ICZN: we won’t change animals’ Latin (“scientific”) names, even if they’re considered offensive

January 25, 2023 • 9:50 am

As you know, all officially recognized species have both a common name and a Latin binomial. I, for example, am a human (common name), but also a member of the species Homo sapiens (official binomial), and I used to work on the fruit fly or vinegar fly (common name), known officially as Drosophila melanogaster (meaning “black-bellied dew lover” in Latin). The Latin binomials are governed by a large set of rules in a big green book issued by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ISZN). This body is in charge of recognizing genus and species names in animals (the first and second parts of the Latin binomial, respectively), but also of one other taxonomic level, the names of families (Drosophilidae for the fly, Hominidae for living humans).

You can change the common names of species, and of course they do vary from country to country, but the Latin or scientific names, once assigned and approved, cannot be changed except under certain circumstances. Suppose, for example, that the frog named after me, Atelopus coynei, was found to have been described previously under a different name. The earliest name gets precedence, and poor A. coynei becomes what’s known as a nomen nudum, or “nude name”, a name that should no longer be used for this species. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened, so my one scientific legacy seems secure.

There are other circumstances that mandate changing the Latin binomial of an animal species under Da Roolz, some of which you can see here. But under no circumstances can finding anything new about the biology of an animal, or about the history of its Latin name, mandate a name change. That’s because the Latin binomial is the permanent name of a species that can be recognized and used by all scientists worldwide, and willy-nilly name changes would mess up all kinds of science, including taxonomy itself as well as conservation.

Now the common names of species are being changed right and left—mostly these days on moral or political grounds. For example, the “gypsy moth”, Lymantria dispar, was considered offensive since “gypsy” is a slur (they’re now called “Roma”). Ergo the Entomological Society of America, which creates and maintains the Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List, declared that the moth will now be called, in common parlance, the “spongy moth.” (Most people still call it the “gypsy moth,” and that’s how you’d best look it up on Google.

And a lot of proposed common name-changing is going on, mostly for creatures named after people seen as immoral, bad, or harmful. I’ve written about some examples (here, here, and here), and not always approvingly because, as with many name changes like this, some people’s overall contributions are contentious (“Audubon’s Oriole,” for example, is up for a common-name change because John James Audubon decapitated corpses for scientific study). (It’s still known as Audubon’s Oriole for the time being.) What will NEVER change, however, is its Latin name, Icterus graduacauda.

Other bird species are also up for renaming, but in some cases the offensive person used in the common name is also used in the Latin name. Examples: Audubon’s warbler (Setophaga auduboni), Townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi), Hammond’s flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii) , and McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). You can change the common name, but people are calling for changes in the Latin name as well. After all, if one name is seen as harmful, why wouldn’t the Latin name be too?

But the ICZN, recognizing the taxonomic confusion that changing a Latin binomial name would cause, has issued a no-nonsense statement saying, in effect, “No changes in Latin names for political or ideological reasons.” And I think that policy is correct given the mess such changes would cause.

This policy is outlined in the three-page statement below (pdf here, reference at bottom) and published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. The many authors are all members of the ICZN; indeed, this may be the entirety of the organization’s leadership. Click to read:

The ICZN notes that they do include in the Code of Nomenclature a recommendation against giving new animal species names that “would be likely to give offense on any grounds,” but that is not a binding rule, and, as you see, some of the Latin names given above, names now seen as offensive, were not seen as offensive when they were given. So there’s nothing that can be done about them. I’ll give a few quotes from the article, for it’s written clearly and forcefully:

Here’s the pressure they’ve been under:

The ethical appropriateness of some scientific names has recently been questioned. This is the result, in part, of ongoing societal re-evaluations of past attitudes, particularly in the context of sexism, racism and colonialism. Part of the botanical community has put forward proposals to replace ‘culturally offensive and inappropriate names’ (Hammer & Thiele, 2021); to ‘permanently and retroactively eliminate epithets’ containing perceived racial slurs (Smith & Figueiredo, 2021a) or honouring colonial actors (Smith & Figueiredo, 2021b); or to replace established and accepted scientific names with new scientific names based on indigenous ones (Gillman & Wright, 2020). These proposals have received both support (Knapp et al., 2020Thiele et al., 2022) and criticism (Palma & Heath, 2021Mosyakin, 20212022ab). Besides reactions published in the scientific literature, debates have also erupted on social media platforms, such as ResearchGate.

