Should the naming of species, such as the Hitler beetle, Trump moth, and Beyoncé fly, be reconsidered?
In 1937, a beetle with a brown color and no eyes was discovered in several caves located in Slovenia. The unique characteristic of this new species was its only notable quality. The individual who found it chose to give it the name of Adolf Hitler.
There is a species called Anophthalmus hitleri that has a disagreeable sound to people today. This is not the only case. Some species have names that are linked to offensive individuals or concepts, such as the butterfly Hypopta mussolinii. In addition, many plant species have names that stem from the word caffra, which was once used as a racial slur in Africa. For instance, the genus of flowering plants known as Hibbertia is named after George Hibbert, an English slave owner.
Numerous researchers are advocating for modifications to the global protocol for assigning official scientific names to plants and animals. They propose allowing the removal and replacement of previous names that are considered offensive. The current regulations for taxonomy do not permit these changes and must be revised, according to these scientists.
Some researchers have conflicting opinions. Debating about names that some find objectionable and trying to find replacements would be a waste of time and cause confusion. They believe that once taxonomists have agreed upon species names, they should remain unchanged unless there was an error in the initial naming or a previous designation was overlooked.
The current situation has the potential to escalate into a significant global conflict. According to botanist Sandra Knapp from the Natural History Museum in London, there are strong and opposing viewpoints on the matter. While there has been some heated debate, it is important that we openly address such issues rather than avoiding them.
Knapp has organized a meeting to take place at the upcoming International Botanical Congress in Madrid in July 2024, prior to voting on the matter. A proposed motion from a team of botanists suggests the formation of a committee with the authority to determine if scientific names for plants that are currently deemed unacceptable should be eliminated or altered.
Plant naming is only a part of the taxonomic controversy, however. Naming animals after racists, fascists and other controversial figures causes just as many headaches as those posed by plants. Last week, the American Ornithological Society announced it was changing the common names of dozens of birds because of their associations with racist or misogynist individuals. And many zoologists want this process to be expanded so they permit changes to be made to a species’ full scientific name. It is proving to be an awkward, controversial process, however.
Earlier this year, the ICZN stated that it would review the matter and subsequently declared that, after careful consideration, it would not alter its regulations. The organization clarified that it would not permit modifications to species’ names solely based on researchers finding them offensive. In the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, it noted that renaming would cause disruption and that replacement names could potentially be deemed offensive in the future as societal attitudes shift.
The choice sparked an angry reaction. Estrela Figueiredo, from the Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, asked, “Where else in human activities is something still called after Hitler?” She believes that codes should evolve and adjust, just like the rest of society.
After the ICZN’s announcement, the journal also released a set of editorials written by scientists who opposed the commission’s position. Some pointed out the lack of representation from Africa and criticized the commission for it. Others accused the commission of not being accountable to social norms and suggested the establishment of an ethics committee to address controversial names individually.
According to the Observer, the editor of the journal, Jeff Streicher, stated that the topic has caused significant rifts and warrants immediate discussion.
Some scientists have suggested a drastic approach to addressing the issue of species being named after individuals. Approximately 20% of the 1.5 million classified animals have eponymous names, such as Anophthalmus hitleri. It has been proposed that these types of names should be prohibited in taxonomy.
According to biologist Ricardo Rocha from Oxford University, the practice of naming species after people was often influenced by politics. During the 19th and 20th centuries, this led to a majority of species being named after wealthy, white, male Europeans due to the demographic of scientists during that time. Rocha, along with other authors, published a paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution calling for a ban on this practice.
Being named after a controversial figure does not benefit a species. The species Anophthalmus hitleri has been targeted by neo-Nazi enthusiasts, leading to its decline and potential extinction.
What does a name represent?
The process of naming a species was established by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus during the 18th century. It entails assigning a double name, in Latin or Greek, to an animal or plant. The first name indicates its genus and the second name distinguishes the specific species within that genus.
Therefore, we are given titles such as Tyrannosaurus rex, known as the “tyrant lizard king”. The initial section refers to the genus Tyrannosaurus, derived from the Greek term for “tyrant lizard”, and the second part, rex, is Latin for king.
Several scientific names have mundane origins and are often based on respected personalities by the individuals who find them. For example, Scaptia beyonceae, a type of horse fly named after Beyonce; Leucothoe eltoni, a small crustacean named after Elton John; and Anelosimus biglebowski, a spider named after the movie The Big Lebowski. In fact, David Attenborough’s name has been used for over 50 recently discovered species and even some new genera.
Not all scientific names are chosen as a form of tribute. In 2017, scientists identified a moth as Neopalpa donaldtrumpi due to its fair-colored head scales and diminutive reproductive organs.