Image: the David Bowie spider, Heteropoda davidbowie. KS Seshadri, CC BY-SA 4.0 via wikimedia.org
Last week I hit a big milestone. I hit submit not just on another journal paper, but on something much more fun: my new book. I’m both relieved and excited!
The book’s working title is “The Strangest Tribute: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels”*. It’s a book about eponymous Latin names (that is, those based on the name of a person – for example, Regioscalpellum darwini, a gooseneck barnacle named for Charles Darwin). People tend to think of Latin names as dull and unpronounceable (and granted, some are). But eponymous names are a treasure trove of interesting stories: stories that weave connections between the scientists who name species, the species they name, and the people they honour (or occasionally, dishonour) in the naming.
When you learn some of the stories behind eponymous Latin names, you learn fascinating things about the history of science. You also learn that the scientists who name species use Latin naming in ways that reveal in them all of humanity’s virtues, weaknesses, and foibles. In the act of naming, scientists show themselves as sometimes sober, sometimes playful, and sometimes eccentric; sometimes gracious and sometimes spiteful; and every bit as passionate about history, arts, and culture as they are about the pattern of scales on the belly of a snake. In other words, eponymous Latin names give glimpses of science as a fully human activity.
So, what’s in the book? Well, I can now share the Table of Contents, and point you to a couple of pieces right here on Scientist Sees Squirrel that will give you a taste. I can also give you some sneak previews of the illustrations, by the wonderful artist and scientific illustrator Emily Damstra.
Table of Contents: The Strangest Tribute
Prologue: A Lemur and Its Name
In which we set the stage, with a glimpse of a mouse lemur in a Malagasy forest.
Part I. Names and Naming
Chapter 1. The Need for Names
Why we need and use scientific (Latin) names; and why Earth’s diversity demands that we come up with millions of them.
Chapter 2. How Scientific Naming Works
The nuts and bolts: how scientific names are coined and assigned to species.
Part II. The Names They Bear
Chapter 3. Forsythia, Magnolia, and Names within Names
Two familiar spring flowers with stories in their names.
Chapter 4. Gary Larson’s Louse
Some people are honoured in the names of majestic trees, fearsome predators, or beautiful birds. Gary Larson got a louse.
Chapter 5. Maria Sibylla Merian and the Metamorphosis of Natural History
The 17th-century entomologist who sailed the Atlantic centuries ahead of her time, seen through the species that bear her name (very early draft here).
Chapter 6. David Bowie’s Spider, Beyoncé’s Fly, and Frank Zappa’s Jellyfish
When a species is named for a celebrity, is it just a taxonomist chasing headlines, or can it be something more? (related post here)
Chapter 7. Spurlingia: a Snail for the Otherwise Forgotten
A snail named for someone you’ve never heard of – and its important message for how we think about progress in science (very early draft here).
Chapter 8. The Name of Evil
There’s a cave beetle named for Adolf Hitler. How did that happen, and how should we think about it?
Chapter 9. Richard Spruce and the Love of Liverworts
The story of a Victorian botanist’s adventures in the battle against malaria – and of the humble plants he loved best.
Chapter 10. Names from the Ego
Can you name a species after yourself? Has anyone? Yes, and occasionally, yes. But you probably shouldn’t.
Chapter 11. Eponymy Gone Wrong? Robert von Beringe’s Gorilla and Dian Fossey’s Tarsier
Often, eponymous names honour amazing people who deserve to be celebrated. But occasionally, they misfire.
Chapter 12. Less Than a Tribute: the Temptation of Insult Naming
Can you name a species after someone, not to honour them, but to insult them? Yup – and it’s been done (excerpt here).
Chapter 13. Charles Darwin’s Tangled Bank
Who has the most species named after them? OK, you’re right, it’s Darwin. But who else is close?
Chapter 14. Love in a Latin Name
Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for his wife; Sasanka Ranasinghe named a goblin spider for her husband. The common theme: love.
Chapter 15. The Indigenous Blind Spot
Eponymous Latin names, like the science that produced them, have a diversity problem. How might that change?
Chapter 16. Harry Potter and the Name of the Species
What species named after fictional characters say about scientists and society (related post here)
Chapter 17. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and the Fish from the Depths of Time
The discovery of the living coelacanth is a story worth retelling. The naming of the living coelacanth is a part of that story deserving much more attention.
Chapter 18. Names for Sale
An online casino paid $650,000 to have a monkey named after it; May Berenbaum paid $3500 to have a cockroach named after her. Naming auctions have become fairly common – but are they a good idea?
Chapter 19. A Fly for Mabel Alexander
No, you haven’t heard of Mabel Alexander; hardly anyone has. But she was half of an entomological duo that named over 11,000 species – the underappreciated half. A flower fly bears her name as a tribute, and her story is worth hearing.
Epilogue: Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur
In which we return to the mouse lemur of the Prologue, and wrap things up.
There’s your sneak preview. I’ll be even more excited when I can share the whole book with you. I expect it to be available (from Yale University Press) in the spring of 2020. Stay tuned!
© Stephen Heard February 4, 2019; illustrations © Emily Damstra 2018
Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier post in which I announced that the book was under contract.
*^I’m not convinced the working title is a keeper, so if you have another suggestion please please leave it in the Replies (or email me).