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