- The practice of using eponyms, or scientific names based on real or fictional people, has been in place since the 1700s, but is a controversial and hotly debated topic.
- In a recent commentary, a group of scientists argue that eponyms perpetuate a negative legacy associated with imperialism, racism and slavery, and call for offensive names to be changed.
- Others say that changing names threatens the stability of nomenclature, would be costly and time-consuming to implement, and that those who regulate naming should refrain from making moral judgments, as there are no defined criteria for determining offensiveness.
- Researchers offer solutions to alter and improve naming practices including changing the codes that govern naming, implementing a stricter interpretation of the codes, establishing an international committee, or reforming the bodies that govern naming.
What do Taylor Swift, Jackie Chan, Adolf Hitler and several Nobel Peace laureates all have in common? Over the past 100 years, they’ve all had plants, animals, or other new-to-science species named in their honor.
The practice of using eponyms, or scientific names based on real or fictional people, has been in place since the 1700s, when Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus first invented the taxonomic system of Latin naming we still use today. However, using eponyms is controversial and hotly debated, with many questioning whether it’s appropriate to continue this tradition.
In a recent commentary titled “Eponyms have no place in 21st-century biological nomenclature,” published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, scientists argue that eponyms perpetuate a negative legacy associated with imperialism, racism and slavery, and call for offensive names to be changed.
And there are quite a few names that people find offensive. Take the case of Hibbertia, a genus of Australian guinea flowers named after George Hibbert, a wealthy British patron of botanical studies in the 19th century who gained much of his wealth from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Researchers are still finding new species of Hibbertia, and while most oppose using this name, they have no choice. Although they can select the second part of the scientific name (the specific epithet) when assigning a name to a new species, the first portion (the genus) remains fixed under the strict codes that govern naming.
Kevin Thiele, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Western Australia and a Hibbertia researcher, questions whether it’s appropriate to honor someone like Hibbert with a genus of plants. “We don’t believe so,” he wrote in a commentary for The Conversation.
“Just like statues, buildings, and street or suburb names, we think a reckoning is due for scientific species names that honour people who held views or acted in ways that are deeply dishonourable, highly problematic or truly egregious by modern standards,” Thiele wrote.
Another example is the coral Catalaphyllia jardinei, named after Frank Jardine, who forcefully displaced Aboriginal people from their lands in North Queensland, Australia. There are also the species named after Cecil Rhodes, an imperialist accused of paving the way for apartheid in South Africa.
In at least one case, using an eponym has caused significant harm to the species it “honors.” The Slovenian cave beetle, Anophthalmus hitleri, was named in honor of Adolf Hitler in 1933 and has been pushed to the brink of extinction by Nazi memorabilia enthusiasts who have overcollected it from the wild.
Beyond individual names, there’s a general trend of colonialism in naming. For example, a recent study found that more than 60% of the eponyms given to the plants of New Caledonia, an island in the South Pacific that’s now a French territory, honored French citizens. Of these, 94% were men.
The authors of the Nature Ecology & Evolution commentary propose changing offensive eponyms of the past to address this issue. They call for more descriptive or locally meaningful ones to replace them.
But many members of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) disagree. In another communication published this year, they said that “replacing accepted scientific names because of perceived offensiveness is not, and should not be, regulated by the Code.”
“The Code” refers to the rules that govern naming. The authority to approve or reject changes in scientific names is held by the ICZN and the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT). The ICZN, they argue, shouldn’t make moral judgments because there are no defined criteria to determine how offensive a scientific name may be to a community or individual, whether now or in the future.
“It’s not our mandate to regulate anything based on ethics,” Thomas Pape, the ICZN president and an associate professor at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, told Mongabay. He said separation of power is essential, and the commission can’t both maintain and police the code. “We are not, and we will not become, a police force.”
In a commentary in the journal Taxon, Sergei L. Mosyakin from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine wrote that, “Science cannot and should not apply politically motivated censorship and totalitarian purges to the scientific history, and of the biological nomenclature reflecting that history.”
However, the authors of the Nature Ecology & Evolution commentary say that naming species to honor individuals is inherently political, often favoring white male Europeans during the era of colonization. They add that revising names wouldn’t erase scientific history, as the original names would still be recognized as synonyms, and taxonomists are already used to using synonyms for species.
A group of researchers and taxonomists say in a later commentary that, in fact, “Eponyms are important tools for biologists in the Global South.” They say biologists have found a creative way to generate funds for research and conservation by auctioning off the naming rights of newly described species. For instance, the Rainforest Trust and the Ecuadoran Fundación EcoMinga have used this approach to raise money for scientific publications, logistical support and conservation efforts.
“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,” the authors wrote.
Another issue with changing names seems to be one of stability.
“The biggest problem is that taxonomy [nomenclature] is ruled by very strict rules and where stability is queen,” Patrícia Guedes, lead author of the recent commentary and a researcher at the University of Porto’s Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources, told Mongabay. “And there’s the principle of priority, where it says that the first name that is given is the one that should continue.” The name persists regardless of how offensive it might be, she added.
“We have this very strong focus on stability,” Pape said. “It’s all about stability for the sake of scientific communication and data sharing … In the background, we must have that rigid nomenclature. So, if there is confusion, we can always go back and touch base with the backbone.”
Additionally, changing all of the names perceived as offensive would be costly and time-consuming, Pape said, especially for countries where much of the world’s biodiversity is found, such as the tropics. In such places, there tends to be less money and fewer resources for research, including an overhaul of scientific names. However, Guedes said species names are primarily stored in databases and online checklists now, making the transition much more feasible than in the days of written legers.
But, Pape pointed out, “Who should be doing the renaming?”
“Of course, it should be the local country or the local people, but there could be many, many issues,” he said. “For instance, in some areas, a single animal species has dozens of common or local names … it could get very messy.”
Moving forward, Guedes called on scientists to think twice before naming a new plant or animal after a person and use descriptive names that could be much more meaningful to local communities.
In Ecuador’s Intag Valley, for instance, the conservation organization Re:wild worked with local communities to help them invite the world to pick between two community-chosen names for a newly described rocket frog.
“The result was ‘Rana Cohete Resistencia de Intag,’ which translates in English to ‘Intag’s Resistance Rocket Frog,'” Lindsay Renick Mayer of Re:wild told Mongabay. “This name was symbolic of the communities’ nearly 30-year fight to keep copper mining out of the frog’s home and one of the world’s most biodiverse forests.”
Researchers and taxonomists have yet to agree on a way forward, though many solutions have been proposed.
One solution is changing the codes so that eponyms can’t be used at all. Alternatively, some say a stricter interpretation of existing codes could limit or eliminate the creation of new eponyms without requiring a complete rewrite of the naming conventions.