Changing Offensive Names In Taxonomy Will Be A Hard Ask

Insect on Leaf - how might those names translate into the Linnean system of taxonomy?

The surge of energy for BlackLivesMatter this summer is driving change in areas far beyond those directly connected with police violence and responsive protests. This surge has given huge momentum to efforts seeking removal of statues, denaming facilities, and removal of other commemorations using names of people who championed racist, supremacist, and other offensive views. We are on the verge of a systematic reassessment of heritage, and science is far from immune.

A July 2020 article in Science Magazine focused attention on the need to clean up problems with honorary names used in the routine identification of biological organisms, a process central to taxonomy and systematics. Simply put the question is, “how can we change a name in taxonomy created to honour a racist?” The answer is far from simple.

What are scientific names?

Classification of organisms has a long history. The current internationally agreed system has evolved from one proposed by the Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, in the eighteenth century. Scientists refer to it as the “Linnean system”. When people refer to an organism’s “scientific name” they usually mean the name created within the Linnean system. 

Examples of species names within the Linnean system:

  • Balaenoptera musculus (in English, this animal commonly is called the “blue whale”)
  • Taraxacum officinale (in English, this plant commonly is called the “common dandelion”)
  • Clostridioides difficile (in English, this bacteria commonly is called “C diff”)

The process of devising and choosing names is “nomenclature”. The Linnean system for nomenclature is built upon a series of rules. For example, one rule in the Linnean system requires all names to be in Latin. (Examples) In the eighteenth century, Europeans considered Latin as a universal academic language. Using Latin helped them avoid giving privilege to any one national language. Using Latin also encouraged naturalists to think of their named collections as part of one joined-up and universal catalogue of nature. By convention, Latin remains the agreed standard language for scientific names in the Linnean system despite the fact the use of Latin biases all scientific names towards only European language systems.

Who creates scientific names?

In theory, anyone can propose a name in the Linnean system for a type of organism they think has not been formally identified by anyone else. To be valid within the Linnean rules, a new name must appear in an openly distributed publication, and it must be accompanied by a detailed description of the specimens the author claims are typical for the group. For example, if I found some fossil material I interpreted as very similar to Tyrannosaurus rex but showing key differences no one else has spotted, I could propose a new species based on that material. To do this, I need to write a report containing a full description of the material found, and I need to describe the differences I think are important. Then, I need to have my report published in a way that meets formal standards for publication.

If I’m successful in publishing a report on new material, then the Linnean system rewards me. Those publishing a first formal description like this earn the privilege to propose a name for the new group. In my example, I would have the right to propose a name for the new species I think I’ve discovered.

When proposing new names, researchers have wide freedom of choice and only a few constraints. On constraints, the name must be in Latin. There also are some rules about the specific grammar I need to use. Beyond these, the choices are relatively unrestricted. Different subject areas have different norms about naming. Different research communities have different norms, too. Some choices are frowned upon, such as naming new groups after yourself. Common choices for new names involve some kind of recognition for a person (e.g., a sponsor, a mentor, a tribute, or a local person who was involved in the work), a place (e.g., the location for collection, or the region where the organism flourishes), or an anatomical highlight about the organism itself. Given these customs, for example, I might name my new (hypothetical) species something like Tyrannosaurus lewisii (in honour of the civil rights advocate, John Lewis), or Tyrannosaurus canadensis (in honour of the location where it was found), or Tyrannosaurus semirex (to note it seems to be half the size of the better known species).

There are many exceptions to common practices. Some taxonomists delight in bending the rules or using the opportunity to score points in some local argument or using the opportunity to display some personal idiosyncrasy. Nearly every taxonomic group in biology includes Linnean names that seem trivial, sophomoric, mean-spirited, petty, retaliatory, and discriminatory. Some names certainly celebrate people who lived their lives as racists, misogynists, and practitioners of other reprehensible behaviour. On the other hand, many names used in taxonomic celebrate people who lived their lives with honour, distinction, grace, and dignity. When a new name is proposed, the author is expected to give a reason for their choice.

A preference for stability leads to rules that prohibit some change

The rules supporting the Linnean system prioritise stability and uniformity. One rule key for stability relates to the fixity of names. In essence, there’s no going back. Once a name is properly published, it’s fixed. The underlying reason is the priority awarded to the first author and the first proper name published.

Priority is determined by the publication date of the first formal description. This criterion was chosen as it was thought to be an impartial, external measure useful for arbitration. It is agnostic to the particulars of names proposed, the people making the proposal, and it does not rely on the reasons given for underlying decisions. Priority was developed to reward those contributing formal documentation to the professional literature at a time when researchers sought to build large catalogues based largely on publications and to move away from common or local names.

Priority is one of the most powerful rules in nomenclature, and it is responsible for the permanence of most names. Permanence is the sought-after virtue because this increases stability. That said, the Linnean system recognises two good reasons to change names. First, new evidence might come to light that shows the need to revise a classification. In my example, new material might show that I mistook the fossil material I found for an adult when it is better understood to be a juvenile from that better known species. In this case, my claim of discovering a new species might be a mistake, and my new species name would be invalid. Even if I liked the name I proposed more than the existing one, that new name loses out on the principle of priority. Tyrannosaurus rex was the name used first. It has priority, and I cannot replace it.

A second reason to change a name involves the inner details of nomenclatural rules and processing. I cannot use a name already in use elsewhere in the catalogue of nature. I have to use proper Latin grammar and proper nomenclatural grammar when selecting a name. Alternatively, my research might lead me to believe the material I previously thought was a Tyrannosaurus species really was a new species of something else. In that case, I would need to propose a new name for my material to link it with the new group.

Formally speaking, these justifications for legitimate changes to names creates a distinction between (1) corrections and revisions (changes proposed for accepted reasons) versus (2) arbitrary changes (those proposed for other reasons). If a researcher proposes a name change based on reasons such as dislike for a name, finding a name unhelpful, or finding a name offensive, these are considered arbitrary and will be rejected as a violation of the rules.

Who makes these rules? Who’s in charge?

In one sense, no one is in charge. The Linnean system is decentralised. It operates a bit like Wikipedia, with contributions welcome from everyone who can add new material and everyone who wants to contribute on what already exists. Provided the rules are respected, the content in the Linnean system is open source. As a result, no official stamp of approval exists for a name in the Linnean system. There is no universal list of officially approved and rejected names. Success is judged through use. The more specialists use a name in their work, the higher the approval rating for any particular name. Such is the fluidity of names in some areas that specialists will know many synonyms for particular specimens. The history of changes reflects the history of interpretation and evidence.

Though Wikipedia is decentralised, it is governed by a set of rules and standards. These are enforced by editors. They also are appealed to in cases of disagreements. In addition to formal rules, sections of Wikipedia also have local customs and conventions. This parallels how nomenclature works. The Linnean system is governed by rules. Who makes the rules?

Each major domain in biology has an elected international commission or committee that governs nomenclature. These groups include International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature, Nomenclature Section of International Botanical Congresses, International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes, International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, and International Commission for the Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants (which is part of the International Union of Biological Sciences).

These commissions or committees manage the rulebooks governing nomenclature. These rulebooks include International Code of Zoological NomenclatureInternational Code of Algae, Fungi, and Plants, and International Code of Nomenclature for Prokaryotes. Others exist for viruses and cultivated plants.

Appeals to the international committees about specific names take the form of quasi-legal arguments and appeals to balance the conflicting demands of values such as stability and priority.

If I think names are racist or misogynist or ableist, can they be removed?

Simply put, little chance within existing rules. Claiming a name to be offensive is not accepted as a legitimate complaint within any of the rulebooks. This is labelled an “arbitrary” reason in these rulebooks. For instance, the International Code of Nomenclature for Prokaryotes is plain: a name cannot be discarded on the grounds it is “disagreeable” (citing ICNP rule 55:2). The code for cultivated plants is equally plain: regard for a person’s reputation is “of less significance” than stability, clarity, and standardisation of the names themselves (ICNCP 8, page 1).

