A few years ago, Tim Hammer realized suddenly that his research was haunted by a very unpleasant ghost. Hammer is a botanist. He was just beginning a postdoctoral position at the University of Adelaide, working on the taxonomy of Hibbertia, a genus of plants commonly known as guinea flowers. Hammer found that the genus was even more diverse than scientists had previously understood, and soon he was working on descriptions of dozens of new species.
Hammer began to wonder about the genus’s namesake, an Englishman named George Hibbert. Botanical texts described him as a “patron of botany.” But he was more than that, Hammer learned. Hibbert, who died in 1837, was a slave owner and, as a member of the British Parliament, a leading opponent of abolition. Hammer thought it was unseemly that an enslaver’s name would still be displayed where so many people — or botanists, at least — would encounter it. He thought the plants deserved better. “We have a great genus,” he says, “that just happens to be named after a really despicable person.” He wanted to perform a kind of exorcism, to rid the plant of Hibbert’s name.
Over the past several years, amid a wider social-justice reckoning, scientists have taken a closer look at the scientific names of the creatures they study. Many of these names honor people who, like George Hibbert, committed acts or held views that, in the modern light, look less than honorable. Many other names are derived from racial slurs or phrases that are considered offensive. Nearly all of the names reflect modern taxonomy’s origins in Western Europe, in a society that was male-dominated and near the height of its colonial powers.
The taxonomic system meant anyone, anywhere, could use a scientific name and be reasonably sure they were referring to the same creature.
Various groups of researchers have proposed ways to remedy this situation. Some are modest tweaks to the codes governing how scientists apply names to creatures. Others are sweeping; one recent proposal would require scientists to rename, by one estimate, more than 200,000 species named after people. And as with efforts to tear down statues, replace ill-considered sports team names, and otherwise root out societal racism and sexism, these proposals have met with fierce resistance. Some scientists protest on philosophical grounds, arguing that it is better to leave the mistakes of the past in place so that modern and future people might learn from them. Others point to the proposals’ practical implications, noting that in an era of rapid climate change, habitat destruction, and globalization, taxonomy — the science of categorizing, discovering, and describing the world’s living things — has increasingly become a race against time. Diverting resources towards wholesale renaming of already-named species would be “just a catastrophe,” says Sergei Mosyakin, a botanist and director of the M. G. Kholodny Institute of Botany in Kyiv, Ukraine. “It would be a problem for everything.”
Nomenclature, the system that taxonomists use to name organisms, originated in the mid-1700s, when the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus offered a new way to categorize living things, on a descending scale of relation, from kingdom at the top, followed by phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. The latter two categories would form the species’ name. The name could be descriptive of the species in question, but it didn’t have to be. It was, rather, an “artificial memory,” wrote the naturalist Hugh Strickland in 1835, “by means of which … the idea of an object is suggested, without the inconvenience of a lengthened description.”
The Linnaean system was simpler and more elegant than anything that had come before. It quickly caught on, and European naturalists scattered across the globe, applying two-part names to the lifeforms they encountered.
But there soon arose a new problem: Over and over, naturalists named creatures that other naturalists had already named. Sometimes they did this out of ignorance, but sometimes they simply disliked the existing name. In 1834, for example, in Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History, a naturalist identified only as S.D.W. proposed renaming the common bullfinch — which Linnaeus had named Loxia pyrrhula in 1758 — Densiróstra atricapílla. Its new common name, S.D.W. wrote, would be “coalhead.”
However benign that change might have seemed, Strickland argued in a subsequent issue of the magazine that it would undermine the entire system of taxonomic nomenclature, which was meant to ensure that anyone, anywhere in the world, could use the same scientific name for a creature and be reasonably sure that they were referring to the same creature. Willy-nilly name changes threatened to undermine this goal of mutual intelligibility.
Strickland lobbied his contemporaries to adopt a set of rules governing how taxonomists named organisms, and when and under what conditions other taxonomists might alter those names. These rules eventually evolved into what are now three international codes of nomenclature: one for animals, one for microorganisms, and one for plants, algae, and fungi. The codes are lengthy and legalistic, dealing with such matters as the proper Latinization of words, but at their centers lie a smaller set of principles, key among them the so-called principle of priority: With few exceptions, the first scientific name applied to a species is the one that sticks.
There are creatures named for Hitler, Mao, Lenin, and Cortez, as well as for more ordinary murderers, rapists, and at least one pedophile.
The principle of priority helped restore order, but it also preserves many unfortunate names. Some are merely inconvenient — for example, the predatory soil bacteria Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis, named for the Welsh village of llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Other names are more straightforwardly offensive. For instance, numerous creatures, especially in Africa, have as part of their scientific name the word caffra, cafferiana, caffrorum, and other similar derivations of an Arabic word for “infidel” that is now considered a highly offensive racial slur and regarded as hate speech in South Africa. In a 2021 paper, botanists Gideon Smith and Estrela Figueiredo proposed amending the botanical code to replace those names with something more palatable.
Many other creatures have names that belonged to someone now deemed offensive. These include Hitler’s beetle, Mao’s symmetrodont (a mammal from the Cretaceous Period), Lenin’s ichyosaur (an enormous aquatic reptile, also from the Cretaceous), Cortez’s slime mold beetle (named for the Spanish conquistador), and Cecil Rhodes’s kinetoplastid (the parasite responsible for African sleeping sickness, named for the colonialist and subject of the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa and elsewhere), as well as a host of species named for more ordinary murderers, rapists, and at least one pedophile.
