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?