More calls for not naming species after people

March 14, 2023 • 9:30 am

I am so weary of people trying to change both the common and Latin names of species because doing so will magically render biology more inclusive. But I have yet to find a single person who left the field, or refused to enter it, because species were named after people, odious or otherwise.

In the case at hand, apparently all white people and men are odious, for the Nature Ecology & Evolution paper below, as well as a summary from Oxford University (click screenshot), are calling for the end of the practice of naming species after people, and mention whiteness and maleness several times—not as desirable traits! (Usually eponyms are meant as honorifics, taken from a famous biologist or a donor to research.)

For animals, you can change the common names of species if they’re found offensive (e.g., “gypsy moth” or “Bachman’s warbler”, which have been deemed offensive), but what you cannot do is change the Latin binomial of animals (e.g., Vermivora bachmanii has to stay), for doing so would play hob with the literature and with international scientific communication. (The botanical body for nomeclature has yet to weigh in on this issue.)

Clicking below, you’ll find the fourth or fifth article I’ve read that says exactly the same thing. I’m not going to critique these pieces in detail as I’ve done so previously. I’ll just excerpt some of the reasons why the authors think that animals shouldn’t be named after people, and add a few brief remarks. Click the screenshots read, though the first one is paywalled. (Judicious inquiry may yield a pdf.)

From the article:

Eponyms typically reflect benefactors, dignitaries, officials, the author’s family members and colleagues, or well-known cultural figures (Fig. 1) — a practice that persists today. From a contemporary perspective this is potentially problematic, as many of those honoured are strongly associated with the social ills and negative legacy of imperialism, racism and slavery. Moreover, 19th-century and early 20th-century taxonomy was largely dominated by white men who, by and large, honoured other men (funders, colleagues, collectors and so on) of their own nationality, ethnicity, race and social status. For example, a recent study has documented that over 60% of the eponyms given to the flora of New Caledonia have honoured French citizens and that 94% of the eponyms were named after a man.

. . . Attributing eponyms to species extends beyond the act of naming; it attaches the societal value system to which these individuals belong. It stakes a claim as to which knowledge system provides legitimacy to the existence of the species, while simultaneously diminishing the value and knowledge of the species within the context of those who may have interacted with it the most.

Any call for exceptional changes in how we name nature requires an exceptional rationale. In this respect, it is important to highlight that taxonomy provides the backbone for the study and conservation of biodiversity. There is already a common perception in many post-colonial nations that ecology and biodiversity conservation are Western constructs that are shaped by and for Europeans and that privilege Western perspectives over others. This perception is undoubtedly reinforced in many countries of the Global South by the existence of numerous species — some of which may be endemic or have local cultural value — that are named in honour of colonizers or people of colonial descent. In Africa alone, 1,565 species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals (which represent a quarter of vertebrate endemics) are eponyms. Researchers from former colonies might feel justifiably uncomfortable, resentful or even angry at the constant reminders of imperial and/or political regimes that are reflected in the names of native and endemic species.

I will note here only three things. First, the fact that using eponyms would make people feel terribly uncomfortable (in a minority of case) is mere speculation by the entitled authors. I see this view as somewhat patronizing, as if Africans, for example, are too fragile to bear having beetles named after Cecil Rhodes. And really, how many people in any country would be offended by the common names of species, which of course differ from place to place? And NOBODY knows the Latin binomials: I doubt whether more than 2% of Americans, for example, could give the Latin binomial for more than one species (Homo sapiens, if they even know that one).

Second, changing the common names of species would involve having to go back through the literature and somehow add the new name, or publish a big list that people need to consult for translation. Renaming the Latin binomial, which is what scientists use when referring to a species, is prohibited by the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature, and for good reason. So all you can do is get rid of the thousands and thousands of animal common names derived from humans.

At least you don’t have to determine whether a human was good or bad; you just efface the name, regardless of their sex, race, or accomplishments.

It’s likely that botanists will follow zoologists in prohibiting changes of Latin binomials, and for the same reason: to avoid messing up the literature and scientific communication.