After Hammer, at the University of Adelaide, learned more about George Hibbert, he asked his postdoctoral advisor, Kevin Thiele, if there was any provision in the botanical code to change the name of a genus on ethical grounds. There wasn’t. In an article published in 2021, Hammer and Thiele proposed a series of code changes that would create a process to replace culturally offensive names, as well as a commission to oversee this process. “It’s detrimental to our whole science to keep on perpetuating what’s really a history of imperialism, exploitation, slavery, all of that stuff,” Hammer says. “It’s not what we want to be about.”
The principle of priority also preserves what was, at best, an indifference toward the knowledge of Indigenous peoples. As 18th- and 19th-century naturalists daubed the world’s creatures in Linnaean Greek and Latin, they largely ignored the names, in hundreds or thousands of different languages, those creatures already had. In a 2019 study, for example, a group of researchers led by the New Zealand ecologist Andrew Veale found that of the roughly 80,000 species native to Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand), fewer than 1,300 have scientific names derived from the Maori or Moriori languages.
Rather than trying to honor only unimpeachably honorable people, one scientist argued, it would be better to just end the practice.
“To me, it’s really a colonial approach to just impose a new name, and ignore the knowledge and the names that have gone before,” says retired Auckland University of Technology conservation biogeographer Len Gillman. In a 2020 paper, Gillman and his colleague Shane Wright proposed an exception to the principle of priority’s start date, which in the case of the zoological code is January 1, 1758, the publication date of the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae. With some exceptions, taxonomists can ignore names published before that date. But Wright and Gillman suggested changes to the zoological code that would allow Indigenous people to submit earlier names for species, which would then replace post-1758 scientific names. In this manner, Gillman and Wright suggested, the New Zealand tree species Prumnopitys taxifolia might become Prumnopitys matai, from the Maori name for the species. “It’s just about shifting the definition of ‘priority,’” Gillman says, “and saying, ‘Well, okay, we accept that Indigenous names could have priority.’”
Many taxonomists were unimpressed by these proposals. Some pointed out that, in many cases, deciding which Indigenous name could claim the greatest antiquity would be difficult or impossible. Others worried that, while the odiousness of Hitler, Rhodes, Hibbert, and other historical figures might seem clear-cut, few people have lived truly blameless lives, and deciding whose actions were sufficiently offensive would be a Herculean task. Still others suggested that there were simply no provisions in the nomenclatural codes by which to make the proposed changes.
Then, in March 2023, came the most sweeping proposal yet: to quit naming creatures for people. “I think it’s just a natural shift in society, and how society views history,” said Patrícia Guedes, a conservation biologist at the Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources at the University do Porto and the lead author of the paper, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. She had been working in Angola, she said, and grew uncomfortable referring to species named for white, European men — the case for many, if not most, of the roughly 1,500 African land vertebrates named for people. Given the steady evolution of social norms and the generally fallen nature of humanity, Guedes said that, rather than try to honor only unimpeachably honorable people, it would be better to just end the practice.
She and her coauthors proposed, further, that existing eponyms — that is, species named for people — be renamed. Another group of taxonomists estimated this would mean revising something like 20 percent of all scientific names. Guedes says she knew the proposal would be controversial, but she was unprepared for the furor that followed. On ResearchGate, the scientific social network site, the paper drew more than 450 comments. Nature Ecology & Evolution and other scientific journals later published a host of articles supporting or rebutting the proposal.
Some of the most strident defenses of preserving existing names came from Sergei Mosyakin, the Ukrainian botanist. In several rebuttal articles, he focused on the practical implications of the proposed changes, but when I spoke with him, Mosyakin framed the debate in grander terms. The erasure of names, even by well-intentioned academics, was a dangerous tilt toward illiberalism. “This is the restriction of freedom,” he said.
Any widespread renaming of organisms would place further burdens on already strained and underfunded taxonomists.
Some skeptics questioned whether the proposed nomenclatural changes would even achieve their stated goals of making biological taxonomy more accessible, equitable, and inoffensive. Rohan Pethiyagoda, a Sri Lankan taxonomist specializing in amphibians and freshwater fish, said the various proposals — most of them offered by white, English-speaking people of European heritage — were merely a way to signal their virtue. In practice, he said, any widespread renaming of organisms would place further burdens on already strained and underfunded taxonomists working in poor yet biodiverse nations of the global tropics, which scientists believe to hold millions of undescribed species, many of them threatened by rapid climate change and habitat destruction. “We now have to take our attention away from describing species, conserving species and landscapes and ecosystems, and start looking at the origins of words,” Pethiyagoda says. “This is really ludicrous.”
While few taxonomists seem to think that the most sweeping proposals will be enacted, some changes might be coming. In November, in a kind of preview of what revisions to scientific names might look like, the American Ornithological Society announced that, “in an effort to address past wrongs and engage far more people in the enjoyment, protection, and study of birds,” it will change the common names of American and Canadian birds named for people.
The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, meanwhile, is currently working on the fifth edition of the zoological code, and Thomas Pape, a blowfly specialist and the commission’s president, said the organization does not plan on making any changes in response to various recent proposals. He pointed to the code’s existing, non-binding Code of Ethics, which says, “No author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offense on any grounds.”
Finally, this July, the International Botanical Congress will meet in Madrid to consider various changes to the botanical code, including Hammer and Theile’s proposal to make removing offensive names easier and several proposals by Mosyakin, including the addition of a disclaimer warning users of the code that the names of creatures “reflect the rich but also complicated and sometimes controversial history of scientific explorations and biological nomenclature.”
The use of those names, the proposed amendment continues, “should not be viewed as manifestation, support, or endorsement of any cultural, religious, political, social, racial, or other views, concepts prejudices, and/or ideologies that may be deemed objectionable, offensive, or inappropriate to some people or groups of people.”
Correction, January 5, 2024: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Thomas Pape, president of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, as saying the organization was likely to recommend changes in its zoological code relating to offensive scientific names.