Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 05 July 2023

Species with ‘Objectionable’ scientific names

Source: By Alind Chauhan: The Indian Express

In recent years, the field of taxonomy, the science of naming and classifying all living beings, has been witnessing a raging debate — whether species with objectionable scientific names should be renamed. These are names largely taken from problematic people, such as those linked to slavery and racism, or are linked to derogatory terms and racial slurs.  Moreover, many want to entirely do away with the practice of naming animals and plants after a person.

Although such discussions have always existed, they became mainstream only recently, especially after the emergence of Black Lives Matter (2013-present) in the USA. The movement, which highlights police brutality and systematic racism against Black people, also focuses on efforts to remove statues of slave tradersanti-abolitionists and White supremacists and rename institutions and facilities named after such people.

What are some of the species with problematic names?

The best known example of such a living being is Anophthalmus hitleri. Named after the former German Führer, Adolf Hitler, this rare blind beetle, popularly known as the Hitler beetle, was discovered in 1933 by “Oscar Scheibel, a German amateur entomologist and ardent Hitler fan, and is found in only around 15 caves in central Slovenia.,” The Independent said in a 2006 report. It also noted that although the insect was initially shunned away by scientists as it didn’t have any special attributes, it gained widespread prominence among Neo-Nazis in the later years.

The popularity of the Hitler beetle touched such heights that it became nearly extinct. The Independent report quoted a beetle expert saying: “There is a complete run on these creatures, and collectors are intruding on the beetles’ natural habitat to get hold of them.”

Another example is the common small-blotched lizard. With the scientific name Uta stansburiana, the reptile, in 1852, was named after Howard Stansbury, who led a famous expedition to study the flora and fauna in the USA’s Utah region and collected this lizard’s type specimens. He was also, however, “a vocal supporter of and played a key role in a locally-infamous massacre of Timpanogos Native Americans in which more than 100 were killed.,” an analysis published by Scientific American magazine noted.

The flowering shrub Hibbertia scandens is one more case in point. The plant has the moniker after George Hibbert, an English amateur botanist, who was one of the leading members of the pro-slavery and anti-abolition lobby during the late 1700s.

Among the species which have been named after derogatory terms is the Hottentotta tamulus scorpion — “colonialists in the 17th century used “Hottentot” as a derogatory term for Indigenous Black people in Africa.,” an article published in the journal Science noted. One more example is Rauvolfia caffra, commonly known as the quinine tree, which gets its moniker from another offensive term regarded as hate speech against Black communities in South Africa.

How are species given their scientific names?

Every species of animal or plant has two scientific names. The first name denotes the genus to which the species belongs. It is a generic name and is always capitalised. The second name identifies the species within the genus and is never capitalised. Both names are italicised.

Whit Gibbons, professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Georgia, in a blog post said, “A genus may comprise several closely related species. Thus many large hawks are placed in the genus Buteo… Just as closely related species are placed in the same genus, closely related genera (the plural of “genus”) are grouped into a family. Jaguarstigers, and house cats all belong to the family Felidae.”

He further pointed out that these names are usually of Latin or Greek origin. Oftentimes, species are named based on their distinctive features. “For example, the Sonoran mountain kingsnake, a beautiful red-, white-, and black-ringed creature, is called Lampropeltis pyromelana. The genus name means “beautiful shield” in Greek, and the species epithet means “black fire.”” Gibbons added.

But other times, organisms are named after people who discover them. They are also sometimes named in honour of somebody. These practices, as mentioned before, have been quite controversial in recent times.

Who makes the rules regarding giving scientific names to organisms?

Although anybody can propose a name for a type of organism they think hasn’t been formally identified by anyone else, there are certain rules, or nomenclature codes, that they have to follow. For instance, as pointed out in a blog post by Professor Joe Cain, a historian of science, who currently works University of London, a new name is considered to be valid only when it is published in an “openly distributed publication, and it must be accompanied by a detailed description of the specimens the author claims are typical for the group.”

These nomenclature codes are governed by international bodies such as the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) which governs the naming of animals, the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICNafp) that sees the naming of plants (including cyanobacteria), and the International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria (ICNB) that governs the naming of bacteria (including Archaea) and the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) that governs virus names.

Can a species’ offensive scientific name be changed?

As mentioned by Professor Cain in his blog post, doing away with a species’ offensive scientific name is unlikely. The primary reason is that “international committees show little appetite to be drawn into debates on what is and isn’t potentially offensive,” he said.

Talking about the issue, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) in its rulebook says, “The only proper reasons for changing a name are either a more profound knowledge of the facts resulting from adequate taxonomic study or the necessity of giving up a nomenclature that is contrary to the rules.”

Similarly, as Financial Times reported last week, ICZN recently refused to change problematic names, saying its “commitment to a stable and universal nomenclature remains the priority”.

Several experts, however, disagree with such arguments. Speaking to Financial Times, Professor Anjali Goswami, a palaeontologist at London’s Natural History Museum, said replacing offensive monikers would make biology a more welcoming discipline: “Yes, there are pragmatic issues, such as who decides what needs to be changed… but in my opinion they are not insurmountable.”

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