George Washington’s palm tree. Thomas Jefferson’s sloth. Edward Harris’s hawk. Quite a few species come with a person’s name attached to them. Sometimes these names — formally known as eponyms — memorialize the original collector. Sometimes it’s a scientist’s family member, a benefactor or government leader, a colleague, or even a celebrity. According to one official estimate, eponyms make up around 20 percent of all animal names in use.
Many species got their eponyms during the early days of scientific collecting, which was partially fueled by the broader colonization programs of European powers throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Over the past few years, however, that history has come under increased scrutiny. In 2020, for instance, amid the protests over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the push to remove Confederate monuments, some ornithologists began questioning whether birds named for Confederates and slaveholders should be retitled.
Now, an international group of researchers argues that it’s time to move away from eponyms entirely. “In short, we believe that naming species in honour of real people is unnecessary and objectively difficult to justify,” the authors wrote in a recent paper in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. “The Earth’s biodiversity is part of a global heritage that should not be trivialized by association with any single human individual, whatever their perceived worth.”
The authors of the paper are wading into an ongoing and contentious debate — and the scientific institutions responsible for approving new species names aren’t budging.
The goal of naming species — or nomenclature — is to make sure scientific names are uniform across different fields and research labs, said Luis Ceríaco, a commissioner with the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, which controls the naming of animal species. “It’s a space to promote stability and promote universality on the use of names,” Ceríaco added. “What we want is to have a set of rules that allow people to really know what they are talking about when referring to species.”
For this reason, the ICZN and its partner organization, The International Association of Plant Taxonomy, follow established codes that prioritize older names, and only alter them for reasons of science and stability.
Proposals to rename species due to social or political concerns have attracted both criticism and support. In February 2023, a group of ICZN commissioners — including Ceríaco — put out a paper against renaming species on ethical grounds. Deciding which eponyms should be replaced due to “perceived offensiveness” isn’t in the code’s remit, they wrote. “Owing to the inherently subjective nature of making such assessments, it would be inappropriate for the Commission to assert judgments on such matters of morality, because there are no specific parameters to determine thresholds for offensiveness of a scientific name to a given community or individual, either in the present day or in the future.”
Other scientists, however, have been happy to step into the gap.
The push to reassess problematic species names isn’t new. Consider the case of Anophthalmus hitleri, a cave beetle named after Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, the eponym of which — in addition to honoring a historical genocidaire — has made the insect a target for some collectors. Yet despite calls to drop the eponym, the species has not been renamed by the ICZN. “The logic to date in preserving ‘hitleri’ is that the name per se is not offensive,” entomologist May Berenbaum noted in a 2010 issue of American Entomologist. “Frankly, though, a scientific name that sentences a species to extinction at the hands of fanatical Fascist memorabilia collectors causes considerable offense, at least to me.”
More recently, in 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall movement — a reference to Cecil Rhodes, the former prime minister of British colonial South Africa — launched discussions in the botanical sciences about replacing “culturally offensive and inappropriate names,” which grew alongside similar debates in ornithology around the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
For some people, the stakes of such decisions can feel high. “Naming and language have power. The way that you use language tells people whether they belong or not,” Earyn McGee, a conservation biologist and organizer of Black Birders Week, told Undark in 2020. The refusal to change species names, she said, “tells Black people and other people of color that they don’t matter, that they’re not important.”
Such movements have, in turn, led some taxonomists to argue that renaming species injects political considerations into taxonomy, opening up thorny questions. After all, where should scientists draw lines between good actors and bad ones? (Should species named after Queen Victoria be replaced? What about plant names commemorating American slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?)
“The Earth’s biodiversity is part of a global heritage that should not be trivialized by association with any single human individual, whatever their perceived worth.”
“We have a code of ethics,” Ceríaco said, “and the ethics part says that no one should erect a new name knowingly that’s going to cause offense.” However, he added, the ICZN emphasizes the freedom of authors to name species as they see fit, so they also don’t revise names that break their ethics code. “It’s always on the responsibility of the author. We strongly suggest for people to be sure that what they’re going to erect is not going to cause offense to anyone.”
