I’ve just read Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller’s fascinating biography of David Starr Jordan.* Jordan was a brilliant taxonomist of fishes, the founding President of Stanford University, and (sadly) a prominent and committed eugenicist. Miller’s biography explores his life and connects it to her own, and to some big philosophical questions, and it’s well worth reading. But you know how everyone sees the world through the lens of their own special little interests? Well, this sentence jumped out at me:
“I am on my way to behold the only fish in the entire sea that David Starr Jordan named after himself”.
Jordan named a lot of fish species – a couple of thousand, about 20% of the fish species known in his day. One of them, it would appear, is Agonomalus jordani. Did Jordan really name a fish for himself?
I’ve written about “ego-naming” elsewhere. There’s a whole chapter in my book Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider about it. Linnaeus did it (and lied about it, but you’ll have to read my book for the full story). Major Robert Tytler did it (and bragged about it, and likewise). But cases of ego-naming are actually very rare, and most reports of it happening turn out to be in error. So I strongly suspected an error in Why Fish Don’t Exist. That’s partly because it’s my prior, now; but also partly because the story seemed to fit a bit too neatly with Miller’s narrative of Jordan as a flawed (yup) and self-admiring man.
So, off to the literature! And it turns out it is an error, but it’s an easy one to make. Here’s what happened.
Agonomalus jordani really was, technically, described by David Starr Jordan, in a 1904 monograph coauthored with Edwin Chapin Starks. That much you can get from a quick check of Wikipedia. If you dig a bit deeper, the absolutely wonderful Biodiversity Heritage library has that monograph for you online. Taxonomists at the time didn’t always explain their names’ etymologies, but Jordan and Starks do: it’s right there, “named for David Starr Jordan”. Not just a smoking gun, but a bullet caught on film, right?
Not so fast. “Named for David Starr Jordan” is the last line in the species description, but the first one is this: “Agonomalus jordani Schmidt”. What’s the “Schmidt”? That’s an authority: an acknowledgement of who coined the name. Jordan and Stark weren’t naming Agonomalus jordani, or at least they didn’t think so. Instead, they tell us, they became aware that the Russo-German ichthyologist Peter Schmidt had collected the same undescribed species and had prepared a description. They even quote Schmidt as writing of it, “this is probably the most beautiful new species that i have found in my collections” [my translation from the German].
But funny things happen along the road to publication. Jordan and Starks had seen Schmidt’s manuscript, assumed it would be published promptly, and so discarded whatever name they had planned for the new species (they don’t say what it would have been) and adopted Schmidt’s name. As it happened, though, the Jordan and Starks monograph came out first, and when Schmidt’s manuscript was published later the same year it was too late. Under the rules of nomenclature, Jordan and Starks published the name first, and so even though they wrote it as Agonomalus jordani Schmidt, it isn’t: it’s really Agonomalus jordani Jordan and Starks.**
Now, you might think “gee, that’s awfully convenient – of course Jordan would adopt Schmidt’s name, he’d have loved it” And maybe that’s true; maybe Jordan (and Starks?) went with Schmidt’s name not because they had to, but because they desperately wanted to.
Maybe. Here’s the thing: you never really know the entirety of anyone else’s story, and you can choose to view someone’s actions in the worst possible light or the best. What else could/should Jordan and Starks have done? Sticking with their planned naming would have led to taxonomic confusion if their paper came out second, and to the appearance (at least) of unethical scooping if theirs came out first. If Schmidt had picked any name other than jordani, it would be completely obvious that Jordan and Starks were doing the right thing by adopting it. But Schmidt had picked jordani, and the situation was awkward no matter what.
So did Jordan name Agonomalus jordani after himself? Technically, yes, but only under rules of nomenclature that didn’t exist when he did it; only as a result of publishing timing that was out of his control; and only because he was respecting the not-quite-published work of another scholar.
I’ve argued elsewhere that false accusations of ego-naming, like this one (and also like this one), aren’t necessarily malevolent. Instead, ego-naming is so rare that false accusations are, statistically, going to be much more common than real ones. But at the same time, I think we ought to be careful not to yield to the strong temptation of making people one-dimensional. Yes, Jordan was a eugenicist, and that’s horrible. And yes, it’s tempting then to ascribe other sins to him too.*** But on this sin (and it’s a minor one), he’s not guilty.
Thanks for coming with me down this rabbithole. And pick up Why Fish Don’t Exist – the minor and understandable error I’ve documented here doesn’t stop it from being a good story, well told.
© Stephen Heard August 23, 2022
*^The title is arresting but a little off. Well, a lot off. It comes from Miller’s realization, learning about phylogenetic trees and cladistic approaches to classification, that the word “fish” doesn’t denote a monophyletic evolutionary group (that is, a group of a common ancestor and all its descendants). Yes, “fish” isn’t a monophyletic group, because it excludes amphibians and reptiles and mammals and birds, all of which evolved from within the ecological grouping “fish”. But that doesn’t mean fish don’t exist, of course, any more than the realization that birds evolved from within dinosaurs means that dinosaurs didn’t exist. Miller tries to wring a lot of meaning out of the supposed non-existence of fish – for example, suggesting it as a comeuppance for Jordan (who rather deserved one). That attempt is rather hobbled by the fact that fish still exist, and are interesting and worth study, despite the fact that their evolutionary history is complicated. Heck, they’re more interesting and more worth study because of that.
**^As a complication, that’s true now under modern versions of the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature. The first internationally agreed-upon set of naming rules didn’t appear until 1905, though, and the first edition of our current Code wasn’t published until 1961. So when the name appeared was Schmidt the authority for the name, or were Jordan and Starks? Well… I’m only an amateur historian of taxonomic naming. If anyone knows, please weigh in in the Replies.
***^Miller argues pretty forcefully that Jordan was on the wrong side of the poisoning death of Jane Stanford – perhaps murdering her himself, or perhaps only covering the murder up for fear of scandal. The latter seems pretty clear. The former I wonder about; it’s just a bit convenient to discover that the eugenicist you’re excoriating is also a murderer. Not impossible! Just convenient.