Maybe just stop naming things after people, period?

David Shiffman suggests that we should stop naming species after awful people, which sounds like good common sense, but those arcane taxonomic rules don’t allow for changing it.

Currently, there is no procedure under ICZN rules to change the scientific name of a species because that species is named after someone whose crimes against humanity offend the modern conscience, and the taxonomists I spoke to for this essay told me that they don’t see this changing anytime soon. This is perhaps something that we should think about; after all, “there’s no way to do this under the current rules” doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. At the very least, however, we should probably consider no longer naming *new* species after awful humans from this point forward.

Except…I can already see a problem with that. Awful humans may not be recognized as awful humans at the time of the naming. His own given example illustrates that problem.

At the opening of 2019’s Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Snowbird, local host committee co-chair Al Savitsky of Utah State University told us about a local reptile with an inglorious common name: the common small-blotched lizard. These lizards have some unusual reproductive behaviors that have attracted the interest of herpetologists, but for the purpose of this essay let’s just consider their scientific name: Uta stansburiana, named in 1852. They are named after Howard Stansbury, an explorer in the Army Corps of Engineers who led a famous expedition to study the flora and fauna of what’s now Utah and collected the type specimens of this lizard. By the standards of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, the formal scientific body involved in species names, naming a species after an explorer who collected the first specimens of a species is not only appropriate, but fairly standard. However, while Stansbury was an influential naturalist, he was also a terrible person—he was a vocal supporter of and played a key role in a locally-infamous massacre of Timpanogos Native Americans in which more than 100 were killed.

Yikes. I knew about Stansbury already — not only did he participate in the planning and execution of the massacre, he had like 50 of the dead Indians decapitated so he could ship the heads back to Washington DC for “scientific study”. He wasn’t considered awful at the time, that was just standard operating procedure for Western colonizers. You’d get a blank look then if you suggested this was not worthy behavior that merited allowing a lizard to be named after him.

Furthermore, there is a mountain range west of Salt Lake City named after him, the Stansbury mountains, and a big island on the edge of the Great Salt Lake named Stansbury Island. Geographers and geologists maybe have to take some responsibility here, too.

(It’s a very nice island, as desert islands go. Lots of lizards and scorpions and spiders. Good camping and picnicking in those mountains, too.)

One potential solution: don’t allow individual human names in scientific nomenclature at all. There was a long period where anatomists were naming organs and parts of organs and cells after other scientists, which when you think about it, is kind of squicky — who the heck was Paul Langerhans, and why are cells in my body named after him? That has definitely gone out of fashion today, and you’d be considered egotistical if you started naming body parts after your good buddies from medical school, and expected everyone else to go along with your convention.

While we’re at it, isn’t it odd to be living on some continents named after some otherwise forgotten Italian guy who made a couple of visits half a millennium ago?


  1. aspleen says

    Amerigo Vespucci was the one who showed that the islands and land mass that Columbus encountered wern’t in fact some outlying part of Asia, but a new continent. So that’s why there’s a North and South America, thanks to the habit of naming things after people. It’s a human habit to name places like that.

  2. blf says

    While we’re at it, isn’t it odd to be living on some continents named after some otherwise forgotten Italian guy who made a couple of visits half a millennium ago?

    Greek. Possibly. One common legend is it somehow derives from the sky faerie Europa, possibly as a result of being raped by sky faerie Zeus. Even the mildly deranged penguin is puzzled by this hypothesis.

    (The mildly deranged penguin points out the quote / OP doesn’t seem to be taking about Farierapedbyfarieland, or about cheese. She finds the later very puzzling.)

  3. microraptor says

    What we really need to stop doing is moving into an area and renaming the local landmarks after ourselves while ignoring the people who have lived there for thousands of years and already have names for things.

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 Loki

    Watch out for the moose, though .

    True but don’t forget that they are recent immigrants. The Vikings were there first.

