Diversifying scientific names, and diversifying science

Many of Earth’s species bear scientific names based on the names of people – for instance, Charles Darwin’s barnacle (Regioscalpellum darwini) and David Bowie’s spider (Heteropoda davidbowie).  My new book explores some of the things we can learn from such “eponymous” scientific names.  These names let us see something of the quirks and personalities of the scientists who engage in the creative act of naming.  They also open a window on who scientists think might deserve the honour (well, usually it’s an honour) of having a species named after them.  There are a lot of things you can see through that window.  One of them has to do with diversity.

I don’t mean biodiversity, although it’s true enough that the Earth’s incredible biodiversity is what provides the window of naming in the first place.  Instead, I mean diversity of people.  Who are the people who have species named after them?  Perhaps not surprisingly, answering that question reveals a scientific community with a longstanding diversity problem. The people honoured in eponymous species names are overwhelmingly European and North American, overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly men.  Not every species, of course – Merian’s bugle lily, Watsonia merianae (pictured above) celebrates the astonishing 17th-century entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian – but so many species.

Consider the large plant genus Aloe. A decade ago, Estrela Figueiredo and Gideon Smith surveyed 915 scientific names in the genus.  278 of these were eponymous, with over four fifths honouring men. (That fraction is, of course, approximate: gender isn’t binary, and historical compilations can draw on information from many sources but can’t ask eponyms to self-identify.) Of names honouring women, about half honour a namer’s wife or a female relative, rather than a scientist, collector, or someone else being recognized for their achievements. 

Low diversity in eponymous naming isn’t just an Aloe thing: the pattern holds (at least roughly) across the tree of life, and across other axes of human diversity.  Namings for Indigenous people, for instance, are extremely uncommon.  An early example is Klaas’s cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas).  It was named by the French ornithologist François LeVaillant, following a South African expedition in the late 1700s, for his Khoekhoe guide, wagon-driver, and companion.*  It’s a cuckoo nearly alone, though.  (It’s worth noting that namings for Indigenous people need to respect cultural practices around the use of names.  To people of some cultures, applying a person’s name to a newly discovered species would be puzzling at best and offensive at worst.)

Bias in naming reflects at least two regrettable patterns over the three centuries of modern species naming: the exclusion of women, people of colour, and others from full participation in science, and the missed opportunity to honour those who made contributions despite the obstacles in their paths. Well over 200 species are named for the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, for example; but his famous expedition to Malaya involved hundreds if not thousands of local guides and assistants and not one seems to be commemorated in any species’ name. 

Fortunately, all this is changing.  As science diversifies, so do the people naming species, and so do the people whose careers might inspire the naming of a species for them. At the same time, changing attitudes about the importance of diversity draw attention to opportunities to celebrate it through naming. Names like Izziella abbottae (a red alga named for Isabella Abbott, the first Indigenous Hawai’ian woman to receive a PhD in science) and Tarsius supriatnai (a tarsier named for the Indonesian primatologist and conservation biologist Jatna Supriatna) are a beginning.

In one interesting way, progress in diversifying science may have the peculiar effect of giving us more rather than fewer names honouring men. It’s not unusual for the discoverer of a species to name it for love – and often, that means naming it for their spouse.  In the past, this largely involved male scientists naming species for their wives – in Aloe, for instance, there are 12 species names honouring scientists’ wives, and not a single one honouring a scientist’s husband. Changing times have brought us, instead, species like the wonderful goblin spider Grymeus dharmapriyai, named by Sasanka Ranasinghe for her husband Prasanna Dharmapriya.  (Does a goblin spider sound unromantic?  Perhaps your answer might change if you knew that the species is distinguished in part by its heart-shaped sternal plate, making Grymeus dharmapriyai the kind of valentine that only a scientist can give.)  Of course, love is love, no matter what, and so sometimes women will name species for their wives, or men will name species for their husbands. A Taiwanese snail, Aegista diversifamilia, was named in 2014 to celebrate this very diversity of love.

We’ve been naming species eponymously since Linnaeus invented the binomial system, nearly 300 years ago.  Recent diversification has only begun to provide balance for the mountain of unrepresentative species names.  Should we, therefore, decide that eponymous naming was a mistake, and stop?  I hope not.**  Eponymous names are loose threads, and if you tug on one and follow it to its source you can discover a fascinating person whose story might otherwise be lost.  We’re lucky, in a way, that the job of naming Earth’s species isn’t anywhere near done.  There are millions of species still needing names, and that means millions of opportunities to do better – to celebrate amazing people of all genders and origins.  If we choose to, we can diversify naming as we work to diversify science.

© Stephen Heard  July 14, 2020

 For more about how eponymous names reflect diversity, and much more, read my new book, “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”!

 Thanks to Brigitte Clarkston for spurring me to write this up as a post and to Alex Bond for very helpful comments on a draft. Neither should be presumed to agree with my take here.

 Images: Merian’s bugle lily, Watsonia meriana, © SAPlants CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia.org; Klaas’s cuckoo, Chrysococcyx klaas, © Derek Keats CC BY 2.0 via flickr. com

*^“Klaas” is what LeVaillant called his guide. What Klaas called himself, in his Khoe language, seems to be unrecorded. Like many Indigenous cultures, that of the Khoekhoe suffered enormous damage through European colonialism.

**^As I write this, a petition has been submitted to the American Ornithological Society asking for the removal of problematic eponyms from “official” common names of birds.  The petition is ambiguous about whether all eponymous common names should be changed, or only those whose eponyms are particularly unsavoury (for example, McCown’s Longspur commemorates a bird collector who later became a Confederate general in the US Civil War). Now, the whole concept of “official” common names for species is a bit strange, as one can compel the use of a particular common name in a publication one controls, but not otherwise (that, after all, is what makes it a “common”, or vernacular, name).   And the petition is careful to delineate its proposal as stopping short of replacing eponymous scientific names.  Nevertheless, I hope folks will think this issue through carefully before deciding that all eponymy should go – even given the existence of eponyms based on characters more unsavoury still than McCown.  I discuss all this at length in Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.



8 thoughts on “Diversifying scientific names, and diversifying science

  1. Alejandro Izquierdo

    Thank you for the post, Stephen! It is indeed necessary to diversity scientific names.so that other people get their deserved recognition. A little bit out of the topic.. I wonder what is the general opinion about names based on popular media (movie, book characters…). Is it frown upon? In my lab there is a running joke regarding the very slight similitude between a species I am describing and a popular media character but I am not sure if reflecting this in the scientific name will be well received. …


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Hi Alejandro – there are certainly systematists who frown on species names for celebrities and for fictional characters, thinking that they are somehow undignified or trivial. I think those folks are in the minority, though. In particular, names for fictional characters (I think that’s what you’re suggesting) have a very long history, right back to Linnaeus naming many species from Greek mythology. My book has a chapter on celebrity names (excerpt here: http://nautil.us/blog/why-shouldnt-a-horsefly-be-named-after-beyonc) and another, called “Harry Potter and the Name of the Species” on names from fiction (both written and in other media).


      1. Alejandro Izquierdo

        Thanks for the reply and sharing the excerpt of your book. After reading it I am a little bit more confident about using a fictional name. As most locality based names and researchers’ based names that could have a relation with the species have been used, it is difficult to have an original idea.


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