I’ve written several times about the current drive to rename plant and animal species, usually on the grounds that their common or scientific names reflect somebody in the past who did something bad, like owning slaves. (Most of this drive has involved bird names.) In general I’m not a huge fan of changing common names, but I don’t care nearly as much about changing common names as I do about changing scientific names, also known as Latin binomials. For example, “Audubon’s oriole” is the common name of a bird species, but its scientific name is Icterus graduacauda. So if you want to change the common name because (as one scientist notes), Audubon was “a bit of a monster”, I don’t much care. But you can’t change the scientific name (which doesn’t contain Audubon’s name), because the official body that assigns scientific names won’t let you.
This becomes problematic in a case like Audubon’s warbler, whose scientific name is Setophaga auduboni, in which both the common and scientific names are eponyms. You can change the common name, but you wouldn’t be allowed to change the scientific name, so you couldn’t completely expunge Audubon. (The common name has in fact already been changed, with the warbler now called the “yellow-rumped warbler.”) In many cases a person’s name will appear in both common and scientific names, but you can’t change the latter.
Ed Yong’s latest piece in The Atlantic describes the political, moral, and ideological fights brewing around changing animal (and plant) names. It’s a good descriptor of the kerfuffle about naming, but fails on several counts.
To read it, click on the screenshot below, or if it’s paywalled I found the piece it archived here.
This is a good overview of the fracas. But there are two problems with it, the first more worrisome:
1.) Yong seriously downplays the fact that every animal has at least two names, as I indicated above. The common name can vary from place to place, but the scientific name is constant throughout the world, as it’s used by scientists to identify animals. Yong does mention the two-names issue in one place, only in passing:
Whether common ones such as giraffe or scientific ones such as Giraffa camelopardalis, names act first as labels, allowing people to identify and classify living things.
But there’s a huge difference between changing common names and changing scientific ones. Doing the former, like changing the name “Audubon’s warbler”, in which the scientific name isn’t eponymous, doesn’t affect much except the labels that bird aficionados give to the species. But changing the scientific name of a species is a big deal, because those are the names used throughout the entire scientific literature to identify species and to link biological information about that species, like Panthera leo as the scientific name of the lion. If you change the scientific name, it affects the entire scientific literature around that species, potentially causing mass confusion from Linnaeus’s time until today.
This is why the body concerned with the scientific names of animals, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), has refused to change the scientific names of any animal except in a few special cases that involve biology and taxonomy—but not ideology or politics (see below). (As far as I know, the equivalent botanical body hasn’t weighed in yet.) So if you want to change “bad” animal names, as Yong appears to favor, you have to make it clear whether you want both common and scientific names changed, or just the common ones. Yong appears to favor changing both names for eponymous animals like Audubon’s warbler, but also seems to think that’s just as easy as changing common names. It is not, and that’s why the ICZN won’t do it.
2.) Yong doesn’t present both sides of the controversy, especially when he floats the newest idea: that the names of all eponymous animals should be changed. I wouldn’t really agree with that, but as one of Yong’s interviewers says, “only birders over 40” oppose renaming every animal named after a person. In general, Yong seems to favor the idea that not only birds named after bad people like Audubon and John Bachman should be renamed, but that all animals bearing people’s names should be changed. Of all the many people he quotes who favor name-changing, only one, Thomas Pape (head of the ICZN), says that it’s not his “mandate” to change scientific names. But even Pape says, well, scientists do it all the time, so his position is really a bit waffle-y.
The reason I think Yong takes sides in this controversy is that he quotes only those who favor changing names, including scientific ones, even quoting someone as saying that only old people—geezers like me over 40—are conservative about changing names. If you present only one side of a controversy—and yes, it is a controversy, even among the young—it can be assumed you are on that side.
Although there are several reasons to oppose the willy-nilly changing of common names, Yong gives none. Thus the article is one-sided, and even favors what nearly all biologists oppose: the changing of scientific names on ideological, political, or moral grounds. Yet from my private conversations with birders, I know that there are many who oppose this drive to change names. You won’t hear from them, because the drive is designed to be “inclusive”, and if you oppose it you could be called a racist.
Let me give the list of reasons why people are favoring renaming animals (I’m not going to distinguish between common and scientific names because Yong doesn’t), and then I’ll give a few reasons why we should be wary about changing even common names. (Again, I’m dead set against changing scientific names.) Quotes from Yong’s article are indented.
