I have always been a fan of Steve Heard’s writing, be it pitcher plant mosquitoes (Heard, 1994ab) or his never boring, frequently amusing blog, Scientist See Squirrel, so I was very pleased to find his latest book in my Christmas stocking 🙂 As expected it is a great book, very reminiscent of Steve’s blog, amusing and informative. This is only a brief review as I don’t want to detract from Steve’s sales by giving away too many spoilers.
The first two chapters are on the need for universally agreed names and the history of naming organisms. These are followed by a series of what you might call biographical chapters, in which the importance of particular individuals to their disciplines are highlighted, and why and whom honoured them by naming species after them. Many of the individuals I had not heard of before, so kudos to Steve for delving deep into the history of non-entomological disciplines. Steve also addresses the vexed question of what we should do about those Latin binomial (the technical term) names that celebrate the less savoury members of society, such as the beetle Anophthalmus hitleri. There is also a chapter on insult naming, the moth Neoplapa donaldtrumpi for example, and
Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, a moth with a golden comb-over and very small genitalia. Photograph Dr Vazrik Nazari cc. by 4.0.
another on naming species after your one true love. Steve also asks us what we think about naming species after celebrities, a good thing or a bad thing? Should taxonomists be above this sort of thing and confine themselves to purely descriptive names? There are, however, as Steve points out, just too many species to do this sensibly, and scientists, despite the way in which we are often portrayed, are human beings with likes, dislikes and favourite artists, authors and super stars 🙂
There are two very important chapters in this book, that in my opinion, raise it from being an enjoyable romp through history via taxonomy to a much more thought-provoking work*. These are respectively, Chapter 15, The Indigenous Blind Spot and Chapter 18, Names for Sale, to a truly thought provoking work. Incidentally, all the chapter names in the book are truly inspired, Gary Larson’s Louse, Harry Potter and the Name of the Species and The Name of Evil to give you a flavour.
The Indigenous Blind Spot deals with the way in which the indigenous peoples who were, and still are, instrumental in the collection of new species from what, we as privileged northerners, see as exotic locations. Yes, the countries are often commemorated in the names, but as Steve points out there are only a handful of species that recognise the indigenous field assistants. Unfortunately, this attitude persists in many areas of ecology and conservation, despite the relatively recent recognition of it as a problem (Baker et al., 2019; Eichhorn et al., 2020; Hart et al., 2020).
Names for Sale discusses the ethics of taxonomists naming species in return for money. On one hand, the idea of commercialising taxonomy might appear to be trivialising the discipline, but when one considers how little money relatively speaking, comes from scientific funders (Ebach et al., 2011; Britz et al., 2020) anything that helps support the discipline is welcome.
If you want to know who has the most species named after them, and it may not be whom you think, then buy the book. I promise you, you won’t regret it.
Baker, K., Eichhorn, M.P. & Griffiths, M. (2019) Decolonizing field ecology. Biotropica, 51, 288-292.
Britz, R., Hundsdörfer, A. & Fritz, U. (2020) Funding, training, permits—the three big challenges of taxonomy. Megataxa, 1, 49-52.
Ebach, M.C., Valdecasa, A.G. & Wheeler, Q.D. (2011) Impediments to taxonomy and users of taxonomy: accessibility and impact evaluation.Cladistics, 27, 550-557.
Eichhorn, M. P., Baker, K. and Griffiths, M. (2020) ‘Steps towards decolonising biogeography’. Frontiers of Biogeography, 12, e44795 (7 pp).
Hart, A.G, Leather, S.R. and Sharma, M.V. (2020) Overseas conservation education and research: the new colonialism? Journal of Biological Education, 55
Heard, S.B. (1994) Imperfect oviposition decisions by the pitcher plant mosquito (Wyeomyia smithii). Evolutionary Ecology, 8, 493-502.
Heard, S.B. (1994) Pitcher-plant midges and mosquitoes: a processing chain commensalism. Ecology, 75, 1647-1660.
*See Steve’s response to those people who didn’t like these chapters.