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Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal

Taxonomists undertake the exciting task of discovering and describing new species across the earth, encompassing microorganisms, plants, and animals. Employing a system of binomial nomenclature, they assign names to species, drawing inspiration from people, localities, descriptive terms, or inventive words. These names are subsequently translated into Latin or Greek. Specific rules, outlined by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants, and the International Code of Nomenclature for Prokaryotes, dictate the naming process. These codes emphasize the imperative for authors to exercise due care and consideration when creating new names, ensuring they are selected with future users in mind, and avoiding offense. Another rule, the Principle of Priority, dictates that the first formally published scientific name for an organism is the one to be used.

A fervent debate is currently underway among taxonomists regarding the alteration of common and scientific species names deemed culturally offensive or inappropriate. One faction contends that contemporary society is increasingly aware of past social injustices and the deeply inappropriate actions of certain historical figures. Consequently, the use of certain terms or prefixes (e.g. nigro- alba- caffra-) and historical names are deemed unacceptable, necessitating changes in species names. Numerous species were named after historical figures, such as a blind cave beetle, Anophthalmus hitleri Scheibel, 1937 (named after Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party), the plant genus Hibbertia Andrews, 1800 (named after George Hibbert, a slave trader and owner), and the parasite causing sleeping sickness Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense (named after Rhodesia, which, in turn, was named after Cecil Rhodes, an English colonialist). Additionally, some taxonomists in this faction propose that species should not be named after people at all, suggesting a potential renaming of approximately 20% of all named species.

Conversely, the opposing group, while acknowledging the pro-changers’ good intentions, raises concerns about the potential chaos resulting from the widespread renaming of thousands of species. They question who will decide what is deemed offensive or not, and which historical figures are considered inappropriate. Moreover, they highlight that even when a name is changed, it remains linked to the old name as per the codes. Emphasizing the urgency of describing as many species as possible amid the vanishing biodiversity of Earth, they argue against redirecting limited taxonomical resources towards renaming known species. Instead, they advocate for taxonomists to exercise greater care in naming species moving forward.

In navigating this intricate terrain, taxonomists find themselves at a crossroads, balancing the traditions of nomenclature with the evolving sensitivities of contemporary society, all while preserving the urgency of biodiversity exploration.

References

Cheng, S.J., Gaynor, K.M., Moore, A.C. et al. 2023. Championing inclusive terminology in ecology and evolution. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 3101

George, Z. St. 2024. When species names are offensive, should they be changed? YaleEnvironment360. https://e360.yale.edu/features/renaming-species-offensive-names-taxonomy-nomenclature

Hammer, T.A. & Thiele, K.R. (119-122) Proposals to amend Articles 51 and 56 and Division III, to allow the rejection of culturally offensive and inappropriate names. Taxon, 70(6), 1392-1394.

Pethiyagoda, R. 2023. Policing the scientific lexicon: the new colonialism? Megataxa, 010(1): 020-025.

 Photos (all from Wikipedia):

Photo 1. Anophthalmus hitleri Beetle. Michael Munich, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13245104
Photo 2.  A flower of Hibbertia. CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=812874
Photo 3. The coast coral tree, Erythrina caffra in the KwaZulu-Natal botanical Gardens. By JMK, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15633323
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