a.) Immorality: bad people like Audubon, who did bad things, should not have animals named after them. If they did some good stuff, like Darwin (even though Yong mentions his racism), this doesn’t necessarily hold. Any species with the name darwinii is presumably okay. Here’s the argument (“eponyms” are organisms named after people):
Many other eponyms present similar cases for change, although none have been altered yet. John Kirk Townsend, whose name still graces two birds and almost a dozen mammals, dug up the graves of Native Americans and sent their skulls to the physician Samuel George Morton, who wanted to prove that Caucasians had bigger brains than other people; those remains are still undergoing a lengthy process toward burial or repatriation. John Bachman was a practitioner and defender of slavery, reasoning that Black people, whom he compared to domesticated animals, were so intellectually inferior to Caucasians as to be “incapable of self-government”; Bachman’s sparrow was named by his friend, John James Audubon. And Audubon, the most renowned—and, more recently, notorious—figure in American ornithology and the namesake of an oriole, a warbler, and a shearwater, also robbed Native American graves for Morton’s skull studies, while casually buying and selling slaves. “People have been singing his praises for 150 years, but in the last 15 years, he has turned out to be quite a monster,” says Matthew Halley, an ornithologist and historian, who has also found evidence that Audubon committed scientific fraud by fabricating a fake species of eagle that helped launch his career. In light of Audubon’s actions, several local chapters of the National Audubon Society have renamed themselves, as has the society’s union. In March, though, the national society’s board of directors voted to keep the name, on the grounds that it would allow the organization to “direct key resources and focus towards enacting the organization’s mission.”
Would you call the Audubon society racist because it’s keeping his name?
At any rate, if you’re going to change an animal name because the person involved was “problematic,” I’d use Coyne’s Criteria for Renaming (also good for deciding when to take down statues, though I favor contextualizing them rather than removing them):
- Is the name given because of something good the person did?
- Was the person’s life a net good for the world’s well being?
If the answer to both of these is “yes,” you should keep the name. And if you’re giving a scientific name to a new species, the answers should both be “yes” as well.
b.) Most names were given by Europeans, who were both colonialists and also carried invasive species with them.
For some scientists, the eponym problem is about more than the egregious misdeeds of a few individuals. As Europeans spread to other continents, they brought not only invasive species that displaced native ones but also invasive nomenclature that ousted long-standing native terms for plants and animals. In Africa, the scientific names of a quarter of local birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals are eponyms, mostly from Europe. On the biodiverse Pacific island of New Caledonia, more than 60 percent of plant eponyms honor French citizens. Countless species around the world have been named after European scientists whose travels were made possible by imperial ventures aimed at expanding territories or extracting natural resources. “We have romantic ideas of these explorers going around the world, seeing beautiful things, and naming them, and we forgot how they got there to begin with,” Natalia Piland, an ecologist at Florida International University, told me.
Such naming patterns still continue. Piland and her colleagues found that since 1950, 183 newly identified birds have been given eponyms, and although 96 percent of these species live in the global South, 68 percent of their names honor people from the global North. In 2018, the Rainforest Trust, an American conservation nonprofit, auctioned off the rights to name 12 newly discovered South American species, leading to a frog named after Greta Thunberg and a caecilian named after Donald Trump. (A similar auction in 2005 landed a Bolivian monkey with the name of the internet casino GoldenPalace.com.) The beloved British naturalist David Attenborough has more than 50 species named after him, most of which live in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. That is not to begrudge Attenborough, Thunberg, or Trump; having a species named after you is widely considered a great honor, but globally, such honorees are still disproportionately people of European descent—a perpetuation of colonialism through taxonomy.
This of course doesn’t take into account that European name-giving may hold for scientific names but not for common ones, which often differ from culture to culture. As Ernst Mayr discovered when he tried to correlate bird names in New Guinea with scientific names, New Guinea birds are given names in New Guinea languages.
c.) Animal names ignore indigenous people who may live in the same area.
Some scientists have proposed reinstating Indigenous names for animals wherever possible. But many species live across the territories of different Indigenous groups, or migrate across national or continental divides, making it hard to know whose names to prioritize. And if native names are applied without native consultation, the result can smack of cultural appropriation. Emma Carroll from the University of Auckland took on both challenges in naming a recently identified species of beaked whale. Carroll spent a year consulting Indigenous groups in countries where the new whale’s specimens had been found. In South Africa, the Khoisan Council suggested using the word //eu//’eu, which means “big fish” and is now immortalized in the scientific name Mesoplodon eueu. For the common name, Carroll asked a Māori cultural expert in New Zealand to draw up a shortlist, which she then ran past a local council. She eventually named the creature “Ramari’s beaked whale” after Ramari Stewart—a Māori whale expert whose work was pivotal in identifying the new species, and who has been “working to bridge Western science and mātauranga [Maori knowledge] for decades,” Carroll told me. Fittingly, ramari also means “a rare event” in the Māori language, and beaked whales are famously elusive.
But this raises the issue, as Yong says, of the re-namers engaging in cultural appropriation! And if you rename an animal after a local indigenous person, such as “Tamanend’s bottlenose dolphin” (named after a Native American), that raises another problem: that of “ownership, as if an individual could lay claim to an entire species—a fundamentally colonial way of thinking, no matter whether the honoree is an Indigenous woman or a European man.” Yes, the woke can sniff out problems within problems within problems.
Yong then floats what I think is his own favored solution:
By that logic, the issue with eponyms isn’t that some of them honor people who did vile things. It’s that animals shouldn’t be named after people at all. That is:
d.) Naming animals after people “dishonors the organism”. I’m not kidding.
