Commerson's dolphins

Commerson’s Dolphin and ego naming: a (minor) mystery solved

Photos: Commerson’s Dolphins (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) in the Strait of Magellan, by Miguel Vieira via; CC BY 2.0.  Bougainvillea by Andrew Schmidt via, released to public domain. Syngrapha hochenwarthi, by Dumi via, CC BY-SA 3.0

Everyone knows, of course, that Latin names are often based on names of people: the namer might choose to honour a friend, a colleague, a celebrity, a prominent public figure, or a deserving scientist.  But do namers ever succumb to the temptation to honour themselves?  If I were to describe a new goldenrod species, say, could or should I name it Solidago heardi?

I’d never thought about this until I stumbled across a claimed case of such ego-naming. It’s in The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, Glynnis Ridley’s heavily fictionalized account of the first French voyage around the globe.  The voyage was commanded by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and carried the botanist Philibert Commerson as the voyage’s official naturalist.  Commerson’s lover and collaborator, Jeanne Baret, came too – boarding the ship disguised as a man, for reasons that in 1765 were pretty obvious.  The book is written around Baret’s story*, but tells a lot of Commerson’s too, and one passage really struck me:

Through the first and second narrows in the strait [of Magellan], the ships had not been alone. Their bow waves had been broken by the antics of dolphins of a type Commerson realized was unknown to European science….Today it is called Commerson’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersonii), for Commerson was so entranced that he committed the taxonomic sin of naming something after himself….Having named Baret’s showstopping discovery [of Bougainvillea] in honor of the expedition commander, Commerson now celebrated himself….[he]must have been exceedingly pleased with himself at this time to do what almost no scientist does.” (pp. 135-136)

bougainvilleaI was skeptical.  Commerson may well have collected a specimen and sent it back to Paris; that would have been a routine activity for a ship’s naturalist.  Likewise, describing and naming new plants was a big part of Commerson’s job (for example, his naming of Bougainvillea).  But for Commerson to describe a dolphin, and furthermore to name it for himself, seemed unlikely.  Commerson was kept pretty busy botanizing; and he never returned to France to study “his” dolphin, rather staying behind on Mauritius to document its flora.  To cut a long story short, my skepticism was well justified: Cephalorhynchus commersonii was described and named in 1804 by Bernard Germain de Lacépède (Histoire naturelle des cétacées II:260).  Ripley is wrong: Commerson’s dolphin was named in Commerson’s honour, but not by Commerson, and no taxonomic sin was committed.

But could it have been? Has it ever? And could it still be now?

Taxonomic naming is governed by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants and the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Neither code proscribes ego-naming (unless I’ve missed an obscure clause, in which case I hope someone will correct me).  Commerson could at the time have legitimately named a species after himself; and anyone could just as legitimately do so today.

306px-Syngrapha_hochenwarthiSo if ego-naming is taxonomically legitimate, has it happened?  Yes, as it turns out; but exceedingly rarely, and to strong (if impotent) negative reaction from the taxonomic community.  I know of two examples (both brought to my attention by John Wright’s lovely book The Naming of the Shrew).  In 1785, Siegmund von Hochenwarth named a noctuid moth Phalaena hochenwarthi after himself** (it’s now Syngrapha hochenwarthi; pictured here). Not be outdone, in his 1864 Malacologie de l’Algerie, J.R. Bourguignat tongue-twistingly named a snail Ferrusaccia bourguignatiana. A notice in the American Journal of Conchology praised the Malcacologie de l’Algerie as a “magnificent work”, but made sure to point out the ego-naming in a stiffly disapproving footnote.  (If you know of further examples, please leave them in the Replies.)

Anyone could name a species after themselves, then; but it’s considered a major faux pas and with vanishingly few exceptions, it just isn’t done.  This seems to me entirely appropriate, but a little surprising.  We like to think of scientists (ourselves) as rational and selfless, but of course we’re just as human as anyone else.  There are shrinking violet scientists and there are blowhards; there are self-effacing scientists and there are egotists; there are scientists who respect social norms and those who shred them.  It’s curious that ego-naming is a temptation that (nearly) everyone has resisted.

© Stephen Heard ( July 7, 2016

*^Or pretends to, as little is actually known of Baret’s life or her role on the voyage.  Ridley’s book reads like narrative nonfiction, but is better thought of as a novel “inspired by true events”.  Should you read it? Well, my expectations may have been set too high, because I found Baret’s story a bit fuzzy and thus disappointing.  But there were plenty of fascinating details of maritime exploration and the places explored.  Look for a copy if you enjoy that sort of thing.

**^At least, I think so.  The descriptions, in his Beyträge zur Insektengeschichte (p. 335), is in German and at least in the online scan the text is quite difficult to read.  I will admit I’m primarily taking Lewis’s word on this one.


8 thoughts on “Commerson’s Dolphin and ego naming: a (minor) mystery solved

  1. jeffollerton

    I recall reading an example of a 20th century taxonomist who named a species (I think an insect) after his wife, to a sceptical reception because she had taken his surname after they were married. But I can’t remember any further details, which is not very helpful, I agree….


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, I’m sure you are right; that rings a bell with me too but I also can’t remember! Often, such naming (“uxornomenclature”?) is based on the spouse’s first name rather than last, such as in Solidago brendiae, named by John Semple for his wife Brenda. Then it’s clearer what’s being done!

      Liked by 1 person

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