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 flickr.com. 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.