Others argue that, more importantly, the act of honoring a person through an organism’s name dishonors the organism itself. It treats animals and plants as inanimate objects like buildings or streets, constructed and owned by humans, instead of beings with their own lives and histories. “It doesn’t sit well with me to think of an individual human becoming the signifier of an entire species,” Piland said. A more descriptive name, meanwhile, is a chance to tell a creature’s story. Joseph Pitawanakwat, an Anishinaabe educator, notes that many of his people’s bird names are layered with meaning—onomatopoeias that mimic calls, and descriptions of habitat and behavior, all embedded in a single word that could have been coined only through a deep understanding of the animals. English names could be similarly descriptive: Thick-billed longspur tells you something about the bird that might help you recognize it in a way that McCown’s longspur does not.
Now I agree that if you’re going to change a common name, perhaps you should do something that describes the animal, though sometimes that’s hard. But changing names because it “dishonors the organism” is a claim that carries little weight with me. It’s a descriptor, and the organism doesn’t care what it’s called. Nor does this argument change anything substantive: renaming Audubon’s warbler will not lead to more intensive appreciation of the bird, more effort to conserve of the bird, nor draw more diverse people into birding. Renaming pretends to be “inclusive”, but it doesn’t clearly foster inclusion. This is one of the issues with the whole endeavor: it’s basically performative virtue signaling, and changing names, an easy job, is a way to signal your virtue without having to do very much. That’s why people are keener on changing animal names than doing the hard work of conserving the organism.
One more issue before I sum up. Pape, the ICZN head, is not allowed to change scientific names because of the reasons I gave, but his quote is still ambiguous:
But, though [Pape] argues that set names are important for allowing scientists to unambiguously communicate about the organisms they study, Pape also admits that “it’s strange that we keep talking about stability when we keep changing names.” Scientific names change frequently, when a species is reclassified or split into several new ones. They can also change because scientists uncover an alternative name that was assigned first and then forgotten, or because they violate Latin grammar. There are also routes for changing scientific names through societal force of will. Pape cites the case of Raymond Hoser, an Australian amateur herpetologist who has assigned hundreds of new names to questionably defined species and genera of reptiles—often on shaky scientific grounds, usually in his own self-published journal, and in many cases honoring his family members and pets. Other taxonomists are simply refusing to use his names; if that continues, “it might be possible for the ICZN to rule that those names should not be used,” Pape told me.
According to the ICZN, though, changes in scientific names can occur only under those specific circumstances, which are not that common. Importantly, many of the names that get changed under these circumstances keep the eponym, which is usually the species name and not the genus name. If Audubon’s warbler were found, for example, to comprise several species, one of them would still be named after Audubon. Reclassification usually involves changing the genus name if it’s changed at all, not the species name. And if a species is found to have been described earlier under a different name, then the rules mandate that the older one be the valid name, regardless of whether it is named after a bad person.
As for cases like Hoser, these are very rare, and aren’t worth discussing here: zoologists and ultimately the ICZN decide if they’re kosher. But note that the rules do not mandate that scientific names be changed for any of the four reasons given above. They are changed only to clear up taxonomic errors, misclassifications, or in light of further biological knowledge..
To sum up, Yong lays out the case for changing common names (without giving opponents a say, because we’re too old!), but fails to seriously tackle the huge issue of changing scientific names. In fact, under current rules of nomenclature, they cannot be changed for political or ideological reasons
Here are a few arguments for retaining common names, though, as I said, I’m not all that opposed to changing them, except that it’s laborious and also creates certain confusion in the literature.
a.) It is largely performative, doing little except to flaunt the virtue of the renamers. It’s an easy way to pretend to effect social change.
b.) It doesn’t effect much social change. This drive is largely done by privileged people who think they are doing something good for the world, but really, do you think the world would be a better place if every species named after a person (or only a “bad” person) were changed? Would bigotry be palpably eroded?
c.) Changing common names does cause confusion in communication, though not as much as changing the scientific name would.
d.) Who gets to decide which names are good and which are bad? Is “auduboni” a bad species name but “washingtonii” not? After all, both men kept slaves! At any rate, there’s no “official” list of common names, though the American Ornithological Society keeps a list of common names. And renamings are still ignored. I know people, for example, who still use the term “gypsy moth” out of continuity in the literature, even though, because it was considered bigoted, the creature been renamed the “spongy moth.”
In the end, the renaming of birds and other animals is one of the more striking cases of performative wokeness that I know of. As I said repeatedly, I don’t much care if common names are changed, but you can’t monkey around with the name of the beetle Anophthalmus hitleri (yes, named after Adolf), for it’s a scientific name. And really, is renaming a beetle now bearing Hitler’s name going to get rid of neo-Nazism or racism? Will it suddenly bring a flood of Jews into entomology—Jews who avoided the field because it contained a beetle named after Hitler? I doubt it.
Yong is an excellent science writer—one of my favorites—but I can’t let it go by when he slips up—as I think he did here. He should have given the article more balance and talked to the opponents of renaming (who might have chosen anonymity!). And, most important, he fails to recognize the reason why the ICZN will not bow to ideological pressure to change animal names.
h/t: Susan, Phil