More on eliminating species names derived from human names

June 21, 2023 • 12:15 pm

There have been two new papers, both in once-respectable evolution journals, arguing that species names—both common names (“Bachman’s warbler”) and scientific names, or Latin binomials (“Vermivora bachmanii)”—should be eliminated from scientific discourse on two grounds. First, species are often named after people who did bad stuff (e.g., Bachman, Audubon), and it is not “inclusive” to use their names in scientific discourse. The other is that species are better described by using place names where the first specimen was found or descriptive names (“Drosophila melanogaster“, for instance, translates to “black-bellied dew lover”, as the flies were thought to drink dew). That, they argue, adds more information and eliminates the problem of non-inclusive species names.

But suggestion that scientific names of animals be changed is a no-go, since the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has said, rightly, that it would cause irreparable confusion in the world scientific literature to rename species with long histories of use.  (The equivalent botanical commission hasn’t yet weighed in.)

As for common names, well, that doesn’t bother me too much, though it smacks of Pecksniffery, leaves unanswered the question of “who will be the censor?” and doesn’t address the fact that common names vary widely depending on the country involved and on the language used where the species are mentioned. And I really can’t buy the argument that changing names will bring lots more inclusion in the field, so that members of ethnic groups put off by species names will come rushing into biology where they were previously repelled by terminology. This work seems more performative than efficacious.

The arguments for changing both common and scientific names have been advanced in two recent papers. I won’t reprise the arguments as I’ve discussed one of them, and you can read them both by clicking on these screenshots:

From Trends in Ecology and Evolution; I discussed this paper here.

From Nature Ecology & Evolution:

There have been a spate of arguments in the biological literature about eponyms, both pro and con, but I’ll just link to two that caught my eye, and they both raise serious questions about whether getting rid of eponyms is really helpful to indigenous people in the regions where the plants and animals live. They say the authors, by ignoring the real problems on the ground in areas where field work and ecology is done outside the U.S., are causing more problems in those areas when proposing that eponyms be deep sixed. In other words, the Eponym Police are making life tougher for marginalized biologists in other countries. This is called being “hoist with one’s own petard.”

The first article is by reader Lou Jost and a bunch of his Ecuadorian colleagues. Lou has appeared here frequently, and works permanently in Ecuador with the Fundación EcoMinga, studying and saving the rainforest and its species. (He and his colleagues also discovered Atelopus coynei, my EPONYMOUS frog, near his reserve. The name is safe since it’s scientific!)

This short response by Jost et al. to the Guedes et al. paper makes some important points. Click to read:

The piece gives several good reasons for retaining eponyms in both common and scientific names:

Guedes et al.1 argue that eponymous scientific names, despite their long tradition in biology, have no place in the modern world. They want to erase eponyms assigned to species in the past and want scientists to stop naming new species after people. Both of these proposals would hurt science, and disproportionately hurt science in the Global South — the region that is supposed to be the primary beneficiary of their proposal.

As Guedes et al. recognize, naming species after people has always been a powerful tool that biologists have used to thank their patrons, recognize their field assistants and honour their colleagues or loved ones. This is the highest honour that an individual biologist can bestow on a person; we have very little else at our disposal. In recent years some biologists have also used the naming of species to raise funds for research and, especially, for conservation. Guedes et al. mentioned the auctioning of names by the Rainforest Trust. Fundación EcoMinga2 —an Ecuadorian non-governmental organization that is managed by some of us — was the beneficiary of two naming auctions for species new to science3,4. With these funds the foundation was able to pay for journal publication fees so that the resulting articles would be open access as well as pay for some of the logistics of the investigations. Most importantly, we were able to use the funds to help to directly conserve many hundreds of hectares of the habitats of these very same species. In many megadiverse countries of the tropics, funds for these purposes are otherwise scarce or non-existent.

Although it is true that most eponyms assigned have historically honoured Europeans, the pace of species discovery in tropical countries is currently high and in the past few decades local taxonomists (at least in Latin America) are overtaking European scientists in making these discoveries. The power of bestowing eponyms has shifted to these local scientists in the tropical countries where most undiscovered species live. For example, in the Ecuadorian province of Tungurahua (where Fundación EcoMinga began its conservation work) all 15 new frog species that have been discovered there in the past 15 years were described in publications with Ecuadorian lead authors, and in many cases all other co-authors were also Ecuadorian. Eleven of those species descriptions used eponyms. Using eponyms, local scientists can now fund their work, honour local scientists5, recognize Indigenous leaders6 and policy-makers7, and help to save their study organisms from extinction3. It is unfortunate and discriminatory that some members of the scientific community want to take away this tool just at the moment that non-European biologists are becoming its main beneficiaries. Rather than eliminating eponyms, causing chaos in the existing nomenclature and erasing the rich and convoluted personal history of biology, we should instead embrace them enthusiastically and use them to generate and record the next and more-diverse chapters of that history.

It’s hard to argue against that.

The article below, from Megataxa, is by a biologist from Sri Lanka who goes after the renaming arguments hard. Click on the screenshot to read, or go here.  Pethiyagoda argues that forcing the elimination of eponyms by privileged American scientists is in fact a form of colonialism that is detrimental to people who work in poorer countries:

I’ll give a few quotes:

Names we inherit from history are often problematic but like history itself, they are not easily or productively erased. Even Indians and Sri Lankans who are aware of the origins of the Alphonso mango, named after the barbaric Portuguese colonizer Afonso de Albuquerque, relish this fruit without protest. Meanwhile, Singaporeans celebrate the name of Stamford Raffles, the city-state’s founder, through numerous place names and even what is arguably its best-known hotel. Yet Raffles not only segregated the city by race, but was also associated with slavery (Wright, 1960; Pearson, 1969; Alatas, 2020). Even in post-handover Hong Kong, despite fierce Chinese nationalism, colonial place names such as Queen Victoria Street, Oxford Road and Baker Street have been retained. The conquered seem not as anxious as their conquerors to erase the odious heritage of colonialism.

Should we choose to mine the scientific lexicon layer by layer in search of words and connotations that are offensive or exclusionary, the list would be endless and, because language evolves, transient. The word gay, for example, went from meaning joyful to meaning homosexual, and even then,evolved in usage first as a euphemism, then a pejoration, and finally a celebration: it illustrates how words and meanings evolve rapidly through time.


Eponyms. Guedes et al. (2023) argue that ‘naming species in honour of [people] is unjustifiable’ and call for all eponyms to be ‘removed’ from biological taxonomy ‘as many of those honoured are strongly associated with the social ills and negative legacy of imperialism, racism and slavery’. They maintain that such ‘name revisions would not alter scientific history, as the historical name would remain as a synonym [correctly, not a synonym but a ‘suppressed name’] and the identity of the individuals who initially described the species would remain unaltered.’

What then is the point? After all, most species—e.g., all birds and butterflies—have unique common names already: there is no impediment to these being revised. But rather than engage in the actual work of doing so, in a flourish of generosity, Guedes et al. (2023) grant that ‘the task of renaming eponyms could be given [my emphasis] to taxonomists from the biogeographical region of the candidate species.’ Who are they to give this demanding and complex task so condescendingly to us who never asked for it? These authors seem oblivious of the Taxonomic Impediment (Engel et al., 2021). ‘Post-colonial’ taxonomists have their hands full as it is, racing to describe their nations’ species before they become extinct, rather than being distracted by a time-wasting mission to investigate hundreds of thousands of eponyms and replace them just to assuage these authors’ new-found guilt.

Ouch! But this does argue that the Eponym Police are not only privileged, but colonialist themselves, fobbing work off on indigenous and oppressed people, and to no useful end,.

. . . and one more. Pethiyagoda makes a lot of other arguments in his paper, so don’t judge its tenor just from what I’ve quoted.

Perhaps understandably given their North American bias, Cheng et al. (2023) see the language of science through the prism of American realities. They seek to redress the problems of marginalized communities within their own society and should be lauded for that. But it is in the Anglosphere—especially the USA—that the semantic problems they highlight need to be addressed, for example by urging the US Government to desist from applying the term alien to migrants and foreign nationals. Almost all the authors I criticize here seek to regulate language in order to control thought, evidently oblivious of the possibility that in seeking redress for their perceived victimhood, they stand to victimize others—the oppressed become the oppressors. Yet there exists a world in which science is framed not in terms of the grievances of groups but in terms of the flourishing of humanity. The concept of ‘suspect classification’ they implicitly apply to defining victimhood may be self-evident to Americans (Pollvogt, 2013), but it is alien to the rest of the world, especially the postcolonial world. Local problems do not demand global solutions.

. . .Western guilt stemming from the expropriation of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources from erstwhile colonies led to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). As well-intentioned as the CBD might have been, it had the unintended consequence of stifling taxonomic research in much of the developing world (Pethiyagoda, 2004; Prathapan et al., 2018). We would do well to consider also the potential for unintended consequences of the English-centric terminological reforms proposed by the authors cited here.

If you want to see more give and take on the Guedes et al, paper, consult these links:

19 thoughts on “More on eliminating species names derived from human names

  1. Rohan’s paper referenced in this post has IMHO the best take on this “controversy”. This renaming initiative is yet another example of racist fake anti-racism and exclusionary fake inclusion. The kind of self-contradiction with which the Pathological Fake Left dogma and its apologists are rife.

  2. Thanks for covering this, Jerry. Your earlier discussions here about this and related issues inspired me to write the Correspondence you mentioned, and I think it is the consensus opinion here in Latin America.

  3. In astronomy, naming objects after real people is largely limited to comets, which are named after their discoverers, and minor planets (asteroids), which can be named after living people by their discoverers. Thus there are asteroids named after distinguished living astronomers, as well as after figures from popular culture. The International Astronomical Union vets proposed names and imposes certain rules: asteroids cannot be named after politicians, military figures or controversial individuals.