Similar proposals are now being put forward in zoology. Recently, a suggestion was made to replace the scientific names of several North American freshwater fishes ‘named after people who advocated racist and sexist views, used derogatory names in their writings, or did reprehensible things during their careers’ (Tracy, 2022). Likewise, in the field of hominid taxonomy, a proposal to replace a long-established scientific name that carries ‘social-political baggage’ with a new and putatively neutral one has been debated (Roksandic et al., 20212022Delson & Stringer, 2022Sarmiento & Pickford, 2022).

As members of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), we feel compelled to present our official position regarding this topic and to clarify the role, mission and powers entrusted to the Commission.

And their decision (there’s more at the site):

Replacing accepted scientific names because of perceived offensiveness is not, and should not be, regulated by the Code. Although the Commission recognizes that some scientific names might cause discomfort or offence to parts of the community (such as eponyms of dictators or historical figures considered by some as racists, or because a word currently has negative connotations), the commitment to a stable and universal nomenclature remains the priority. It is well outside the scope of the Commission to assess the morality of persons honoured in eponyms or the potential offensiveness or inappropriateness of certain names. Owing to the inherently subjective nature of making such assessments, it would be inappropriate for the Commission to assert judgments on such matters of morality, because there are no specific parameters to determine thresholds for offensiveness of a scientific name to a given community or individual, either in the present day or in the future (but see Smith et al., 2022). There is also a possibility that neutral and non-offensive names proposed as replacements could themselves be considered offensive as attitudes change in the future, prompting further new replacement names. Moreover, any names replaced for ethical reasons would not simply disappear but would remain in the literature in perpetuity as part of taxonomic and nomenclatural synonymies.

Legislative changes accommodating the replacement of scientific names based on ethical considerations would affect the work of thousands of researchers, conservationists and other users of zoological names worldwide. Such disruptions would be particularly serious today, when the biodiversity of the world is increasingly under threat (Ceballos et al., 2017) and when conservation efforts will be particularly dependent on a universal naming and classification system that minimizes changes in names (Schuh, 2003). The establishment of a ‘Committee on Culturally Offensive or Inappropriate Names’, as suggested by Hammer & Thiele (2021) and Thiele et al. (2022), is outside the Commission’s purview and would be against the core principles of the Code, difficult to implement and unlikely to be recognized by the whole biological community.

. . . In conclusion, the stability of scientific names is essential for all activities under the umbrella of the biological sciences, including biodiversity conservation. The Commission acknowledges and understands ongoing debates about the appropriateness of certain names based on a variety of ethical arguments and is aware of the various proposed approaches on how to tackle these situations. However, the aim of the Commission is to promote nomenclatural stability without constraining taxonomic judgement. The ICZN’s current Constitution (https://www.iczn.org/) and its duties and powers as defined in the Code (ICZN, 1999), both of which have been ratified by the International Union for Biological Sciences (IUBS), preclude the Commission from adjudicating on the ethical merits of names or from establishing a skilled body dedicated to such a task. The Commission stands behind this and recommends the continued usage of scientific names as prescribed and regulated by the Code, thus promoting clear and unambiguous communication and essential linkages across the scientific literature as a top priority.

As you see, this is a purely practical decision, one that prioritizes the stability of biology and the ability of biologists to communicate internationally and accurately, above potential offense. But what people do with common names is out of their hands, and is often arguable.  Changing names like Homo sapiens, Drosophila melanogaster, and Atelopus coynei is not arguable!

Plant Latin names are recognized by a different organization, and I don’t think they’ve yet issued a statement about changing them.

__________________

Ceríaco,L. M. et al. 2023. Renaming taxa on ethical grounds threatens nomenclatural stability and scientific communication: Communication from the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature 
International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.  Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. https://doi.org/10.1093/zoolinnean/zlac107

 

30 thoughts on “ICZN: we won’t change animals’ Latin (“scientific”) names, even if they’re considered offensive

  1. Well I just learned something new. In all my years of studying biology and genetics I never heard of D. melanogaster referred to as vinegar fly. We always used fruit fly as the common name. Since fruit fly might be offensive to some, I suppose we should try and use vinegar fly, although fruit fly seems appropriate since every hotel breakfast buffet always seem to have fruit flys around the melons, strawberries, etc.