Finally, if people want to eliminate all common eponyms, fine: let them go about doing it, but making sure that each animal (or plant) gets a name appropriate to its nature (appearance, location, etc.). In the end, though, wouldn’t that time (which would be considerable) be better spent actually doing something substantive to make science more inclusive?

Here’s the Oxford University p.r. piece on the above, which is free. Click to read:

An excerpt:

However, the reality is that the use of eponyms in the naming of species poses a wider, more problematic nature. Traditionally, eponyms typically reflect benefactors, academics  and officials affiliated with the individual who discovered a species – which is a practice that continues today. With science of the 19th and 20th century largely dominated by white men from colonising European nations, this meant many of those honoured are strongly associated with the negative legacy of imperialism, racism and slavery.

Another striking example of the dangers of overtly politicizing biological names is Anophthalmus hitleri, a cave beetle named after Adolf Hitler in 1933 that is currently threatened due to high demand from collectors of Nazi memorabilia. Due to codes around renaming species, whereby the first name given to a species is deemed its correct one known as the “Principle of Priority”, proposals to rename this species were rejected.

Now I’m not sure whether the author of this piece sees the extinction of the beetle as a good or bad thing, but I’ll show the beetle below.


(From Oxford): Ophthalmus hitleri, a cave beetle named after Adolf Hitler that became a popular Nazi memorabilia collectors itemI have to say that although I’m a Jew and should be very very upset by seeing this beetle, it doesn’t bother me in the least. Some misguided people who admired der Führer named an insect after him, that’s all. The Oxford piece continues:

In a recent commentary published in Nature Ecology & Evolution researchers from various global Universities assessed the scientific names of all African vertebrates currently listed on the IUCN Red List. This revealed that 1,565 species of bird, reptiles, amphibians and mammals – around 24% of their sample – were eponyms, notably of white, male Europeans from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The authors argue that it is time to rethink the use of eponyms, and emphasise that whilst there currently isn’t a standard for changing species names, with technical and administrative barriers to doing so, renaming eponyms to better connect with local geography and culture could provide wonderful opportunities to highlight the importance of biodiversity conservation and to reinforce the deep links between nature and local societies.

Here are three photos and captions showing species that will have to be renamed; the captions presumably give some indication why. Note that what has to be changed is the Linnean binomial, which cannot be changed.

You can have your own say below; I’m too tired of performative ideology to repeat what I’ve said before.

h/t: Martim

56 thoughts on “More calls for not naming species after people

    1. Quite right: the asteroids and planets are all named by or after individuals who never set foot in any of them. Moreover the word species itself, as well as such geographic terms as Asia and Africa, will have to be abandoned too, as they come from Latin or Greek, rather than indigenous languages, and are thus “problematic”.

      Come to think of it, we can look forward to a scholarly article denouncing the use of the English language in India and Kenya, and of French in west Africa. The article will of course come from an academic department of “post-colonial” studies, and be in English.

    2. Or after medical syndromes (farewell, Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome!), medical manouevres (goodbye, Mauriceau-Smellie-Veit!) and eponymously named textbooks (it was good to know you, Henry Gray). All good, helpful, white men, with their only fault being their whiteness and male sex, signifying their original sin, like the mark of Cain, And talking of Cain, was he not a white-adjacent male….?

  1. I think they’re (is that the inclusive pronoun?) onto something – it is everywhere : I’m checking the periodic table and I never noticed before, but I mean, there’s nothing inclusive, equitable, or diverse about it.

    Just a quick look shows “Curium” (Cm, 96), “Einsteinium” (Es, 99), and “Fermium” (Fm, 100) – there’s more – where are the non-white honorifics on the periodic table?

    How many people have been turned away from science by that? We will never know, but we have to put an end to it.

  2. Yesterday we had a photo of the rough-winged swallow. It would be nice if people making up so-called common names would give names that meant something to observers of live animals and plants, and not references to features observable only in dead specimens.

  3. Past practices for naming things have always reflected past world views and priorities. I think there has been a shift in our present world views and priorities toward being more sensitive to cultures and people who don’t necessarily look like us. So it seems best to just encourage the practice of naming newly described species that reflect new awarenesses. The old names should meanwhile stay where they are. Yes, they seem anachronistic, but the mess of trying to change them is just too difficult, and it does not actually solve anything, nor does it erase past wrongs. Revising names only provides somebody the feeling of doing something good when in fact they have done nothing.

