Is it time to stop naming species after people?
For centuries, scientists have named new species after friends, benefactors and cultural figures. But what should we do if a species is named after someone whose actions are now seen as reprehensible?
In March 2015, political activist Chumani Maxwele hurled a bucket of faeces over a bronze statue at the University of Cape Town. The statue was of the 19th-century British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, a white supremacist who supported “the bringing of the whole world under British rule”.
Maxwele’s actions marked the beginning of the protest movement Rhodes Must Fall, which soon expanded far beyond Rhodes himself. Protesters called for all symbols of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa to be removed.
The movement also inspired activists in other countries to campaign against emblems and effigies associated with historical figures connected to slavery, colonialism and segregation. Protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the harbour. At the University of Oxford, campaigners demanded the removal of their own statue of Rhodes.
But historical figures aren’t just honoured with effigies — we also commemorate them in language.
The history of eponyms
Species names based on real or fictional people are known as eponyms. As highlighted in a recent commentary by Patrícia Guedes and colleagues, eponyms have historically honoured certain types of people more than others.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, taxonomy — the science of naming organisms — was dominated by white men who tended to pay tribute to other men of the same nationality, ethnicity and social status as themselves. 60% of the eponyms given to the flora of New Caledonia honour French citizens, while 94% honour men.
Guedes and colleagues point out that many eponyms celebrate people whose legacies clash with contemporary values. The flowering plant Tragia rhodesiae is named for none other than Cecil Rhodes. Kalanchoe salazarii commemorates António de Oliveira Salazar, former dictator of Portugal. Leopold II, the Belgian king who brutalised Congo, is celebrated by Gardenia leopoldiana.
The most egregious example — a beetle named Anophthalmus hitleri — requires little explanation.
How names cause harm
People belonging to historically unrepresented groups can pick up on signals that may be overlooked by others. A few years ago, an article in NPR discussed the walls of portraits of notable alumni — most of whom tend to be white men — that can be found at many universities. Female and non-white researchers confessed that these collections of portraits sometimes made them wonder if they truly belonged.
Now consider the common small-blotched lizard Uta stansburiana, named after Howard Stansbury, a man who played a key role in a massacre of more than 100 Native Americans. What sort of message does honouring Stansbury send to a prospective scientist of Native American descent?
In Africa, 1,565 species of bird, reptile, amphibian and mammal have eponymous names, many of which celebrate colonisers. Understandably, researchers from former colonies may resent the reminders of imperial and political regimes embedded within the names of native species.
Eponyms can even threaten biodiversity. Specimens of A. hitleri are so sought after by neo-Nazis that wild populations of the species have been negatively affected.
The principle of priority
The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) aims to provide a stable method of naming animals. An equivalent code also exists for plants, fungi and algae (ICNafp).
According to the ICNafp, names cannot be rejected because they are “inappropriate or disagreeable”.
“Other considerations, such as […] regard for persons […], notwithstanding their undeniable importance, are relatively accessory.” — ICNafp
The ICZN is no more willing to get drawn into debates about which names are and are not offensive, stating that their “commitment to a stable and universal nomenclature remains the priority”.
On the topic of A. hitleri, President of the ICZN Thomas Pape controversially claimed, “It was not offensive when it was proposed, and it may not be offensive 100 years from now.”
Whenever a debate about a scientific name arises, ICZN and ICNafp defer to the principle of priority — the first valid name for a species wins. Not only is the principle of priority used to dismiss any concerns about offensive names, but, as I wrote in a previous article, it encourages bad science.
As many researchers have suggested, if priority is so sacred, we really ought to defer to indigenous names for species. Many different groups of indigenous peoples, like the Māori people of New Zealand, have developed rich, unique classifications of plants and animals.
For the most part, the Linnean system has been superimposed over indigenous classification systems. I don’t mean to criticise binomial nomenclature or the standardisation of scientific names. However, when these names take inspiration from European men rather than indigenous language, this sends a clear message about whose knowledge we value.
In recent years, there has been a push to change eponyms associated with colonisers (e.g. William Conenso) to names that reflect indigenous terms. Some of these changes are motivated by practicality more than anything else — New Zealand has 19 plant species, two birds and two fungi with the species epithet colensoi.
Some researchers would prefer to leave scientific names as they are. Sergei Mosyaskin argues that it is not the role of science to engage in “politically motivated censorship” and the “cleansing of scientific history”.
Moyaskin worries that giving in to calls to rename T. rhodesiae, K. salazarii and A. hitleri will open the floodgates to endless similar demands. Where should we draw the line? He asks if species named after George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both owned slaves, ought to be renamed. Even Carl Linnaeus, who is responsible for modern scientific naming conventions, has been accused of laying the groundwork for scientific racism.
Guedes and colleagues go a step beyond advocating for the replacement of problematic eponyms. Instead, they suggest that eponyms ought to be done away with altogether. They argue that due to ongoing shifts in cultural values, future generations may view the attitudes of the figures we commemorate as unacceptable.
The scientists also find the idea of using biodiversity to honour a particular individual inherently distasteful. “The Earth’s biodiversity is part of a global heritage that should not be trivialized by association with any single human individual, whatever their perceived worth.”
Reactions to Guedes and colleagues’ commentary among the scientific community have been mixed. Many researchers oppose a blanket ban on eponyms, but also deem the status quo unacceptable.
Roksandic and colleagues insist that ethical concerns are not a matter of political correctness — they exist to prevent abuse in the name of science. They criticise the ICZN for prioritising tradition over ethics, and advocate for reformation of the code.
“Unfortunately, names that carry, for example, colonial legacies may over time invoke discomfort — even pain — in communities that have traditionally been marginalized or exploited,” they write. “This pain must not be perpetuated in the name of scientific traditions.”
But they also point out that newer eponyms are more likely to honour non-Europeans. By eliminating eponyms, we would also lose several names that honour researchers from the Global South, like Cercopithecoides kimeui, which celebrates the paleontologist Kamoya Kimeu.
You could argue that we’d be doing non-European biologists a disservice by taking away eponyms just when they are starting to be honoured by them.
Orr and colleagues draw attention to the large proportion of insects and fungi that remain unnamed. We can leave current names intact, yet still have the opportunity to embrace a more diverse era of history and make the majority of eponyms reflect indigenous cultures.
Eponyms are also a valuable tool to generate funding. Jost and colleagues reference the auctioning of names by the Ecuadorian organisation Fundación EcoMinga. The funds raised by the auction allowed Fundación EcoMinga to pay for journal publication fees so that the articles could be open access. In some tropical countries, such funds can be hard to come by.
Perhaps we need to take a nuanced approach here. We don’t need to protect all scientific names, no matter how offensive, but we don’t need to wipe out every eponym either.
Kevin Thiele asks us to question whether the “slippery slope” argument made by Sergei Mosyaskin and other scientists is truly valid.
“This fallacious argument relies on a notion that all shades of grey need to be declared either black or white and ignores the fact that societies deal successfully with shades of grey all the time,” he writes.
The ICZN aspires for taxonomy to be apolitical, which is an understandable goal. But it is impossible for any aspect of culture to be value-neutral. By refusing to critically examine offensive eponyms, the ICZN is expressing their values, just as a person who abstains from voting is making a political statement.
But Guedes and colleagues’ call to discard all eponyms, while well intentioned, is just as lacking in nuance. Not all eponyms are equally problematic.
We can scrap eponyms that honour figures like Rhodes while leaving others unchanged. Of course people will disagree about where to draw the line, but as Thiele says, that’s nothing new. Not everyone agrees on which statues should be removed.