  5. blf says

    @8, And the Inuit long before those early visitors from Farierapedbyfarieland, and occupied much more of that part of the wider Mooseland than those early Farierapedbyfarielanders. (The Moose seem to have been there for perhaps a million years?)

  6. monad says

    @blf: Europa isn’t a fairy, she’s an ordinary (if fictional) Canaanite princess who got kidnapped by a fairy. Keep your stories straight!

    Anyway, the worst one I know about is Constantin Merezhkowsky. He is a celebrated pioneer of the idea of symbiogenesis; his other work included a fictional utopia where, after most humans are eliminated through eugenics, the master people live happily with specially bred brides that stay child-like until they are euthanized at an early age. This vision has far more to do with his actual life than it one might hope, as discussed by Sapp et al. And those awful things were known and despised by many people at the time, but have ended up largely neglected since, as discussed by Dolan.

    At the same time, you see new species (many truly new, things too tiny or remote to have native names) named after a musician or cartoonist the discoverer loved, or a friend who died while they were working on them, or so on, and it seems so hard to condemn the eponym as an awful thing. In an ideal world, I’m guessing the answer wouldn’t be a blanket rule, it would be people bestowing such honors very thoughtfully. Think there’s any chance we’ll ever get there?

  7. monad says

    By the way: I mean worst one in the sense of mismatch between public image today and actual record. Not meant to make it a competition, or to suggest that horrors like Hitler didn’t manage to cause far more suffering still.

  8. otto says

    I never know how to feel about diseases named after people. If you were Alois Alzheimer (who seems to have been a pretty decent person), would you want to know that your name strikes fear into people a hundred years after your death?

  9. Ridana says

    Sonic hedgehog anyone (hh gene)? Could’ve been worse – they could’ve stuck with the original tiggywinkle hedgehog.

    Unless both first and last names are part of the nomenclature, I don’t find namings like stansburiana so troubling. I’m sure there have been many good people bearing that surname over time, so since I’d never heard of Howard until today, it could’ve referred to any of them, afaik or cared.

    In the case of Psephophorus terrypratchetti, I’d likewise be more comfortable had it been named Psephophorus pratchetti. People would still get the reference, and those who wouldn’t, wouldn’t care, and it would still be fine a hundred years from now when some biographer uncovers his secret diaries documenting his cruel experiments in turtle stacking.

  10. flange says

    How about Asperger Syndrome? Hans Asperger was not a decent person. He was a Nazi lackey, and indirectly, if not directly involved in euthanasia. Although he did make significant contributions to our understanding of autism. I think AS is being folded in to the larger autism spectrum, so it may become moot.

  11. says

    OTOH, there’s the well-deserved honor behind s. garylarsoni. I mean, think about it: If it were to turn out that Gary Larson were some sort of despicable person (and I’m not suggesting that he is!), it’s a louse. So all points of view are covered.

  12. jrkrideau says

    @ 9 blf

    The Moose seem to have been there for perhaps a million years?

    It depends of how yow see Vinland. I suspect that Snarki and I were thinking of something like the Viking settlement, L’Anse aux Meadows on the island of Newfoundland, perhaps around 1000 CE and which may be the first European settlement in North America.

    The first moose got to Newfoundland in 1904 CE. They are a definite part of Newfie culture.

  13. says

    Then there’s the Hugo and Locus award-winning Novelette “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W”, by Speculative Fiction’s enfant terrible, Harlan Ellison (1935-2018)

  14. tbp1 says

    I can see some merit in discontinuing the practice of naming things after real people (or maybe, like with stamps, we could specify that we can’t name something after someone until a specified period after their death to give time to evaluate their contributions and personal qualities). However, renaming current species seems like it would just be a big mess, even if it’s only a relatively small number of them. “The species formerly known as…”

    It’s sort of like English spelling. It would not be at all difficult to rationalize it, but who is going to transliterate all those millions of books? Everyone would end up having to learn the old spelling system anyway. (Speaking as a musician, some aspects of music notation are also pretty weird and could be improved on, but it ain’t gonna happen.)