    1. Agree. And it’s long since become common practice to use local languages/terms for new species names, unless it’s tiny inconspicuous things that only specialists may be interested in where Grecolatin descriptive terms (nothing bad about them) or personal names may still be used. Newer hominid species, from Australopithecus anamensis to Homo naledi, are examples of this. Although what Homo naledi would say about being named in a language of the descendants of those who might have killed off their species, I wouldn’t know.

      1. I remember Larson writing about that, but I had no idea it came from your department!! I thought it was terrific, and I got the impression Larson was really touched and honored. Very cool!

  4. Imho, privileged backgrounds or not, the discoverers of new species earned the right to name them because they put in the work in the field (dare I use the term?) required to find them. Meanwhile, back in the comforts of the Ivory Tower, these authors, it seems to me, are simply putting in a few hours worth of work in order to pad their DEI resumes.

    1. In my case, I name many species after people who helped contribute to the conservation of that species. This is a powerful tool for conservation.

  5. Working on soil from our local landfill in Connecticut, my students and I are discovering and characterizing novel bacterial taxa, from phyla to species, that can degrade environmental plastic. There will be opportunities for naming up to eight phyla and many hundred genera. Everyone on the team will have an opportunity to name taxa for one or several of their mentors. Beyond the excitement of discovering new creatures and their properties, I can hardly contain my students’ enthusiasm for naming a phylum after a beloved mentor. In our reversed case, bacteria from Connecticut will be named by students from Africa, Asia, and the US, but in either direction, the chance to pay homage to a mentor is a well-deserved honor for systematists.

  6. While it might be acceptable to avoid honorific naming in the future, it’s impracticable to change the names from the past. The biological literature would be left in tatters—a Tower of Babel of old and new names that no one will be able to decipher. (The binomial literature is already difficult to deal with.)

      1. I’m fine in principle with honorifics for binomials, but one just never knows when a name might be offensive (to some people) or become so over time. Who would have thought that naming a species after one or another giant of science would eventually be seen as committing some sort of offense? I’m angered and saddened by the whole thing.

  7. The very idea of attempting to change the *common* name of a species by fiat strikes me as being as futile as Canute’s gesture towards the rising tide, because the people proposing it have forgotten how common names derived in the first place: by folk usage in the general population over centuries. You can’t short-circuit that process just because you want to, or feel you ought to be able to.

    1. The official common names of species of plants and animals are not in general derived from folk usage. Some encyclopedias give folk names, but since they are not included in the guide books people use, many of those names are now hardly known. In any encyclopedia of birds, you will find a few with genuine common names, but these names are short (like “towhee”), and don’t correspond to official common names, like “rufous-sided towhee”. No one ever in folk usage spoke of sharp-shinned hawks!

      1. In the case of the sharp-shinned hawk, the official common name, which is not derived from folk usage, has given rise to a new folk usage among bird-watchers, who call the birds sharpies.

        1. Thanks for those points — it sounds like I’m misusing the term “common name” to mean a more restricted set of basic names that have long linguistic pedigrees — names like robin, crow, sparrow, starling, goshawk, merlin, falcon, eagle etc.

          1. Yes, I guess the species that have genuinely vernacular names that have arisen through folk usage over long periods of time, tend to be those species that are fairly conspicuous and interact with our day to day lives. These names can be a rich source of interest and can vary regionally. I have a book published in 1885 called ‘Provincial Names of British Bird’ which lists many different names for some of the common species (e.g over thirty regional names for the Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs). Sadly, many of these have fallen into disuse in the 130 or so years since the book was published.
            As noted by others here, more obscure fauna and flora often lack common names completely but this is deemed by some as an obstacle to many people getting interested in the study of these and efforts are made to coin ‘common’ names for all species in a particular group. For example, in Britain micro-moths have mostly lacked any English name but recently all have been assigned one in the belief that this will encourage more people to study and record these species. For experienced lepidopterists these new names often seem to have a rather awkward and contrived air about them but a more significant issue, perhaps, is that someone who has long been familiar with, say, Epinotia nisella, is suddenly expected to know what someone else is referring to when they talk about the ‘Grey Poplar Bell’.