    1. In the dim and distant days when I tried to make my own wine (my elderberry wine was delicious, but an acquired taste), I was advised to use an S-shaped airlock to keep the ‘vinegar flies’ out. I later discovered that they are the same as fruit flies. Their ability to turn a demijohn of fermenting elderberry juice into elderberry vinegar is indeed impressive.

    2. The term ‘fruit fly’ is also applied to flies in the family Tephritidae so use of the name ‘vinegar fly’ when referring to the fly studied by so many geneticists avoids confusion. Of course, Drosophila melanogaster is even less ambiguous!

    1. If they give way on the nomenclature, next will be the cladistics. If a currently marginalized northern indigenous tribe assumed and taught that the whale was a fish, then a fish it is.

      1. Carol Kaesuk Yoon wrote a fun book about the enduring appeal of folk classifications, “Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct & Science.” The idea of a fish features prominently.

  2. Owing to the inherently subjective nature of making such assessments, it would be inappropriate for the Commission to assert judgments on such matters of morality, because there are no specific parameters to determine thresholds for offensiveness of a scientific name to a given community or individual, either in the present day or in the future. . . .

    My bolding. It would be nice if everyone could understand that, not just in relation to scientific names.

  3. How nice to see the voice of reason. If the name Atelopus coynei was sunk due to a valid prior name, it would become a junior synonym.

      1. Note to JAC–I’ve had species named for me become junior synonyms. It’s not that traumatic and the species name still lives on forever in the taxonomic list of synonymies.

  4. The Commission acknowledges and understands ongoing debates about the appropriateness of certain names based on a variety of ethical arguments and is aware of the various proposed approaches on how to tackle these situations. However …

    If the ICZN gets in trouble, this will be their most egregious crime. Yes, they’re not going to allow name changes, but this sentence about acknowledging and understanding the debate says nothing about how sympathetic they are to the hurt feelings. There’s no performative nod to being really, really sorry because the side of the debate which they’re reluctantly disappointing is of course absolutely right to be offended. It’s just facts and objectivity.

    Facts and objectivity are red flags for hate.

  5. Meanwhile, on the topic of renaming, a street in London traditionally named “Black Boy Lane” has just been renamed (against the wishes of the majority of locals, and the new street signs have been graffitied within a day).

    The justification is that the old name is deemed “racist”, by comparison with the past demeaning practice of referring to black adults as “boy”. The origins of the name are lost in history in this case, but calling someone “boy” is rather different from naming something “black boy”, presumably after an actual boy; names are more-often affectionate than derogatory.

    1. In Bristol, the top of Whiteladies Road is known as Black Boy Hill. You can imagine the trouble that that causes.

      Having done a little bit of Internet research, it seems that Black Boy Hill was named after a pub called the Black Boy. That, in turn was renamed from “The Blackamoor”. A “blackamoor” is a colloquial name for a North African Muslim. It’s a similar origin to The Saracen’s Head and other similar pub names.

      1. In Norwich there was a Black Boys pub, long gone, but I think it refered to the Blackfriars who were then in Colegate.

        There is a Saracen’s Head in Wolterton, & two Black Boys pubs one in Aldeborough & one Aylsham that I know. But hard to say the origins of the names now.
        I wonder if there is any connection with old folk practices, like Morris dancing? Originally Moorish…
        Are there any White Boys pubs/lanes?

    2. I happened to find this :

      “I think about my father being called ‘boy’, my uncle being called ‘boy’, my brother, coming back from Vietnam and being called ‘boy’. So I questioned myself: “What does a black man have to do before he’s given respect as a man?” So when I was 18 years old, when I was old enough to fight and die for my country, old enough to drink, old enough to vote, I said I was old enough to be called a man. I self-ordained myself Mr. T, so the first word out of everybody’s mouth is “Mr.”[9]”

      9. https://festivalreviews.org/2016/05/21/happy-birthday-mr-t/

      “Source”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr._T

  6. What an unusual and refreshing response from an official organization. Just think how differently the last few years might have unfolded if university administrations had consistenly met the grandstanding demands of the woke in a similarly robust fashion.

