Naming organisms after people

Hi all,

How do you feel about naming organisms after people?

The general consensus among people I interact with, including those within my profession and also other hobby naturalists, is that taxonomic names containing the name of a person - usually in the epithet - are harder to learn and unhelpful.

In my opinion, the taxonomic name of an organism should reflect some aspect about the organism. A favorite name to exemplify this is Pterocaulon pycnostachyum, which means something like winged stem, dense spike: a fantastic description for the plant! Names like this provide an opportunity for learning about some root word meanings, and it’s fun to tie those meanings to some aspect of the organism. Through that process, it becomes easier to associate the name with the organism, as well.

Naming a plant after a person offers no such value. Sure, you could make an argument that it opens the door for learning about whoever that person is. But frankly, if I’m learning about some organism, I really don’t care to learn about some person. There’s usually no easy way to tie the name to the organism, and I have to do weird mental gymnastics to come up with an association to remember the name.

It’s nice and all that people wish to honor great scientists (or ironically honor not-so-great presidents, or whatever their motivations are), but I worry that naming organisms after people distracts the focus from learning about the organism. It seems blatantly human-centric. After all, shouldn’t it be about the organism, not about us?

I’d love to see some sort of movement to phase out this type of naming. There already exists, in my onion, far too many such names. With myriad taxonomic changes and continued discovery of newly described species, I’m afraid this trend will soon inundate us with human-named organisms.

Is anyone aware of this conversation taking place in mediums where it might lead to some change? Or do you think I’m in the minority here, and such a movement stands no chance? I myself have not read The International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants, but I can’t help but wonder if there is ever any hope for some provision that prohibits (or at least strongly dissuades!) naming organisms after people.

Would love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

P.S. - Here I’m mostly referring to the names of plants and my experiences teaching and discussing plants with other like-minded individuals, as I’m mostly a botanist, but I think this topic applies for most groups of organisms.

Edit: moved this from General as I suppose it’s not really iNaturalist specific.

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In my opinion it depends on the person. Wilson’s
or Audubon’s Warbler is better than Rivoli’s Hummingbird. Magnificent was a better name in my opinion. Also Coues’s Flycatcher was more descriptive than the generalist Greater Pewee. It was a fitting name to honor this pioneering southwest ornithologist.

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I think naming a whole taxon after one human, even a great human, is extremely narrow-minded and perhaps even arrogant. Obviously, as humans, we have a human-centered view of the world. Doesn’t mean we should encourage it when it comes to the study of the world’s other organisms. There are lots of better ways to honour someone’s contributions.
I agree with OP, a descriptive name or one that emphasizes behaviour or interactions, is much more useful.

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Oh, that is wery easy: when you shall described a new taxon, you will name it in this way :).

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The scientific name alone should never be relied on as a means to assist or help with identification. Trying to name after unique features only goes so far and there’s always a lot of conflict and overlap. I recalled all the times I had found names after features like “nitens” (meaning shiny), or “longicornis” (long antennae) in a list of names, then realizing several of the species matched those traits. This is a further issue when new species are described, for instance finding others matching these “distinctive” traits after the names have already been set.

There’s just too many species out there to follow “distinctive” naming after features. Location naming is another case, but that also tends to miss the full distribution of the organism (I’m looking at all those “canadensis” found in California, Texas…etc.).

What often ends up happening is you have a series of new species and no idea what to call them. And that ends up resulting in lazy or rushed names, which is even worse. Which is why we have some genera where the species are just named after numbers, or species like Cyclocephala “nodanotherwon” (see if you can guess what that means!).

Long story short, naming after people is more than fine. It’s actually a break for some specialists who don’t have to spend an hour deciding what to call something after some arbitrary detail. I don’t know why commemorating people has to be arrogant. Someone put their time, passion and effort into that field and it’s a small reward and gratification for their work.

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I like species being named after humans, it’s a human name so what’s wrong with it? It has to be human-centric, you only can learn what other people or you as a person learnt about this organism, you can’t learn anything else, it’s easy as that. Name provides more context and history in the name than a random epithet, most of species has nothing extraordinary to have it in their name. And learning only about organism has nothing to do with what their name means whatsoever, so there’s no difference at all what’s the name is about.
I don’t see how remembering names is hard, it’s in fact easier than some random features that can be found in many species of the genus or family, but only this one is called e.g. brown. We have much less numerous chemical elements called after humans and places, so how organisms are worse?
I’m all up renaming stuff named after racists, etc., but try naming 200 species of similar small flies and we’ll see with which useful characteristic names you’ll end up.

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I personally don’t have any strong opinions on this. I’ve never considered that the scientific name should be associated with a basic description of the organism its given to. To me its just this bijective thing where there is a one-to-one correspondence between the binomial and the organism. Hence they can be named after people, places, a morphological feature etc. And based on those thoughts, I guess I feel the same way for common names too (except common names would be surjective).