    2. Oh, come on—Canute was a white male viking invader, guilty of rape, pillage, genocide and loitering with intent on beaches. A one-percenter if there ever was, blessed with all sorts of privilege. That tide was just doing its duty in fighting back against the oppressor!

  8. The very idea of attempting to change the *common* name of a species by fiat strikes me as being as futile as Canute’s gesture towards the rising tide

    Agreed, but for a different reason.
    An awful lot of species have multiple “common” names in different countries. That applies to both animals and plants ; microbes less often, simply because they don’t generally have “common names”. But I bet that darling of the tabloids, the “flesh eating bug” has lots of different names in different countries. “SARS-Cov-2”, less so.
    BTW, Canute is maligned. The beach scene was about him proving to his courtiers that all the sycophancy in the world would not serve him well.

    1. Indeed, hence my calling it a gesture. You raise an interesting point, that the would-be linguistic legislators forget that they cannot legislate for other languages as well.

  9. Clearly this doesn’t go far enough. Cell biology needs to be purged of eponyms as well. Golgi bodies, for instance. Paccinian corpuscles. Schwann cells. Kupffer cells. The list goes on. All dead white males.
    And don’t get me started on gross anatomy. Fallopian tubes, indeed!

  10. Originally common names developed as Jonathon Dore describes above, but as scientists attempt to catalog species and correlate common names with their scientific counterparts, many specialties and scientific societies have taken to attempting to standardize the vernacular names. Further, not only do differences in vernacular names exist in different languages and countries, as the Gravel Inspector observed, but among different regions within a country ostensibly speaking the same language. Many rural folk refer to tunnel-digging gophers, which are mammals, as “salamanders”, which are amphibians. Apparently, this is a linguistic corruption of the phrase “sandy mounder”.

    Ornithologists have long maintained lists of standardized vernacular names, and some have been changed in deference to perceived offensiveness, even when the offensiveness results from an apparent misunderstanding or urban legend, e.g. the revision of the name of the oldsquaw duck.

    I can see an argument for not naming species after individuals going forward, but under no circumstances should there be a wholesale, blanket revision of past names. Lou Jost’s point about getting financial support is well taken and deserves serious consideration.

  11. As this poem of mine indicates, there’s also the question of naming mountains on the moon after people. Incidentally, this is the only poem of mine that ever inspired hate mail. A week after it appeared in The Atlantic I received an anonymous letter postmarked New York which complained: “If you didn’t know how many moons there were on Jupiter you should have looked it up in the encyclopedia. That would have saved you at least two lines of drivel.” Serendipitously, that same day I read in the paper that a new moon had been discovered on Jupiter.

    by Gary Miranda

    Jupiter has eleven, or nine—I don’t know
    which, or whether they resemble ours
    or even each other. A moon is a moon.
    Perhaps. But, science aside, we shouldn’t
    underestimate the mystique an eye
    lends to any landscape, mistaken or not.
    And the eye is connected somewhere—just as the ear,
    caressed, has lines like a telegraph to the shuddering
    loins, except the eye’s connection is less
    predictable, more varied, and to a place
    not charted on anatomical maps.
    I have seen maps of the moon even—ours,
    I mean—where every bump and indentation’s
    labeled: Grimaldi, Landsberg, Rabbi Levi—
    names no moon would think of giving its children.
    What we call a thing should matter. A moon
    would come, called by its true name, as when
    the eye beckons from that place: Here, moon…
    here, moon—though not in so many words. A moon
    has as many names as the eye can give it, and knows
    them all, and can’t be fooled. Moonogamy
    is fine, but think if we had nine or eleven
    moons flashing their bright news—like plankton
    when you splash in the sea at night, or a good day
    on Wall Street—such a cache of news each eye
    would need a college education, and have
    to specialize…. On second thought, I think
    I’ll take our one the way it is, that
    flat white stone in the sky. Skip it.

