Part of what makes us human is our curiosity about the world around us. That curiosity drives scientists to discover, describe, and name the millions of other species with which we share our planet. Every now and then, the naming of a newly discovered species catches the public eye. Sometimes, it’s because that new species is named after a person – be they living or dead, real or imaginary, admired or loathed. Among such eponymous namings are the spider named for David Bowie (Heteropoda davidbowie), the barnacle named for Charles Darwin (Regioscalpellum darwini), the fungus named for SpongeBob SquarePants (Spongiforma squarepantsii), and the beetle named for George Bush (Agathidium bushi). These namings, and many more like them, connect the scientists who name species, the species that bear the names, and the people to whom the names refer.
They also strike many people as a little peculiar. What a strange way, it seems, to pay tribute to someone – to build their name into a quasi-Latin name for a species, a name that will be used primarily by scientists writing technical and jargon-filled journal papers and monographs. You can almost sympathize with Jane Colden’s aunt. Jane Colden was likely the New World’s first female botanist. She was active in the middle of the eighteenth century; her father (the marvelously named Cadwallader Colden) was also a botanist and supported her interest in natural history. Jane’s handwritten and hand-drawn manuscript illustrating the flora of New York circulated in London, and it was suggested that a plant should be named Fibrurea coldenella in her honor. Her aunt, however, was shocked, and objected “What! Name a weed after a Christian woman!”
It was Carl Linnaeus, the brilliant eighteenth-century Swedish botanist, who made it possible for a spider to bear David Bowie’s name (or for a plant to bear Jane Colden’s) – and thus, for a name to tell a story. Before Linnaeus, the scientific naming of a plant or animal species was simply an exercise in description. A name was a Latin phrase (sometimes quite a long one) that described the species and separated it from similar ones; but it did no more than that. Linnaeus’s “binomial system” was different in several important ways. Most celebrated is that it’s simple, and allows easy organization of our knowledge about Earth’s biodiversity. Each species has a single-word name, coupled with a single-word “genus” name for its group of immediate relatives – Acer rubrum, for example, with rubrum designating one of 130 or so living species of maples in the genus Acer. But a less widely appreciated novelty in Linnaeus’s system was its separation of naming from description. Linnaean names – and all scientific, or “Latin”, names since Linnaeus – are indexing devices. They may be descriptive (as in Acer rubrum, red maple), but they don’t have to be (as in Acer davidii, Père David’s maple).
Linnaeus’s invention of non-descriptive names might seem trivial, but it made something possible that had never been possible before: in naming species, scientists could express themselves. In choosing to honor someone with an eponymous Latin name, a scientist can tell a story about the person being honored; but at the same time, that scientist tells a story about him- or herself. With Linnaeus’ invention, names – and eponymous names in particular – became a window on scientists’ personalities.
What shows through that window? That scientists aren’t the cool, dull, and unemotional creatures that many might expect. They use Latin naming creatively, and in doing so reveal all of humanity’s virtues, weaknesses, and foibles. In naming organisms, some scientists proclaim their admiration for naturalists, explorers, and others among their heroes. Some acknowledge their gratitude to their mentors or patrons; some express their love for their husbands or daughters or parents. Some stake their claims as fans of Harry Potter or of punk music. Some make statements about justice and human rights. Some signal their disdain for demagogues and dictators; others, sadly, reveal their approval of them. The eponymous names of organisms can reveal the shame of bias and prejudice, but also the pride we can feel in attempts to rise above those human failings. In coining eponymous names, 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.
Through the window of eponymous naming, we see the best and the worst of humanity. We see science as a fully human activity, full of personality and history and shaped by intriguing connections between the species that’s named, the person it’s named for, and the scientist doing the naming. As Mistress Mouffet puts it, in A.S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia: “Names, you know, are a way of weaving the world together.” The stories woven by eponymous names can be surprising, fascinating, and poignant; occasionally, they can be infuriating. Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider tells some of those stories. Please enjoy your look through the window.
Read more about Charles Darwin’s Barnacle – or even pre-order a copy – here!