  7. Science wins for a change. Imagine the chaos if binomials needed to be reevaluated and changed. The taxonomic literature would be forever incomprehensible.

    The paper gives good reasons for holding firm, too, as there is no scientific way to evaluate what is offensive and what is not. Furthermore, fashions change, so what is acceptable today may not be in the future. Conversely, what is unacceptable today may become the preferred name tomorrow. The literature cannot be burdened by all of this; otherwise the science of biological systematics would grind to a halt.

    Other branches of science should take a lesson from this. Chemistry needs to be ready to protect the names of the chemical elements. Geology needs to be ready to defend their innumerable terms of art. Physics needs to protect its various “fields” as well as the processes and forces that are named after people.

    If those in the humanities and social sciences want to change a bunch of names, have at it.

  8. I’m so glad they’re keeping nomenclatural stabiilty as the priority!

    If I were going to change scientific names, I’d change misleading ones. Asclepias syriaca is from eastern North America. the Caribbean helmet shell Cassis madagascariensis is found nowhere near Madagascar. The host plant of the butterfly Agraulis vanillae is passionflower, not vanilla. Cymopterus terebinthinus. var. albiflorus has yellow flowers, always. And so forth.

  9. I’ll just note that your explanation of nomen nudum is not correct. A nomen nudum is a name that is “unavailable because it does not have a description, reference or indication (specifically a name published before 1931 which fails to conform to Article 12, or after 1930 but fails to conform to Article 13).” In the example that you use, the name is available, and has a valid description, but it turns out to be a subjective junior synonym of another name (subjective, because presumably based on a different type specimen). So it would not be the accepted current name for the species, but it would not be a nomen nudum, either. It is an important distinction because the name is available to be used if someone disagrees with the subjective decision that the two types refer to the same species, whereas a nomen nudum is not an available name that could be used as a valid scientific name.

    The hyperlink you provided defines it correctly, but your post does not.

    (Edit: I just saw that Greg Z. already made basically the same point, but less explicitly).

      1. But we could change a genus as happened with polar bears, from Thalarctos to Ursus…

        Oh you did say the binomen. Sorry -reading on the mobile telephone…

        I just discovered the downy oak, Quercus pubescens, has 52 synonyms!!!

  10. The statement “promoting clear and unambiguous communication… across the scientific literature as a top priority” reveals the Commission as an organ of colonialism and white empiricism. In fact, we need a new name for the current taxonomic name system itself. Carl Linnaeus never filed a Diversity Statement, and his 1729 Uppsala thesis “Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum” on plant sexual reproduction is clearly transphobic, never once affirming that sex is a spectrum. Moreover, one of Linnaeus’ patrons was George Clifford III, a director of the colonialist Dutch East India Company.
    We expect the ICZN to appoint a DEI Committee, with the task of finding a new term for the Linnaean nomenclature, not to mention the Linnean Society. Perhaps a new, anti-oppressive taxonomic system can be devised, based on Indigenous Ways of Knowing.

  11. Well, the stability of the zoological nomenclature is rather an illusion. Not because offensive names, but thanks to the permanent revision of the systematics itself. I was teaching coastal ecology (among other things) and we used the Handbook of the marine fauna of North-West Europe, edited by P.J. Hayward and J.S. Ryland, Oxford University Press 1995 – the Bible for beachcombers. A second edition was published in 2017. I quickly discovered that the binomen of 246 species – that is, more than 15 %, had changed. It was certainly for very sound taxonomic reasons, but nevertheless I did suddently feel very old…

  12. Even back then the head hunting may have been seen as distasteful.

    Though it happened down here in New Zealand and Europeans were buying them so much that slaves were tattooed so they could be harvested and sold. The rest of them was probably eaten.

  13. I’ve recently seen asterisks used to virtue signal/protest. In the example I came across, it’s now Corynorhinus t*wnsendii (T*wnsend’s big-eared bat).

  14. More and more, I’m becoming convinced that the whole woke/PC/progressive/whatever project is mostly the product of too much fretting over language by people with nothing better to do.

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