  12. As a proud European woman of more that 50 % indigenous European descent, I was deeply disturbed to find that most of the very stars my ancestors knew and venerated for at least 14 000 years here in their ancestral lands are named in the language of the imperialist Muslim supremacist Semitic conquerors that mercilessly killed our noble Gothic leaders and subjugated the Europeans of Spain under their colonial rule for close to a millennium, while at the same time the corrupt Frankish elites, despite defeating the Muslim supremacists militarily, were themselves made an agent of semitic monotheist cultural imperialism and cruelly genocided their people by making our ancestral religion and Gods illegal, destroying our nature idols like the Holy Oak and Irminsul, devastating our places of worship on the holy mounts and erecting “churches” on them, killing off any who dared to keep the old ways, and destroying or literary heritage, the leys. I am personally harmed and re-traumatized by names like Altair or Rigel, and demand a renaming that uses indigenous European traditions.

  13. As with so much else the “woke” do there’s something weirdly self-defeating about this. For generations we’ve named things–biological species, chemical elements, astronomical objects, units of measurement–after people, and many of those people were cisgender heterosexual white Christian males. (Of course some of those things–many of those things, really–were named after women–curium!–or secular Jews–einsteinium!–but, hey, whatever.) You might expect the DEI crowd to argue we should be more “diverse” in our selection of eponyms, but instead, they seem to have decided we should just stop naming things after people altogether. So, having named rutherfordium and Strigiphilus garylarsoni and Seyfert’s Sextet and the joule, we’re just going to stop doing that entirely, leaving us with a great heritage of stuff named after (at least in many cases) cisgender heterosexual white Christian males, and as for the rest of the human race–too bad, so sad, we don’t honor people that way any more!

  14. I’m surprised there’s no push for doing away with the entire Latin binomial system as a solution. A quick Google search finds “enough” dirt on Carl Linnaeus to cancel him & his work. Then a completely new system can be developed that would avoid any impression of taxonomic hierarchy, which can create impressions of worthiness (all those poor maligned sub-species!) while celebrating the diversity of life

  15. I once wanted to find the local name for a wildflower in coastal Scotland. I asked a local man what the flowers were called, and was told, “we call them ‘weeds’”.

  16. Sorry to be late to WEIT today.

    Maybe I missed it above somewhere, but isn’t Jerry Coyne honored with a beetle or some such fauna’s species name as “coyneii” or the like?

    And why is it that white Europeans seem to have led expeditions in the ages of discovery? Surely the far eastern civilizations must have been engaged. I don’t understand how we got to this situation of an apparent surfeit of white euro names.

    1. If a remember correctly, his nom honors a species of frog. Cute little thing from . . . , Costa Rica?

      1. I did a quick google search but could not find it. Maybe he will comment when he awakens in a few hours.

        1. A frog (toad actually), Atelopus coynei. It had been thought to be extinct. We preserve perhaps the last surviving population in one of our reserves in Ecuador.

  17. I come from a former colony and it never bothered me that species were named after European white males. In fact, I don’t remember anybody being seriously offended either. If we invite people to feel offended, I worry this will be a slippery slope where we will soon be told to accept myth as fact (as is already happening in NZ).

  18. I’m personally not a big fan of naming species after people, but I agree that changing the Latin names would be pure chaos.

    And it’s not just names after people that are coming under fire. There is a movement to rename the Puerto Rican tody from Todus mexicanus to T. portoricensis or T. borinquensis. This seems like a massive waste of energy. Yes, the original naming was obviously a blunder, but changing it now would mess up almost two centuries of ornithological literature (and bird taxonomy is confusing enough as it is).

  19. I wonder if Johann Georg Siegesbeck got worked up into a tizzy after Linnaeus named a “pungent weed” (Sigesbeckia) after him.

  20. For what it’s worth, the 50 or so European blind carabids constitute the genus Anophthalmus [“lacking vision”], not ‘Ophthalmus’. which should mean “having vision”!