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I agree. However, sometimes this may be the case…

After all, how could you tell if this meant to honor someone, if the person just ran out of ways to name new species, or if they are arrogant? I think a better way, and maybe this is already being practiced, is to do something in the middle. Name something based on their defining features. It that does not work, then use other means like numbers or people’s names. Also, people’s names could be used for more common names, if it is applicable. I know that trying to come up with common names for species is a whole another quandary in itself - The Right of a Fly to a Common Name.

Moreover, @robotpie has a good point, too.

I think naming a whole taxon after one human, even a great human, is extremely narrow-minded and perhaps even arrogant.

Can’t agree with that. Though probably should not take part in the discussion because of being guilty in this line myself. In my line of work it is an old tradition to present a prominent colleague with a species named after them. Often in a jubilee Festschrift. Though I admit that there are colleagues who overexploit this way of naming. Still, I can think of many worse cases, for example naming a pathogen after a host plant, especially when it later turns out that the pathogen occurs on other host species. Or after a character which turns out to be present in other species and in more pronounced way.

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In my opinion there is absolutely nothing wrong with this and I would be firmly against any effort to change things.

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also plant based - and I prefer names that tell me about a distinctive feature of the plant, rather than commemorating or honouring a botanist.

Gladiolus bonaspei (Good Hope, Cape of, where it comes from) is now G. merianellus (a botanist)

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I agree with what has been said previously about keeping people’s names in organisms’ names. I work with insects, especially a genus of rather small jewel beetles that all look rather similar. Try coming up with special descriptive names for all 700 species in the genus and you’ll confuse yourself trying to come up with different ways to say yellow-spotted 700 times! I personally think naming organisms after people (especially past specialists) provides also a way to know who might be a pioneer in the field (seeing LeConte, Knull, and Westcott in more than three or four species names (as well as some genus and subgenus names) in the family I work in is an example). In my opinion, scientific names should be a healthy balance betwixt descriptive names, location-based names, people-based names, and maybe a bit of other things (like fun names). It provides a diversity when looking at a pile or organisms (so that it isn’t just A. flavosticta, A. cyanosticta, A. purpureosticta, A. nigrosticta… where it feels like it was a chore or something to name each species).
In the end, it really isn’t about the name we assign the organism, it’s about the organism itself, and the name is just a method we use to not get confused betwixt organisms.

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https://birdnamesforbirds.wordpress.com/historical-profiles/profiles-a-z/verreaux-jules-pierre/

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This is a big debate in the birding community at the moment, with birds honoring some less than honorable individuals. I aesthetically am against honorifics (especially with bird common names) and even though I sometimes still slip up and call the bird I worked with this summer McCown’s Longspur, I think Thick-Billed Longspur is a much much better bird name. For me the least interesting thing about this organism that once followed vast herds of bison or descended on prairie fires, that circles in a whimsical butterfly dance, that becomes totally impossible to see on a nest, is that a dude who would become a confederate general blew a few away while fighting Indian campaigns in Texas.

I feel the same way about plant names, I don’t really care about who the pioneers in documenting the flora of a region were, and if I did all I have to do is look up the name following the description, or better yet read a history of it. I’m not saying that we should change existing names, but I hope that this isn’t a trend that is doubled down on.

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welcome to the Forum, @ddubois2 :)

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After a nasty bout of Giardia, I had to grudgingly acknowledge the contributions of French biologist Alfred M. Giard, including the use of his name (by another biologist) for such an unpleasant organism.

I have no issues with human names being used for taxa.

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I recently read a very well-written, interesting, and fun book about the topic of naming organisms after people: Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, by Stephen B. Heard. Highly recommended.

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I’m personally not the biggest fan of organisms being named after people, not only do I find them more difficult to remember (and pronounce at times), I simply think that there are better ways to praise ones achievements than naming an entire separate living organism after someone.

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Is anyone aware of this conversation taking place in mediums where it might lead to some change?

You may be interested in the Bird Names For Birds movement.

I much prefer descriptive names for organisms. I hadn’t heard about the particular plight of entomologists having to name very many indistinct species, so I’ll have to think about that some more, and I’m sympathetic. But I think it’s worth considering how organism names can be rather like those pesky monuments to confederate soldiers (the number of birds who are named after racists or grave-robbers, eesh), or ways that we overwrite the local history and ties of an organism when we name it after (often) a contemporary white man.

There is also the rather sad and unique example of a cave beetle named Anophthalmus hitleri which is at danger of extinction solely because its name makes it of interest to collectors of Hitler memorabilia.

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Some discussion related to naming organisms after people in this thread from last year as well:
https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/if-you-could-rename-an-existing-species/6554

I’m not overly fond of organisms being named after people, though some of that may be the result of living in Asia and dealing with local species named after Europeans. (Or individuals from regional colonial powers …)

I understand the reasons behind the convention and won’t argue that all the current names should be changed but do hope local histories - for lack of a better term - can be recognized when creating names.

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