The alternative, Ceríaco said, would be for the ICZN to have to adjudicate which names are acceptable, opening “a pandora’s box.” Allowing such revisions at all would affect the work of global researchers, conservationists, and others who depend on a stable taxonomic framework. “We’re not being dismissive toward the arguments that the names are offensive,” he said. But, he added, the consequences of changing the names would be trickier than keeping them.
Not all researchers were convinced by the ICZN’s argument. Some of them, like Patrícia Guedes — a biologist with the CIBIO Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources — banded together to in March 2023, pointing out that eponyms were effectively more trouble than they were worth. Part of the issue with eponyms, they noted, was that the practice is inextricably bound up with science’s colonial history: Many past researchers came from colonizing European nations, and as a result many species ended up named after White, male, upper-class Europeans. In Africa alone, the researchers found, 1,565 species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals — a quarter of the continent’s native vertebrates — are eponyms, the majority of which honored “colonizers or people of colonial descent.”
Where should scientists draw lines between good actors and bad ones?
“A name that is considered innocuous by some may be perceived as offensive by others, and names that were once considered inoffensive are not necessarily viewed in the same way in a post-colonial world,” the authors wrote. Overturning all prior eponyms would be ethically sound but practically unfeasible, they conceded. Still, the authors argued that the ICZN could put taxonomists of the species’ native region in charge of renaming proposals.
Guedes told Undark that it would be neater — and easier — to tighten the ICZN code’s rules to restrict eponyms going forward. As long as organisms are named after people, she said, such arguments about which names are appropriate will continue: “I’m sure there are other ways of honoring people who’ve contributed to science that’s not attaching their name to another living being.”
Guedes and her colleagues face an uphill battle: Many taxonomists like eponyms. “I think it’s positive in many, many cases,” Ceríaco said. He himself has described around 40 species, some of them eponyms, including a species of viper named after James Hetfield from Metallica. (This is a bit of tradition in taxonomy: Consider Taylor Swift’s millipede, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s snake.) Such names are a chance to get communities that generally don’t pay attention to such discoveries involved, he said. Eponyms also give researchers the chance to name species after scientists from the countries in which they were found, he added, such as an Angolan gecko that honors local scientist Francisco M. P. Gonçalves.
“There are certainly unfortunate eponyms out there,” Stephen Heard, an ecologist and author of “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider,” a book about eponyms, wrote to Undark in a Twitter message. “There are also wonderful ones that bring attention to underrecognized figures in science, including Indigenous people, women, and more.”
It’s an honor for a researcher to have a species named after them, said Brian Sidlauskas, an ichthyologist at Oregon State University. (He would know: There’s an Amazonian fish with his name on it.) But while he’s not interested in barring their use, he does think the ICZN could create a process for ditching problematic names — perhaps through a panel of experts tasked with weighing in on proposed name changes. “There really are some names in history that genuinely are really offensive, so having some mechanism for changing those is a good idea,” he said — a position other researchers have staked out as well.
In addition, the ICZN’s stance against making changes for ethical reasons is a “classic slippery slope argument,” Sidlauskas said. “It’s clear that they don’t want to the responsibility for doing so. But if not them, then who has the responsibility and ability?”
Others argue that naming practices should change on a community level, regardless of what the ICZN does. “Going forward I think that White Europeans should not be naming species from countries that are not their own after other White Europeans,” said Laura Jennings, a botanist at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. While she doesn’t feel it’s for her to tell colleagues how to name species in their own country, she’d decline her own eponym. “My preference is to name species after a characteristic of the plant, a place name, or a name in a local language,” she added. “Something that links the plant to its native habitat.”
The broader community discussion isn’t going anywhere. The ICZN is currently working on the 5th edition of its formal code, Ceríaco said, which will be delivered for comment and debate by the community before it’s ratified in the next year or two. That’s part of the reason he and his colleagues made their position clear earlier this year, he said — to foster debate.
It’s a goal that Guedes’ team shares. “I don’t think the real change is going to happen anytime soon. But what we wanted to do was create a space for discussion,” she said.
“And I think we’re achieving that,” she added.
Asher Elbein is a writer based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, the Texas Observer, and The Bitter Southerner.