    Cave-blind carabids of the related genus Pseudanopthalmus are even more diverse in the limestones of se US. About half of these have patronymic tags, including no doubt many rogues…

  21. So as science becomes more and more diverse, they want to prevent women and minorities from having the same naming privileges and honorifics that white men have enjoyed for centuries? Very problematic.

  22. I sometimes feel as if I’ve woken up in some weird parallel universe.
    In what possible world is it likely to make any possible difference to indigenous communities that some obscure animal, mushroom or plant gets renamed? What is going on that academics, the best educated, articulate and presumably most intelligent people on the planet can promote this nonsense? It is certainly true that some cruel, iniquitous and monstrous behaviour was perpetuated against indigenous, racially and ethnically distinct peoples during the colonial period, and we would be less than human if we didn’t recognise that fact, and, where communities still suffer injustice as a result, there seems a strong moral case for recognition of their past suffering, and compensation for any present inequality. But why this nonsense about naming species? Part of the answer is given away when the author of this absurdity blamed white male Europeans. In using this expression, the writer reveals himself, or herself, as a racist. He/she may object to the definition, but the cruelty of the colonial period occurred as a result of people doing bad things to other people. The colour of the perpetrators skin, or their gender, has absolutely no bearing on the matter. People are just people. It is certainly true that some of this historic barbaric behaviour was underpinned by racism, but the response to it cannot be more racism. Our species seems to have an innate predisposition for in-group/out-group behaviour. When academics promote racism without realising that they are doing it, it illustrates something about how deep these instincts go. Our instinct for creating identity groups and dividing them from others is the fundamental problem and the one that needs to be opposed. Othering white male Europeans is just reverse racism which can only perpetuate the problem.
    (Writing as a white male European I should probably declare an interest here, but I hope I’ve made the point that this should not be necessary.)

    1. It is a truism that people can be intelligent, even highly intelligent, without being intellectual. We too often tend to forget the other side of that coin: that people can be intellectual without being particularly intelligent. So, while it is true that academics are certainly among the most educated (‘most’ not being synonymous with ‘best’) and articulate (particularly in fields where being articulate matters a great deal more than being, y’know, actually right about very much), I wouldn’t assume that they’re somehow ex officio among the most intelligent people in the world…

  23. I’m an occasional historian of science and have been following the current debate about the decolonisation of scientific nomenclature with great interest – partly because some of the would-be decolonisers are based in the same neck of the woods as I am (namely New Zealand), but mainly because I will soon be giving a talk on three eighteenth-century scientists who are now problematic from a postcolonial perspective and I am therefore wondering if I might get flamed by my university audience for even just mentioning the three gentlemen in question!

    One of the subjects of my talk is Alexander von Humboldt, who has probably had more species and other natural phenomena named after him than any other person. Yes, he was indeed pale, male, and assisted by colonial governments, but he was also gay and for that reason has often been held up (and rightly so) as a positive role model for LGBT students with an interest in the sciences. If the would-be decolonisers of scientific nomenclature were given free rein to conduct the full purge of scientific names that some are apparently advocating, then the figure of Humboldt might well present them with the interesting dilemma of having to decide whether the taint of colonial collusion, actual or perceived, still outweighs any potential benefit in promoting inclusivity in the sciences – to say nothing, of course, of the holistic view of nature that Humboldt famously espoused and we in the Anthropocene would do well to rediscover.

  24. “Some misguided people who admired der Führer named an insect after him, that’s all” I’m not so sure they (he) actually admired him.
    When you see that horrid little critter (Thanks, Monty Python), the word “Schrumpfgermane” is inevitably asserting itself. Although the term was originally applied to Goebbels, it could flawlessly be extended to Hitler. I seriously doubt the naming was one of admiration for Hitler. Naming someone after a blind “Schrumpf-Käfer ” (a runt-beetle) hardly expresses admiration, I’d think. It possibly was a sarcastic naming (this guy hadn’t seen Athayde’s previous post, after all), so this was one of the better subjects to name after Hitler he could come up with if he opposed Hitler.
    There is no clear info on the political leanings of the amateur entomologist Oscar Scheibel, who actually gave the name.The only evidence I find that he admired Hitler is that he named that blind troglodytic beetle after Hitler, but that is obviously begging the question.

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