Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin's Barnacle’

I just finished a book called “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: how scientific names celebrate adventurers, heroes, and even a few scoundrels” by Stephen B. Heard.

Book cover of “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.” Photo credit: Amazon

The book is a good one with a lot of perspectives on the scientific naming the species and the stories those species names carry with them. The particular focus of the book is on species that have been named for people and what the stories of those people are, and how they came to have species named after them. There are some interesting reasons to name a species after a person. One is because that person is who collected the specimen that was later recognized as a new species. Another is as a way of honoring someone for an accomplishment. This can be a scientific accomplishment, but as the title of the book indicates, this can be any type of accomplishment (such as being a rock icon like Bowie).

The book highlights and discusses some of the positive outcomes that can occur when a species is named after a person. For one, the person giving the name can explain why they are giving a particular species a particular name and this can help to tell a story about someone. These stories help to immortalize both the person doing the naming, and the person who’s name is used in the description of the new species (it is considered very bad form for a scientist to name a species after them self, so there are just about always at least two people involved in naming a species).

But these perspectives are not enough to change my mind on this subject (I have written about issues with the naming if species a few times such as here and here). I think that naming species after people is too problematic. It opens too many avenues for bias and prejudice (conscious or unconscious) to come into play.

And the book actually adds a new way for the naming of species after people to become a problem, and that involves money. In one chapter of the book, Heard discusses how the naming of a species has been used to raise funds for various causes. How this has worked in the past is that a new species is described, that new species needs a name, and the researchers who are describing it auction off the name in order to raise money for a cause or organization.

Now, on the surface of it, I have no problem with this. What a great thing to happen, right? A person or company pays a significant chunk of money in order that a researcher names a species however the person or company wants, and then that money goes to supporting conservation and research. Terrific.

But who is going to have the money to spare to buy these species names? Wealthy people and companies. Since the majority if wealthy people are white (at least in the USA) and the majority of wealthy companies are lead by white people (at least in the USA), this practice will tend to increase the representation disparities that already exist in species names.

Paying for the privilege of naming a species just results in more white people controlling what we call things, and in being recognized in the names themselves.

While the pool of people that species are being named after is slowly growing to be more diverse with women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community starting to have their contributions to science recognized and having more species named after them, this is a very slow process indeed. And it is in the face of a centuries-long head start that white men have had. With this ongoing lack of representation in the names of species, having yet another way to shift the names of species toward white people does not seem like the right direction to me.

Surely we can find other ways to encourage people and companies to contribute to conservation and research. Surely we can name species without contributing to this example of institutional racism and lack of diversity.

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