    A very small number of stars and galaxies also carry eponyms. Barnard’s Star, for example, is named after its discoverer, Edward Emerson Barnard (1857-1923), a distinguished American astronomer. That was an unofficial name for more than a century, but was ratified recently by the IAU.

  4. Two Modest Proposals

    1) Species names – the recommended names may run into problems; e.g., suppose the place name where found is offensive and should we use native or colonial names? So let’s do all new names. Why reinvent the wheel? Hire drug company employees to supply both common and scientific names. “Bachman’s warbler” (“Vermivora bachmanii)” could become Praxbind (idarucizumab)

    2) Names are obviously a problem, so the authors of the two papers above should follow suit and remove their anthroponyms. All papers should be published anonymously.

    1. suppose the place name where found is offensive and should we use native or colonial names

      I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the system called “What Three Words”, which is predicated on replacing the inconvenient (and worse – Babylonian (who were almost white), not Byzantine (who at least weren’t Christian – to the modal member of the Wokerati)) system of sexagesimal numbers and punctuation marks for location with a proprietary database of English-only words sufficient in number to give each 1.5m square (“Imperial condescension!”) area on the Earth’s surface with that – keyed into the database, give you the location.
      Quite how it would work outside areas of two-way radio traffic, to interrogate the database, I don’t know. [Shrug] – someone else’s problem.
      There is at least one proposed non-proprietary alternative (which would dispose of the problem of letting users unprofitably store the database locally). Whether it is more friendly to non-ASCII character sets and non-English syllabaries, I don’t know. I’m perfectly comfortable with sexagesimal digits and a pencil and paper.
      Did Paracelsus write anything about the cure being worse than the disease? I guess that’s covered by the “dose” thing.

  5. So, specialists propose to cure all the historical injustices of human history by renaming plants and animals. In case this reform fails to bring utopia, we are fortunate that an even bolder plan is afoot: a DEI reform of Astrology, advised by the International Association of Ethics in Astrology. See: . Here is an example of this approach in action: .
    “Erin Kelley, aka Slow Magick, is committed to creating, cultivating and preserving a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion within our various community healing containers such as 1:1 astrology consultations, birth chart or natal chart readings, astrological transit readings, astrology classes, workshops, retreats, and offline/online communities.”

    1. the International Association of Ethics in Astrology

      I heard that they have an underground volcano lair where they conduct horrible experiments to increase the packing densities of angels on pinheads. They deny the angels room to turn around, let alone dance!

    1. “And it’s not even white, except in it’s self-assumed “top” predator status and its exploitation of peace-loving sea-folk everywhere” is what they’ll say.

      You may be certain that this is not eponymophobia, but eponym jealousy. Just wait till every bloody fly is named after George Floyd, Mary Seacole or Jeremy Corbyn. Then they’ll come for the anatomic features, the signs, symptoms and syndromes. All now named after Malcolm X.

      1. “A hybrid may also be indicated by a formula listing the parents. Such a formula uses the multiplication sign “×” to link the parents.”

  6. Thank you, Jerry, for this. Yes, you and Lou Jost make the important point that the future holds many opportunities for biologists in the Global South to name species after local scientists and Indigenous leaders. I’ll add that you haven’t discussed the opportunities for naming future discoveries in the bacterial world. Lennon and Locey have reasonably estimated that a trillion bacterial species exist and will need to be named eventually. We need names to describe the new discoveries! To accommodate the demands on taxonomy, Pallen has even invented an algorithm for inventing millions of new euphonious (but nonsensical) names for future discoveries. There is clearly an enormous opportunity for naming future discoveries for everyone we want, without any need for changing existing names.

  7. Bravo to Rohan Pethiyagoda! What a joy it is to read such a thoughtful and lucid argument pushing back against the current zeitgeist. I hope it finds a large audience. Be sure to check out his acknowledgements, where he reveals the trepidation of his reviewers about being associated with the article.

  8. “Ouch! But this does argue that the Eponym Police are not only privileged, but colonialist themselves, fobbing work off on indigenous and oppressed people, and to no useful end.”

    I’m so glad that there is active push-back against this move to dismantle systematic biology for no real benefit.

  9. Well done indeed to Lou at al and to Rohan Pethiyagoda. This is yet more American Cultural Imperialism spreading to the rest of the world.

  10. Thanks for this reporting. I agree it is unacceptable and impractical to rename species. The literature would be chaotic. Having named 48 species in three species rich ciliate genera, I chose to name some after deceased researchers who had made interesting and important discoveries. This was in keeping with past practice and helps preserve the history of the field. While I had known some so honored, many I did not. Nevertheless I chose to remember these people, both women and men, whose research had inspired me and others.

    Extrapolating from my limited sampling of northeast US, and noting that much of the world has not been sampled at all, there could easily be hundreds of species remaining to be discovered. And that’s just in these three genera. Doubtless other ciliate and more broadly other protist taxa have undescribed species. It would be a shame if their discoverers couldn’t assign species epithets of their own chooses.

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