Palaeontological Association review of “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle”

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels

Stephen B. Heard, 2020, 256 pp. ,Yale University Press, ISBN : 978-0300238280

(This is the text of a review published in the Palaeontological Association Newsletter. As it’s only available as a (large) PDF, I’m posting here with the Association’s permission. A link to the entire issue follows.)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a Rosa alba1 by any other name would smell as sweet.” Except as palaeontologists, the naming of species, i.e. taxonomic classification, is imperative to our understanding of biodiversity, and a species by any other name could significantly alter the way in which we perceive evolution of life on Earth. The Linnean system, named after its founder Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), enjoys universal acceptance within the scientific community. A gift that came along with the Linnean system was eponymous naming, i.e. the naming of a taxon after a person, place or even any other existing entity. Stephen Heard in his book Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider not only explores how species are named but also who they are named after and most importantly, the (sometimes scandalous) reasons behind the names.

As it turns out, Heard reports, there are many reasons why scientists name species after people. The most obvious ones are to celebrate the achievements and contribution of a person in the field or as an act of love or respect for a person whom the scientist likes but who might be unrelated to the scientific field, e.g. a member of the family or a celebrity. Other not-so-obvious reasons also include to bring dishonour to someone, to show spite, or even to bring light to a political situation. The book reveals two things that all of us in academia are probably aware of: (1) scientists are after all only human and (2) the academic system is thoroughly fragile and biased.

Many famous figures within and outside of academia have species named after them. The usual suspects, as Heard notes in the chapter Charles Darwin’s Tangled Bank, are Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt with the numbers in three digits. But he also gives equal importance to other lesser-known figures who have contributed extensively to the field of zoology, botany or palaeontology who have been remembered and immortalized through eponymous namings, e.g. Maria Sybilla Merian (1647–1717) – artist, botanist, naturalist and entomologist extraordinaire, Tom Iredale (1880–1972) – malacologist and ornithologist who did not have any formal university training but still went on to describe over 2,500 species and genera of Australia, and Berthe Rakotosamimanana (1938–2005) – primatologist and palaeontologist from Madagascar who has been one of the most importance pillars for scientific progress and conservation efforts in the country.

There are other less familiar names which have accumulated similarly high numbers (but not as high) as Darwin or Humboldt. Unfortunately, as Heard mentions, all of them are men, of European ancestry and/or of privileged backgrounds – a pattern that reflects the current state of modern academia that has persisted since colonial times. This not only indicates the exclusion of marginalised genders in the discipline but also that of Indigenous people who were already knowledgeable about different animals and plants even before the arrival of Westerners in the region. The scientific enterprise has repeatedly dismissed and devalued Indigenous knowledge of natural systems and processes that was developed over millennia. The ‘discovery’ and naming of certain species sometimes only represents the first record of that species in Western science when it had already long been known in the communities or locations in which it was found – a topic that is thoroughly covered in the chapter ‘The Indigenous Blindspot’. Many a time, these ‘discoveries’ would not have happened without Indigenous contributions.

Another issue that Heard highlights in the chapter ‘Names for Sale’ is the constant underfunding of universities, museums or even just research – to the extent that there are now naming programs offering taxonomic names for sale. The most well-known program, BIOPAT (Patenschaften fur biologische Vielfalt or “Sponsorships for Biodiversity”) has raised about 580,000 euros in the space of 20 years, which have been used to fund small projects for biological inventories of new protected areas or designated areas for protection. In a world where taxonomic research is repeatedly experiencing budget cuts, such programs – although criticized by many – have become a modest substitute but a substitute nonetheless. Another approach to bringing the science of species discovery into the public eye has been celebrity eponymous naming. Although short-lived, the attention given to a species named after David Bowie (who gets a mention in the title), or Beyonce, shines a light on taxonomic research and museum collections, which otherwise remain vastly unknown to the public.

You can imagine the attention that the discipline got when a moth was named after Donald Trump. The motivation behind this eponymous naming was to stress the need for biodiversity habitats in the US, at a time when the then US president’s agenda included rolling back environmental legislations to open protected land to exploitation. While then the meaning behind such naming was clear, over time this will end up being buried in the literature and in the memories of the public, to eventually be instead perceived as an honour. Similarly, Heard recounts in the chapter ‘The Name of Evil’ that some other distasteful characters have been immortalised through eponymous namings: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Spanish conquistadors Hernan Cortes and Francesco Pizarro being among them. As of now, no formal petition has ever been made to revoke these eponymous namings – not that such a petition would ever succeed, comments Heard.

The list also contains some scientific ‘household names’ whose questionable beliefs have emerged in recent years. George Cuvier (1769–1832), considered to be the ‘founding father of palaeontology’, also promoted scientific racism, i.e. the use of racial observations as empirical evidence to support or even justify racism and white supremacy. Racist views held by Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), the ‘father of glaciology’, and more recently James Watson (1928–2004), one of the people who discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule, have also not deterred anyone from commemorating their contributions through eponymous naming.

The Black Lives Matter movement brought attention to systematic and institutional racism in our society and a frequent response has been the defacing or removal of statues in the USA, UK and Europe, which has sparked quite some controversy. These statues however represent a chosen narrative where the immortalization of the people through these narratives only tells the “better” half of the story. If the stories told through these statues remain skewed, then the alternative is to remove them from the public space altogether. It would seem that even we, in science, have our own “statues” to deal with in the form of eponymous namings. Does this mean that scientists should simply stop naming species after people? I’ll leave this question to those who actually deal with systematics on a more regular basis than I do and who understand more about nomenclature than I ever will.

All in all, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider was a thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone, whether or not they are interested in taxonomy. Heard weaves the stories behind the names of species around scientific discovery, societal issues and human nature, giving us an insight into how the world of biodiversity came about and what it can teach us. There’s even something for Game of Throne fans (and Harry Potter in the cleverly-named chapter ‘Harry Potter and the Name of the Species’) – which I’ll certainly be relaying to my fellow, non-academic Thronies.

— Nussaïbah Raja

Nussaibah is a PhD student at Friedrich-Alexander-Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg, Germany and proud mother of two cats, Noel and Nepomuk. She can be found on Twitter: @mauritiantales

Cite this review: Raja, N. 2021. Book Review: Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels. Palaeontology Newsletter, 107, 105-107.

Reproduced with kind permission of the Palaeontological Association. But don’t stop here: download the entire Newsletter issue, which includes a conversation about the Mary Anning-biopic Ammonite, an essay on the complexity of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and more.

1^Currently what I have among my humble collections of plants in my home and most likely in yours as well