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 (https://www.iczn.org/) 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.

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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. https://doi.org/10.1093/zoolinnean/zlac107

 

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.