Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider is my second book (after The Scientist’s Guide to Writing) and my first for a general audience.

Ever since Carl Linnaeus’ 18th-century invention of the “binomial” scientific name, scientists have been naming organisms after people in ways that sometimes honour and sometimes vilify their namesakes. Charles Darwin’s Barnacle examines the fascinating stories behind eponymous naming, from Linnaeus himself naming a small and unpleasant weed after a rival botanist to the recent influx of scientific names based on pop-culture icons—including David Bowie’s spider, Frank Zappa’s jellyfish, and Beyoncé’s fly.  The book explores the naming process as an opportunity for scientists to express themselves in creative ways, and shows how scientific names are a window into both the passions and foibles of the scientific community and the ways in which humans relate to, and impose order on, the natural world.

Buy the book!  

USA: Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Indiebound

Canada: Amazon or Chapters/Indigo

(Scroll down for global ordering links)

You’ll enjoy this book if you’re interested in nature and the history of natural science; in the quirks and foibles of scientists; in words and their etymology; or in surprising connections between people, places, and the millions of species with which we share our planet.

Here’s the Table of Contents, as a teaser. Want to know more?  Click the links to read the Preface and an excerpt of one chapter.

Preface (read it here!)
Introduction: A Lemur and Its Name
Chapter 1. The Need for Names
Chapter 2. How Scientific Naming Works
Chapter 3. Forsythia, Magnolia, and Names Within Names
Chapter 4. Gary Larson’s Louse
Chapter 5. Maria Sibylla Merian and the Metamorphosis of Natural History
Chapter 6. David Bowie’s Spider, Beyoncé’s Fly, and Frank Zappa’s Jellyfish (read an excerpt here!)
hapter 7. Spurlingia: a Snail for the Otherwise Forgotten
Chapter 8. The Name of Evil
Chapter 9. Richard Spruce and the Love of Liverworts
Chapter 10. Names from the Ego
Chapter 11. Eponymy Gone Wrong? Robert von Beringe’s Gorilla and Dian Fossey’s Tarsier
Chapter 12. Less Than a Tribute: the Temptation of Insult Naming (read an excerpt here!)
Chapter 13. Charles Darwin’s Tangled Bank
Chapter 14. Love in a Latin Name
Chapter 15. The Indigenous Blind Spot
Chapter 16. Harry Potter and the Name of the Species
Chapter 17. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and the Fish from the Depths of Time
Chapter 18. Names for Sale
Chapter 19. A Fly for Mabel Alexander
Epilogue: Madame  Berthe’s Mouse Lemur


“In ‘Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider’, Stephen Heard tells some of the remarkable stories behind the names of species—and teaches us about how scientists make sense of the natural world along the way. A true pleasure to read.”—Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

 “More fun than you’ve ever had with taxonomy in your whole entire life! Delightfully written, thoroughly researched, makes you want to learn Latin, and will give good dinner party stories forever.”—Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, and PhD in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology

“Stephen Heard, one of our great science storytellers,  brings his passion, curiosity and deep knowledge of biodiversity to sharing insights about our world and how it came to be.  In his hands, species names become a window into a much larger world of scientific discovery and the workings of  human nature.  His gentle, yet passionate prose makes this a book to savor.”—Neil Shubin, paleontologist and author of Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

 “’Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider’ is carefully researched, well-written, and contains a wealth of insightful comments. Stephen Heard is a talented writer with a good sense of humor, and he knows how to tell a story.”—Paul Farber, Oregon State University

“Stephen Heard’s prose fairly sings with enthusiasm, and he presents truly fascinating stories about the names of living things – stories I guarantee you’ve never heard before.”—Daniel Lewis, author of Belonging on an Island

 “In a poignant, precise, and friendly style, Stephen Heard introduces the foibles of Western science—or, perhaps more accurately, Western scientists. The result is beautiful, welcoming, and illuminating.”—Nicole Palffy-Muhoray, Yale Peabody Museum


Please: if you read the book, take a moment to leave a brief review (good or bad!) on Amazon or Goodreads. Posted reviews help get the word out.

(newest!) Review by Nussaïbah Raja in the Palaeontological Association Newsletter.

— Review by Johannes Ruitta, the Well-Read Naturalist, in the Archives of Natural History.

— Review by Dan Garisto in the Literary Review of Canada. (A thorough and incisive review, worth reading on its own merits even if you never pick up the book!)

— Review by Matthew Cobb in Current Biology. From the review: “That such simple delights [as the origin of ‘Iris’] can be found rubbing shoulders with punk band trilobites is a measure of how enchanting this book is.”

— Review by Adrian Barnett in New Scientist (paywalled, I’m afraid).  From the review:

In Stephen Heard’s splendid new book, which is beautifully illustrated by Emily Damstra, he explains not only how species are named, but why some have odder names than others…But the book is more than an exposition of terminological cleverness. Heard provides some
interesting social commentary on in-groups and out-groups in biology…

— Review by Simon Ings in The Spectator.

— Short review in Publisher’s Weekly.

— Review by Henry Hitchings in the Wall Street Journal (paywalled, I’m afraid). From the review:

“Accessible, instructive and often amusing…For all Mr. Heard’s enthusiastic marshaling of such detail, his book is more than a pleasant collection of trivia. It’s a corrective to the hackneyed notion that the Latin names of species are dusty and dull. At the same time it’s a history lesson full of humanity, for in grasping the connections between species, the people for whom they’re named and the scientists doing the naming, we see scientific discovery at its most personal.”

–Review by Michael Ruse in the Quarterly Review of Biology (paywalled, I’m afraid, but you can read the first page, including this gem: “You would not think that a book about scientific names could be this much fun”.

–Review by Simon Leather

–Review by Jitka Klimešová (in Czech).

–Review by Xavier Bellés (in Spanish); or the same review in Catalan)

Media and Talks

(More) Ordering links

You can order the book through any of these links, or of course through your favourite local bookseller. And don’t forget that your local public library may have a copy – or get one for you if you ask!

Canada: via Amazon or Chapters/Indigo

USA: via Amazon or Barnes & Noble

UK: via

France: via

Germany: via

Russia (Russian translation): via

Almost anywhere: via BookDepository

Elsewhere: please let me know what vendor I should add to this page; or you can order directly from Yale University Press.