar is a serious pest of North American forests, with caterpillars that feed on more than 300 species of trees and shrubs. This year, parts of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada are seeing some of the largest outbreaks of L. dispar in decades. ESA will seek to convene a volunteer group to propose a new common name for L. dispar, which would then be made available for ESA member comment and subject to approval by the ESA Committee on Insect Common Names and the ESA Governing Board.
What worries me, however, is that what happened with birds—the purging of common names involving people who made contributions to science but were imperfect, following the morality of earlier times—will also happen with insects. And while there are roughly 10,000 species of birds in the world, there are could be as many as 5.5 million species of insects, with about 900,000 named already. Vetting insect names will be a much bigger task, and those who do so may be tempted to do with insects what they did with birds. As we know, even Darwin’s name isn’t safe now!
And so the ESA has a project to vet insect names, the “Better Common Names Project.” Click on the screenshot to read about it.
And so the ESA is soliciting everyone to scrutinize insect names (you can single out a name that you want changed here), looking for odiferous names like these:
- Names that contain derogative terms
- Names for invasive species with inappropriate geographic references
- Names that inappropriately disregard what the insect might be called by native communities
The “inappropriate geographic references” bit intrigued me, though all three categories could be, as they say, “problematic”. Here’s what’s wrong with using geographic names:
What’s the problem with geographic references in common names?
Referencing geography in a common name for an insect, in particular for invasive or harmful species, can perpetuate discrimination, xenophobia, and bias against people from the same geographic region. For example, throughout history, immigrants, refugees, or “othered” groups have been compared to insects or referenced in entomological terms, and a large body of scholarship has explored this pattern. For further reading on the topic, see:
- Shinozuka’s article on how the Japanese beetle influenced anti-Asian policy in the early 20th century and was used as a vehicle to dehumanize Japanese people and persuade Americans that the “invaders” needed to be eradicated.
- Santa Ana’s article about anti-immigrant metaphor, specifically “immigrants as animals.”
- Anderson’s analysis of media portrayals of asylum seekers as vermin or pests.
Furthermore, ESA members have reported being the targets of derogatory comments made in reference to insects with geographic common names, including being called “invasive” due to their ethnicity.
There is also precedent in other areas of study for changing names that reference geographic regions to minimize negative effects on groups or contribute to stigma. For example:
- An article from the Star Tribune discussing Minnesota’s decision to refer to the Asian carp as invasive carp to avoid negative effects on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans.
- The WHO advises against using geographic terms to name diseases to minimize negative effects and offense toward any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.
ESA is a global society, and increasingly so. Therefore, it’s important that the names we call insects are relevant on a global scale; are inclusive of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities; and do not perpetuate harm against people.
Of course some of this is objectionable behavior, like referring to asylum seekers as “vermin,” but that has nothing to do with insect names. For example, I have no problem with “Japanese beetle, or “Asian carp”, which are not in themselves racist. They can be misused by racists, but they simply describe the geographic origin of a species.
In cases like this I tend to adhere to Grania’s Dictum. When she was alive, she always asked me in cases like this: “Will making these changes really accomplish anything? If not, it’s just a performance of virtue flaunting.” And the ESA’s claim that common names that fall into the three categories above should be changed because they “perpetuate discrimination, xenophobia, and bias against people from the same geographic region” seems exaggerated. Is the “American white pelican” going to cause anti-American bias? Not likely? Or are they referring only to names referring to Countries of Color? And what about plants? They’re probably on the schedule, too. There goes Spanish Moss. . .
By all means ditch the gypsy moth and gypsy ant, and any other common names containing racial slurs. But we have learned that the Pecksniffs, once they get started, can de-name anything so long as it offends just one or two people. And much of that renaming has no effect on racism and xenophobia. When new names are proposed, everyone else tends to fall in line, for academics tend to be both pusillanimous and conformist, and who wants to raise their voice against a determined Pecksniff?
Finally, good luck with the 350,000 species of beetles! Remember, there’s a Darwin’s beetle. Here it is—a magnificent creature: