Should we be naming species after people?
A recent commentary, co-authored by researchers from the University of Oxford and universities in Portugal, Spain, Israel, Kenya, Finland, and Nigeria, argues that it may be time to reconsider the use of eponyms in 21st-century taxonomy.
The naming of species has often taken comical turns in the scientific community, with newly discovered animals and plants named after influential people: fictional and non-fictional. During Obama’s time in office, there were no less than nine different animals named after him. Similarly pop culture has influenced the naming of copious numbers of species, from Alastor moody (a Potter wasp named after a popular Harry Potter character) to Anelosimus biglebowski (a spider named after the crime comedy film; The Big Lebowski).
However, the reality is that the use of eponyms in the naming of species poses a wider, more problematic nature. Traditionally, eponyms typically reflect benefactors, academics and officials affiliated with the individual who discovered a species – which is a practice that continues today. With science of the 19th and 20th century largely dominated by white men from colonising European nations, this meant many of those honoured are strongly associated with the negative legacy of imperialism, racism and slavery.
Another striking example of the dangers of overtly politicizing biological names is Anophthalmus hitleri, a cave beetle named after Adolf Hitler in 1933 that is currently threatened due to high demand from collectors of Nazi memorabilia. Due to codes around renaming species, whereby the first name given to a species is deemed its correct one known as the “Principle of Priority”, proposals to rename this species were rejected.
In a recent commentary published in Nature Ecology & Evolution researchers from various global Universities assessed the scientific names of all African vertebrates currently listed on the IUCN Red List. This revealed that 1,565 species of bird, reptiles, amphibians and mammals - around 24% of their sample – were eponyms, notably of white, male Europeans from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The authors argue that it is time to rethink the use of eponyms, and emphasise that whilst there currently isn’t a standard for changing species names, with technical and administrative barriers to doing so, renaming eponyms to better connect with local geography and culture could provide wonderful opportunities to highlight the importance of biodiversity conservation and to reinforce the deep links between nature and local societies.
Associate Professor Ricardo Rocha from the Department of Biology, University of Oxford, said:
“Arguments against reforming biological nomenclature do not stand up to scrutiny. The naming of species to celebrate and honour people was too often used as a political act, and given the demographic of scientists of the 19-20th Centuries, those commemorated were almost universally white, upper-class, male Europeans. This is not to suggest that the use of eponyms has been by default ill-intentioned. In fact, eponyms have been utilized to raise funds for conservation efforts and for other worthy causes. Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the numerous negative consequences associated with their use.”
“For instance, how can we still justify subjecting people from former colonies to constant reminders of imperial and/or political regimes reflected in the names of their native and endemic species?”
The authors go on to recognise the major financial and administrative challenge of renaming of eponyms, but say that the naming process should be given to taxonomists from the biogeographic region of the candidate species. Similarly, they encourage action to alter naming codes, which prevents newly identified species from being named after people.
Lead author Patrícia Guedes from the Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources, University of Porto, said:
“The naming species in honour of real people is unnecessary and difficult to justify. The Earth’s biodiversity is part of a global heritage, which should not be trivialized by association with any single human individual, whatever their perceived worth.
“Fortunately, to overhaul our standards of naming would not be as hard as many believe. Whilst a major undertaking, fortunately many working in the scientific community are already accustomed to managing synonyms. The publicity associated with a widespread change in taxonomy would mean that most professionals would be made more aware of the issue associated with naming species.”
The full commentary was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution and can be read here: