An online debate about naming species after people

October 12, 2023 • 9:00 am

Some time ago I wrote about two papers in science journals urging taxonomists to stop using people’s names when naming new species (“eponyms”). One paper at issue was in Nature Ecology & Evolution (click below to read):

The Guedes et al. paper included stuff like this:

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.

I believe that they were arguing about scientific species names: Latin binomials like Setophaga auduboni, whose common name is Audubon’s warbler (Audubon, of course, has been canceled), but the argument could also apply to common names (“Audubon’s warbler”).  It’s an ideological argument.

Although I strongly oppose changing scientific names already given (it’s not allowed for animals), and am not so keen on changing already-used common names, either, you can make a good argument that even new common names are okay if they’re named after who we see as decent human beings. Several reasons to keep eponyms for both common and scientific names were made in a rebuttal paper whose first author, Lou Jost, is a reader here (he’s a biologist who works for the EcoMinga foundation in Ecuador).

Here’s the abstract of Jost et al.:

Guedes et al. 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.

Well, today at noon Eastern US time and 11 a.m. Chicago time (that’s also Quito time), the authors are going to duke out this issue in a podcast sponsored by the Society of Conservation Biology. The pugilists will be Patricia Guedes in one corner and Lou and one of his coauthors in the other. (There may be other participants whom I don’t yet know.)

If you’re interested in listening to this podcast, you can do so for free simply by going to the site below and registering. Once you give your name and email, they’ll email you a link to the Zoom session. Click the screenshot to start the short process:


I’m rooting for Lou & Company, and not because his foundation is buying up rainforest that will help save many species, including a frog named Atelopus coynei!

9 thoughts on “An online debate about naming species after people

  1. I must thank the Guedes et. al. paper for alerting me to an outrage of which I had been quite unaware—namely that many weeds in New Caledonia are named after Frenchmen.
    While the cumbersome project of renaming them all is slowly getting under way, permit me to suggest a stopgap, corrective measure: in compensation for all those French names, just change the name of the fleur de lis to something Polynesian.

  2. Hmm. Sorry I missed the webinar.

    I know people who have named organisms after the kind folks who funded their fieldwork. Given the costs of going to the field, anything that discourages funders is a bad idea.

    The only argument in favor of not rewarding funders this way is when a promise to name a new species after a funder, explicit or implicit, has been made. This can generate internal pressure to see known taxa as new, i.e., to create synonyms.

    1. Yes, I wish we had had the time to talk about these real issues. It’s very important not to incentivize junk science. In the case of EcoMinga, we try to set the bar high, to make sure that the always-changing taxonomic fashions of splitting/lumping will have no effect on these species.

      1. Another hmm. One of taxonomy’s objectives is that every taxon should have one name and every name should have one taxon. In the Linnean scheme, the names carry some meaning. In principle, not always met, genera are monophyletic groups and assigning a species to a genus is informative. But and however, sometimes a good species has been given more than one name. At this level, there’s no avoiding lumping. It is right. And sometimes more than one species have been given the same name. At this level, there’s no avoiding splits. They’re right.

        Generally new data drive these lumps and splits.

        Above the species level, discovery of paraphyly can drive splits. This seems right too.

        But otherwise lumping monophyletic groups into larger monophyletic groups is a matter of taste, as is splitting monophyletic groups into smaller monophyletic groups.

        The American Fisheries Society tried to improve nomenclatural stability by using standarized common names. These aren’t affected by lumping or splitting taxa about the species level but are vulnerable to lumps and splits at the species level.

        We can’t win, have to keep track of nomenclatural history. Switching to standard common names or unique designators that carry no information about relationships won’t solve the problem.

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