Taxonomy as activism

Once upon a time, the Latin names of species were always descriptive (and always in Latin, for that matter, which they needn’t be now.). That system didn’t work very well*, and in the mid-18th century Linnaeus invented our modern system of binomial nomenclature. It’s surprising how many folks don’t realize that, arguably, the most important feature of this system was that it allowed names to be constructed in ways other than description: a species name could now refer to geography (Betula alleghaniensis) or habitat (Abudefduf saxatilis), recognize a person (Heteropoda davidbowie), or could even be a joke (Ytu brutus).**

Linnaeus also gave us the ability to use species names as activism. I’m not suggesting that he had this in mind, and I don’t know that he ever did it himself – the examples I know all come from the last 30 years or so. So most likely it’s an unintended consequence; but it’s a fascinating one. I’ll share just two examples with you today; but if you’re aware of others, please mention them in the Replies.

Let’s start with Aegista diversifamilia. It’s a Taiwanese snail, named in 2014 by Chih-Wei Huang and colleagues. At the time of the naming, same-sex marriage was under heated debate in Taiwan. Huang and colleagues named the snail to emphasize the diversity of sexual systems in nature and, much more importantly (they explained) the diversity of love among humans.  The naming came under some criticism from those who prefer to keep science separate from society or politics (or, more accurately, from those who prefer to pretend that such a separation is possible). But a species name is an indexing tool, not a scientific conclusion. The genius of Linnaeus’s system is that a name doesn’t have to make a statement about how nature works; it’s free, in this case, to make a statement about how the human world ought to work. Love is love, Aegista diversifamilia proclaims, and we should celebrate it no matter who is loving whom.

From a snail to a palm: Aiphanes argos was named in 2017 by Rodrigo Bernal and colleagues. It’s a critically endangered palm species known only from a short stretch of the Samaná Norte River in north-central Colombia. Its habitat is a narrow strip of the river’s edge, where it grows among the rocks and withstands strong flash flooding. Why ‘argos’?  Well, the palm doesn’t come from the ancient Greek city of Argos, or the Argos river in Spain, or the town of Argos, Indiana. It isn’t named for Argos, Odysseus’ faithful dog in Homer’s Odyssey; and it isn’t named for Eddie Argos, lead singer of the post-punk band Art Brut. Instead, it’s named after Grupo Argos, a Colombian company that had planned to build a hydroelectric dam on the Samaná Norte – a 120 m high dam that would have flooded over 90% of the palm’s habitat. This was an explicit attempt to draw attention to the project and to embarrass the company, which had secured permissions and was planning construction to begin that year:

In naming this palm after Argos, its discoverers expected to raise awareness, both in the Group and among Colombian society, on the need of protecting this magnificent river canyon. (Bernal et al. 2019)

There were protests, and media coverage included the palm among other reasons for opposition to the project. In the end, Grupo Argos didn’t build its dam, perhaps – but how can one be sure? – at least in part because of the naming of Aiphanes argos:

After the media uproar caused by the finding and naming of Aiphanes argos, the group has now abandoned its project, and the Samaná Norte River will not be dammed. To what extent both events are connected is not known. (Bernal et al. 2019)

Should every new species be named for a corporation, in the hopes of pushing the business world to become more sustainable? Obviously not; and if this kind of naming was common it would probably be less effective. But Aiphanes argos is a nice illustration of how species naming – one of the most purely creative acts in science – can accomplish two things at once. A palm needed a name, and it got one; and a group of scientists wanted to press for some action that would benefit the world. Activism and science in a single act, with neither impinging on the other. I wonder what Linnaeus would think?

© Stephen Heard  September 15, 2021

Image: Not Grupo Argos’s dam. Srinakarin hydroelectric dam, Kanchanaburi, Thailand © Uwe Schwarzbach via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

*^You can read lots more about why in Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider; but in a nutshell, descriptive names got longer and longer as more species needed to be distinguished from each other. This got to the point where they were completely unusable – consider, for instance, the fish Gadus, dorso tripterygio, ore cirrato, longitudine ad latitudinem tripla, pinna ani prima officulorum trigiata. (It’s now Merlangius merlangus). The problem was bad enough in Linnaeus’s day, with around 10,000 species named; it’s true in spades now, with the number over a million.

**^You’ll see occasional appeals for us to return to the exclusive use of description in naming, sometimes in reaction to eponymous namings that refer to people of dubious (or worse) personal character. I explore this facet of eponymy in some depth in Chapters 8 and 11 of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. Whether we should abandon eponymous naming is a subject for another post, but it’s interesting that appeals to restrict ourselves to description almost always come from scientists studying lineages that are globally depauperate – like birds and mammals. Most entomologists, on the other hand, faced with the need for literally millions of names, would prefer not to be constrained to names like Carabus theonewith­apointysnout­butnotquite­aspointy­astheotherone­withthepointysnout­andpurplespots.






11 thoughts on “Taxonomy as activism

  1. taxanama

    For my work on the Checklist of the Canadian Chironomidae (non-biting midges), I had to provide common names. This practice is never done on these insects before, perhaps never will.
    Many species in this family are described by a small number of taxonomists or collected by only a few researchers. The practice of providing the etymology of the scientific names is a recent one, and therefore, finding the origin of the names was not always possible. A similar species epithet might have been used for different species from different genera; many species were named after the form and shape of the adult male’s genitalia. Therefore, I had to avoid overlaps in naming and to avoid using words such considered improper as common names such as genitals and anal. Later on, I found out from a colleague in USGS that some of these old Chironomidae taxonomists used to choose the names such as anal and buttocks on purpose and used to giggle about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jeremy Fox

    Somewhat off-topic: if you don’t want to be restricted to descriptive names because you’d quickly run out of usable names, but you also don’t think names should refer to anything “extra-scientific” (a person, a political cause, whatever), here’s a Galaxy Brain solution: abandon names and just use labels. One unique character string per species. Either randomly generated, or generated according to some rigid set of rules. After all, aren’t some viruses and microbes labeled in this way, rather than named?

    I know that you’d hate this, Stephen, since it removes all scope for creativity in naming/labeling. And I don’t know that I’d recommend it myself. I’m not a taxonomist and know nothing about taxonomy, so I’m in no position to recommend any naming conventions! I’m just curious: has any actual taxonomist ever recommended this idea? Or is this one of those naive attempts to resolve a controversy that fails because all sides hate it? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, you’re absolutely right that I’d hate this 🙂 It would not just remove creativity, it would remove the opportunity for people to learn from names (I’ve discovered SO MUCH cool stuff from taking apart Latin names). But: it’s not crazy. In fact, scientific names are currently allowed to be arbitrary combinations of letters (although not numbers, and they have to be pronounceable). What Linnaeus’s system did was separate the labeling/indexing function of a name from the descriptive function, so the name became a label that indexed a description elsewhere. As you point out, once you’ve done that, you can if you want go all the way to arbitrary labels.

      In practice one big objection would be that the name wouldn’t be mnemonic. I can learn 100s of Latin names, but I can’t memorize 100s of telephone numbers, because the Latin names have meanings.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jeremy Fox

        Tell me again what value is of being able to memorize lots of Latin names, in a time when Google exists and billions of people walk around with internet-connected supercomputers in their pockets. 🙂 #obvioustrolling

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Donald ZEPP

    I’m not sure how many of these qualify as “activism” _per se_, but among the 33 new species of halonoproctid trapdoor spiders described in the genus _Ummidia_, by Godwin and Bond, 2021, there were several that caught my attention and earned my kudos. To whit:

    Ummidia brandicarlileae sp. nov. […]
    Etymology. The specific epithet is in honor of Brandi Carlile, an American singer-
    songwriter who, along with Tim and Phil Hanseroth, established the Looking Out
    Foundation, which raises money and awareness for numerous causes to include sup-
    porting child victims of war, world hunger, LGBT rights, and the empowerment of
    women. Carlile founded the annual Girls Just Wanna Weekend Festival to counter the
    lack of female representation at mainstream music festivals, which takes place near the
    type locality for this species.

    Ummidia waunekaae sp. nov. […]
    Etymology. The specific epithet is a patronym in honor of Annie Dodge Wauneka
    (1910–1997), influential member of the Navajo Nation who worked tirelessly to im-
    prove education and health of the Navajo. Among other awards, she was bestowed the
    United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

    Ummidia gabrieli sp. nov. […]
    Etymology. The specific epithet is a patronym in honor of musician and human
    rights activist Peter Gabriel.

    Ummidia riverai sp. nov. […]
    Etymology. The specific epithet is a patronym in honor of Mario Dary Rivera, and
    environmentalist and patriarch of Guatemala’s environmental movement. Rivera was
    instrumental in the creation of the Quetzal Biotope (Biotopo de Mario Dary Rivera)
    near where the type specimen was collected.

    Then there are those that suggest a degree of activism, e.g.:

    Ummidia colemanae sp. nov. […]
    Etymology. The specific epithet is a patronym named in honor of Texas native
    Bessie Coleman (1892–1926), the first African American and Native American wom-
    an to obtain her pilot’s license.

    Ummidia quepoa sp. nov. […]
    Etymology. The specific epithet is a noun taken in apposition and refers to the
    Quepoa, who inhabited the region of the type locality during the colonial era.

    But for non-activism chuckles, this was my favorite etymology statement:
    Ummidia rongodwini sp. nov.
    Etymology. The specific epithet is a patronym named for the first author’s hus-
    band and partner Ron Godwin as an expression of gratitude for his love and support
    throughout her graduate career. The second author likes Ron but not as much as the
    first author.
    Godwin, R. L. & Bond, J. E. (2021). Taxonomic revision of the New World members of the trapdoor spider genus Ummidia Thorell (Araneae, Mygalomorphae, Halonoproctidae). ZooKeys 1027: 1-65.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Like you, I’m not sure any of those really qualify as activism – I’d say those are name that honour people for their activism, rather than the names being acts of activism themselves. But they are part of an admirable trend toward more diversity in eponymous naming. Nice!

      And I love love love the etymology for rongodwini. Adding to my file of humour in scientific writing…


      1. Donald ZEPP

        Well, then, from that same paper you might also like:
        Ummidia paulacushingae sp. nov. […]
        Etymology. The specific epithet is a patronym in honor of arachnologist Dr. Paula
        Cushing who is also the curator of arachnids for the Denver Museum of Natural His-
        tory and first female president of the American Arachnological Society. The second
        author is generally afraid of her.



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