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:

Once again: should we rename animal species?

May 29, 2023 • 12:15 pm

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):

  1. Is the name given because of something good the person did?
  2. 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 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

ICZN: we won’t change animals’ Latin (“scientific”) names, even if they’re considered offensive

January 25, 2023 • 9:50 am

As you know, all officially recognized species have both a common name and a Latin binomial. I, for example, am a human (common name), but also a member of the species Homo sapiens (official binomial), and I used to work on the fruit fly or vinegar fly (common name), known officially as Drosophila melanogaster (meaning “black-bellied dew lover” in Latin). The Latin binomials are governed by a large set of rules in a big green book issued by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ISZN). This body is in charge of recognizing genus and species names in animals (the first and second parts of the Latin binomial, respectively), but also of one other taxonomic level, the names of families (Drosophilidae for the fly, Hominidae for living humans).

You can change the common names of species, and of course they do vary from country to country, but the Latin or scientific names, once assigned and approved, cannot be changed except under certain circumstances. Suppose, for example, that the frog named after me, Atelopus coynei, was found to have been described previously under a different name. The earliest name gets precedence, and poor A. coynei becomes what’s known as a nomen nudum, or “nude name”, a name that should no longer be used for this species. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened, so my one scientific legacy seems secure.

There are other circumstances that mandate changing the Latin binomial of an animal species under Da Roolz, some of which you can see here. But under no circumstances can finding anything new about the biology of an animal, or about the history of its Latin name, mandate a name change. That’s because the Latin binomial is the permanent name of a species that can be recognized and used by all scientists worldwide, and willy-nilly name changes would mess up all kinds of science, including taxonomy itself as well as conservation.

Now the common names of species are being changed right and left—mostly these days on moral or political grounds. For example, the “gypsy moth”, Lymantria dispar, was considered offensive since “gypsy” is a slur (they’re now called “Roma”). Ergo the Entomological Society of America, which creates and maintains the Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List, declared that the moth will now be called, in common parlance, the “spongy moth.” (Most people still call it the “gypsy moth,” and that’s how you’d best look it up on Google.

And a lot of proposed common name-changing is going on, mostly for creatures named after people seen as immoral, bad, or harmful. I’ve written about some examples (here, here, and here), and not always approvingly because, as with many name changes like this, some people’s overall contributions are contentious (“Audubon’s Oriole,” for example, is up for a common-name change because John James Audubon decapitated corpses for scientific study). (It’s still known as Audubon’s Oriole for the time being.) What will NEVER change, however, is its Latin name, Icterus graduacauda.

Other bird species are also up for renaming, but in some cases the offensive person used in the common name is also used in the Latin name. Examples: Audubon’s warbler (Setophaga auduboni), Townsend’s warbler (Setophaga townsendi), Hammond’s flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii) , and McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). You can change the common name, but people are calling for changes in the Latin name as well. After all, if one name is seen as harmful, why wouldn’t the Latin name be too?

But the ICZN, recognizing the taxonomic confusion that changing a Latin binomial name would cause, has issued a no-nonsense statement saying, in effect, “No changes in Latin names for political or ideological reasons.” And I think that policy is correct given the mess such changes would cause.

This policy is outlined in the three-page statement below (pdf here, reference at bottom) and published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. The many authors are all members of the ICZN; indeed, this may be the entirety of the organization’s leadership. Click to read:

The ICZN notes that they do include in the Code of Nomenclature a recommendation against giving new animal species names that “would be likely to give offense on any grounds,” but that is not a binding rule, and, as you see, some of the Latin names given above, names now seen as offensive, were not seen as offensive when they were given. So there’s nothing that can be done about them. I’ll give a few quotes from the article, for it’s written clearly and forcefully:

Here’s the pressure they’ve been under:

The ethical appropriateness of some scientific names has recently been questioned. This is the result, in part, of ongoing societal re-evaluations of past attitudes, particularly in the context of sexism, racism and colonialism. Part of the botanical community has put forward proposals to replace ‘culturally offensive and inappropriate names’ (Hammer & Thiele, 2021); to ‘permanently and retroactively eliminate epithets’ containing perceived racial slurs (Smith & Figueiredo, 2021a) or honouring colonial actors (Smith & Figueiredo, 2021b); or to replace established and accepted scientific names with new scientific names based on indigenous ones (Gillman & Wright, 2020). These proposals have received both support (Knapp et al., 2020Thiele et al., 2022) and criticism (Palma & Heath, 2021Mosyakin, 20212022ab). Besides reactions published in the scientific literature, debates have also erupted on social media platforms, such as ResearchGate.

Similar proposals are now being put forward in zoology. Recently, a suggestion was made to replace the scientific names of several North American freshwater fishes ‘named after people who advocated racist and sexist views, used derogatory names in their writings, or did reprehensible things during their careers’ (Tracy, 2022). Likewise, in the field of hominid taxonomy, a proposal to replace a long-established scientific name that carries ‘social-political baggage’ with a new and putatively neutral one has been debated (Roksandic et al., 20212022Delson & Stringer, 2022Sarmiento & Pickford, 2022).

As members of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), we feel compelled to present our official position regarding this topic and to clarify the role, mission and powers entrusted to the Commission.

And their decision (there’s more at the site):

Replacing accepted scientific names because of perceived offensiveness is not, and should not be, regulated by the Code. Although the Commission recognizes that some scientific names might cause discomfort or offence to parts of the community (such as eponyms of dictators or historical figures considered by some as racists, or because a word currently has negative connotations), the commitment to a stable and universal nomenclature remains the priority. It is well outside the scope of the Commission to assess the morality of persons honoured in eponyms or the potential offensiveness or inappropriateness of certain names. Owing to the inherently subjective nature of making such assessments, it would be inappropriate for the Commission to assert judgments on such matters of morality, because there are no specific parameters to determine thresholds for offensiveness of a scientific name to a given community or individual, either in the present day or in the future (but see Smith et al., 2022). There is also a possibility that neutral and non-offensive names proposed as replacements could themselves be considered offensive as attitudes change in the future, prompting further new replacement names. Moreover, any names replaced for ethical reasons would not simply disappear but would remain in the literature in perpetuity as part of taxonomic and nomenclatural synonymies.

Legislative changes accommodating the replacement of scientific names based on ethical considerations would affect the work of thousands of researchers, conservationists and other users of zoological names worldwide. Such disruptions would be particularly serious today, when the biodiversity of the world is increasingly under threat (Ceballos et al., 2017) and when conservation efforts will be particularly dependent on a universal naming and classification system that minimizes changes in names (Schuh, 2003). The establishment of a ‘Committee on Culturally Offensive or Inappropriate Names’, as suggested by Hammer & Thiele (2021) and Thiele et al. (2022), is outside the Commission’s purview and would be against the core principles of the Code, difficult to implement and unlikely to be recognized by the whole biological community.

. . . In conclusion, the stability of scientific names is essential for all activities under the umbrella of the biological sciences, including biodiversity conservation. The Commission acknowledges and understands ongoing debates about the appropriateness of certain names based on a variety of ethical arguments and is aware of the various proposed approaches on how to tackle these situations. However, the aim of the Commission is to promote nomenclatural stability without constraining taxonomic judgement. The ICZN’s current Constitution ( and its duties and powers as defined in the Code (ICZN, 1999), both of which have been ratified by the International Union for Biological Sciences (IUBS), preclude the Commission from adjudicating on the ethical merits of names or from establishing a skilled body dedicated to such a task. The Commission stands behind this and recommends the continued usage of scientific names as prescribed and regulated by the Code, thus promoting clear and unambiguous communication and essential linkages across the scientific literature as a top priority.

As you see, this is a purely practical decision, one that prioritizes the stability of biology and the ability of biologists to communicate internationally and accurately, above potential offense. But what people do with common names is out of their hands, and is often arguable.  Changing names like Homo sapiens, Drosophila melanogaster, and Atelopus coynei is not arguable!

Plant Latin names are recognized by a different organization, and I don’t think they’ve yet issued a statement about changing them.


Ceríaco,L. M. et al. 2023. Renaming taxa on ethical grounds threatens nomenclatural stability and scientific communication: Communication from the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature 
International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.  Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.


Now they’ve come for the ants and the moths—and the rest of the insects will be vetted

July 12, 2021 • 9:15 am

The purging of biological names that could possibly offend people continues. Since birds are now on the list for name-purging, the entomologists have gotten busy, too. Who wants to be left out? And so, according to an article from the ESA Bulletin, the familiar “gypsy moth” and the less familiar “gypsy ant” will be renamed. But that’s just the beginning, for the entomological pecksniffs will pore through all insect names and bin the ones that don’t comport with modern “progressive” liberal ideology.

Now in this case I have no objection to the renaming of two common names—the famous gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) and the gypsy ant (Aphaenogaster araneoides). That’s because to the Romani people (previously known as “gypsies”), the term “gypsy” is highly offensive. (The name comes from their presumed resemblance to Egyptians, though their genetic origin is India.) It is an ethnic slur.  After all, it’s like having common names like the “Kike moth” or the “Hebe ant”, which would be unacceptable.

Although common names can be changed on the grounds of offense, it’s harder to change Latin binomials, which are embedded in the literature and would be very confusing were they to change, but in this case, as you see above, it’s not needed.

The change, which appears to be only the beginning, is described in this article from the Entomological Society of America (click on screenshot):

Here’s what they did, and I emphasize again that this is okay by me. What I fear is what will come now.

The existing common names for the moth Lymantria dispar and the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides were identified as containing a derogatory term for the Romani people. In June, the ESA Governing Board elected to remove the common names for both species from the ESA Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List.

Native to Eurasia, Lymantria dispar is a serious pest of North American forests, with caterpillars that feed on more than 300 species of trees and shrubs. This year, parts of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada are seeing some of the largest outbreaks of L. dispar in decades. ESA will seek to convene a volunteer group to propose a new common name for L. dispar, which would then be made available for ESA member comment and subject to approval by the ESA Committee on Insect Common Names and the ESA Governing Board.

What worries me, however, is that what happened with birds—the purging of common names involving people who made contributions to science but were imperfect, following the morality of earlier times—will also happen with insects. And while there are roughly 10,000 species of birds in the world, there are could be as many as 5.5 million species of insects, with about 900,000 named already. Vetting insect names will be a much bigger task, and those who do so may be tempted to do with insects what they did with birds. As we know, even Darwin’s name isn’t safe now!

And so the ESA has a project to vet insect names, the “Better Common Names Project.” Click on the screenshot to read about it.

And so the ESA is soliciting everyone to scrutinize insect names (you can single out a name that you want changed here), looking for odiferous names like these:

  • Names that contain derogative terms
  • Names for invasive species with inappropriate geographic references
  • Names that inappropriately disregard what the insect might be called by native communities

The “inappropriate geographic references” bit intrigued me, though all three categories could be, as they say, “problematic”. Here’s what’s wrong with using geographic names:

What’s the problem with geographic references in common names?

Referencing geography in a common name for an insect, in particular for invasive or harmful species, can perpetuate discrimination, xenophobia, and bias against people from the same geographic region. For example, throughout history, immigrants, refugees, or “othered” groups have been compared to insects or referenced in entomological terms, and a large body of scholarship has explored this pattern.  For further reading on the topic, see:

  • Shinozuka’s article on how the Japanese beetle influenced anti-Asian policy in the early 20th century and was used as a vehicle to dehumanize Japanese people and persuade Americans that the “invaders” needed to be eradicated.
  • Santa Ana’s article about anti-immigrant metaphor, specifically “immigrants as animals.”
  • Anderson’s analysis of media portrayals of asylum seekers as vermin or pests.

Furthermore, ESA members have reported being the targets of derogatory comments made in reference to insects with geographic common names, including being called “invasive” due to their ethnicity.

There is also precedent in other areas of study for changing names that reference geographic regions to minimize negative effects on groups or contribute to stigma. For example:

  • An article from the Star Tribune discussing Minnesota’s decision to refer to the Asian carp as invasive carp to avoid negative effects on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans.
  • The WHO advises against using geographic terms to name diseases to minimize negative effects and offense toward any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.

ESA is a global society, and increasingly so. Therefore, it’s important that the names we call insects are relevant on a global scale; are inclusive of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities; and do not perpetuate harm against people.

Of course some of this is objectionable behavior, like referring to asylum seekers as “vermin,” but that has nothing to do with insect names.  For example, I have no problem with “Japanese beetle, or “Asian carp”, which are not in themselves racist. They can be misused by racists, but they simply describe the geographic origin of a species.

In cases like this I tend to adhere to Grania’s Dictum. When she was alive, she always asked me in cases like this: “Will making these changes really accomplish anything? If not, it’s just a performance of virtue flaunting.” And the ESA’s claim that common names that fall into the three categories above should be changed because they “perpetuate discrimination, xenophobia, and bias against people from the same geographic region” seems exaggerated. Is the “American white pelican” going to cause anti-American bias? Not likely? Or are they referring only to names referring to Countries of Color? And what about plants? They’re probably on the schedule, too. There goes Spanish Moss. . .

By all means ditch the gypsy moth and gypsy ant, and any other common names containing racial slurs. But we have learned that the Pecksniffs, once they get started, can de-name anything so long as it offends just one or two people.  And much of that renaming has no effect on racism and xenophobia. When new names are proposed, everyone else tends to fall in line, for academics tend to be both pusillanimous and conformist, and who wants to raise their voice against a determined Pecksniff?

Finally, good luck with the 350,000 species of beetles! Remember, there’s a Darwin’s beetle. Here it is—a magnificent creature:

Chiasognathus grantii, soon to be the “big-mandibled beetle from South America”

h/t: Gregory

New woke taxonomy: a special pronoun added to a species’ name

June 1, 2021 • 9:30 am

Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying have made a video about a new scientific paper in which two biologists name a new species of ant—but according to woke specifications. They named the ant after a person (this kind of naming is likely to stop when people discover that nobody in the world has ever been perfect), but instead of putting the customary “i” after a male name or “ae” after a female name, they used “they” as a plural pronoun. This, as the authors describe, is to honor people who “do not identify with conventional binary gender assignments.”

The new ant species’ name, Strumigenys ayersthey, with the “they” appended to Ayers’s name) is in honor of Jeremy Ayers, a potter from Athens, Georgia. Did Ayers used “they” as his pronoun? I have no idea. New Scientist reports that he was gay, but gay people don’t use “they” pronouns unless they identify as multiple genders at once. From New Scientist‘s piece on the name:

Ayers was a protégé of Andy Warhol in the 1970s under the pseudonym of Silva Thinn. He died in 2016. “He identified as a gay man outside of his Warhol character, but I’m naming it after him with the suffix added to include all non-binary people for his activism,” says Booher.

In other words, they’re honoring not the man’s open homosexuality, but genderfluidity in general. Is that the place of a scientific paper?

And a famous musician contributed to this name:

Booher also asked Michael Stipe, the lead singer of the band R.E.M. and a mutual friend with Ayers, to join him in writing the etymology section of the paper outlining the new species:

Click on the screenshot to read the paper:

A picture of one individual of S. ayersthey:

Here’s how they named it.

Etymology. Many cultures have recognized a spectrum of genders between and beyond the binary of male and female. However, by following a rule exampled in the International Code of Nomenclature (ICZN 1999) for how to name species after individuals, one might conclude only binary gender assignments possible when assigning new species names derived from Latin. Dubois (2007) provides clarification to this rule stating that there is no need to amend or Latinize personal names – and therefore no need to assign gender. In contrast to the traditional naming practices that identify individuals as one of two distinct genders, we have chosen a non-Latinized portmanteau honoring the artist Jeremy Ayers and representing people that do not identify with conventional binary gender assignments, Strumigenys ayersthey. The ‘they’ recognizes non-binary gender identifiers in order to reflect recent evolution in English pronoun use – ‘they, them, their’ and address a more inclusive and expansive understanding of non-neutral gender identification. Strumigenys ayersthey sp. nov. is thus inclusively named in honor of Jeremy Ayers for the multitude of humans among the spectrum of gender who have been unrepresented under traditional naming practices. Jeremy was a multifaceted and beloved Athens-based (GA, USA) artist and activist whose humanity and achievements defied the limits of categorized classification. Jeremy brought an intellectual and playful, Pan-like curiosity to every aspect of his life. He was a writer, philosopher, painter, musician, activist, photographer, gardener, and exploder of boundaries who transformed the culture that surrounded him. His deep appreciation of the variety and minute details of the natural world astounded all who knew him. In the spirit of Jeremy, we also propose that the -they suffix can be used for singular honorific names of non-binary identifiers in compliance with the ICZN.

But did he refer to himself as “they”? I doubt it. If Ayers did use “they”, as a reader below points out, why do the very authors of the paper repeatedly refer to him as a “he” or “him”?

The video below by Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying is devoted entirely to this paper, which they see as mostly traditional taxonomy but with some performative wokeness tacked on. As they note, taxonomists often put “i” for names after males (e.g., Atelopus coynei), or “ae” on species names dedicated to a woman, but they add, according to Dubois (2007), that if you look at interpretations of the zoological code of nomenclature, neither “i” nor “ae” endings need be used, and you can just use an unmodified name (Strumigenys ayers).

Ants, of course, have only two sexes, like nearly all animals, so the “they” is meant to make a political point that has nothing to do with ants, nor, in any obvious way, with Ayers himself. It seems to be a way to use the scientific literature to flaunt your ideology. With respect to that, Bret says,  “If you want to have that discussion abut whether or not we should change the language, all right, we can have that discussion; but we are borrowing the scientific literature to pull a fast one, and you’re doing so in the context of creatures that, frankly, so predate any of this this human absurdity that the idea of sort of imposing it on them as if it’s their obligation to broadcast your virtue is just. . . absurd.”

I can’t get as worked up about this as are Bret and Heather, as I’m getting used to and inured to this kind of silly performance, but I do agree with the two that it’s performative wokeness, and will accomplish virtually nothing to help the acceptance of those who use “they” as their pronoun. Nearly all of us are already happy to do that, anyway, and who is going to read this bit of ant literature and feel empowered? Will someone read it and say, “Hey, I should use ‘they’ pronouns more readily if someone wants that.” ? But we already do! I can’t help but agree with Bret that this in indeed “virtue broadcasting”, with the message being, “Here’s a new ant, and, by the way, look how politically savvy and inclusive I am.”

More seriously, does this presage the widespread incursion of woke names and concepts into science? I suspect so, but hope not. Already birders are trying to expunge all the common names of birds which contains a real person’s name, regardless of that person’s “virtue”. At least Atelopus coynei (a frog) is untouchable since it’s the Latin binomial, not a common name (I’s suggest for the latter “Coyne’s poison-arrow frog.”).

Note that in the video below, a cat appears at 8:42.