International committees show little appetite to be drawn into debates on what is and isn’t potentially offensive, or to decide what magnitude of offence is enough to merit change. In botany, grounds for objections are kept exceedingly narrow:

“9. The only proper reasons for changing a name are either a more profound knowledge of the facts resulting from adequate taxonomic study or the necessity of giving up a nomenclature that is contrary to the rules.” (ICBN; repeated by ICNCP 8, page 2)

Researchers in every subject area tend to be well aware of offensive and insulting names. They can cite many examples. They also can cite examples in which favouritism motivated by politics or ideology across some border has led to provocative attempts to assert or change names in the catalogue of nature. The result, researchers will complain, is confusion, duplication, and a loss of standardisation. They’ll cite rules such as priority and uniformity to reinforce their desire for consensus in subjects of direct mutual interest (e.g., stable names). They might also concede this means they will agree to disregard differences on important subjects (e.g., calling out racists and those with other abhorrent views) in order to achieve a more-desired goal (e.g., stability in names). It is a compromise, and it’s a prioritisation. Alternatively, researchers might accept confusion for the moment and choose to look to a distant future when external matters are resolved and partisanship diminishes. 

It’s not that change creates too much dismantling. I think taxonomists use the distinction between “justified” and “arbitrary” for changes because most recognise they work in a global community, and contributors to their subject will come from many sides of many political arguments. Most can cite examples of political and community differences that have threatened to pull nomenclature in competing directions. Most also can cite examples of honorary names used in which one person’s hero is another person’s villain, complaining there are no grounds for resolving underlying disagreements. In part, researchers simply don’t want to be drawn into these disputes, one after another after another across their global community. To avoid them, they use rules and categories to exclude these subjects. This structural exclusion is preferred because it allows a basic degree of consensus, though most researchers can identify compromises that to them are bitter choices and disliked. This is more the philosophy of pragmatism than the philosophy of human rights (“respect for the individual”).

Specialists tend to lean heavily on informal customs to drive good behaviour. Some international committees have codes of ethics to express their distaste for certain behaviours, such as names that cause offence. This recognises that while the formal rules don’t absolutely prohibit certain behaviours, members of the community should be steered in some directions rather than others. Simply put, those codes express a hope that nomenclature develops in a respectful climate as well as a rule-based one.

We’re hitting a brick wall on names. How can we change this system?

The modern system of naming organisms seems to have the door closed and firmly bolted on the matter of changing names that we think are offensive. What is a non-specialist to do?

First, work to stop new names appearing that commemorate objectionable subjects and people. 

Campaigns such as BlackLivesMatter, RhodesMustFall, and de-naming raise the issue of legacy for everyone, and researchers in taxonomy cannot exclude themselves from those conversations. If these campaigns do nothing else, they encourage researchers to think twice and to reflect on decisions while those decisions are in the planning stages.

Campaigners might encourage institutions to encourage informal conversations about key concepts in equity, such as symmetry and the value of diverse consultation. Moreover, researchers should be on the alert for cultural processes that bifurcate and quarantine a person’s biography into “good” and “bad” elements. The example of Ronald Fisher in population genetics illustrates these processes. Researchers in that subject develop wilful ignorance about Fisher’s life-long advocacy of eugenics. Packaging this into a “bad” part of his biography seems to allow celebration of Fisher’s technical brilliance with far less conflict about the offence caused to some who want to highlight his association with eugenics. Raising awareness about how bifurcation undercuts inclusion can help people keep clear about choices that might inadvertently produce offensive consequences. 

Second, work for stronger codes of ethics that oversee naming practices and work for more use of those codes when names are published. 

The ethics code in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature includes the prescription:

“4. No author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any grounds.” (ICZN)

Campaigners should remind editors responsible for publications commonly used for zoological naming of their own ethics code. Editors should remind peer reviewers about this ethical expectation. Articles should be rejected if an editorial board believes proposals for new names violate the codes of ethics their own professional bodies have created. Publication is the moment when new names enter into permanence within the Linnean system. Editors have a responsibility to stop the certification of rotten names. 

What about past names? The current zoology rulebook is in its fourth edition (2000). This ethics principle about avoiding offence (number 4) first appeared in the first edition (ICZN 1961). This means any zoological name created since 1961 might be criticised for being created against the ethical rules in place at the time. That first edition of the ICZN rulebook also asked editors to police its ethical code:

“7. Editors and others responsible for the publication of zoological papers should avoid publishing any paper that seems to them to contain a breach of the above principles.” (ICZN 1961, principle 7, page 94/5)

Third, remind institutions of their role in maintaining standards.

In zoology, the ICZN abdicates its responsibility for judging possible ethics violations (principle 8, page 94-5). However, other institutional options might be available. Authors normally list their institutional affiliations when publishing new taxonomic names. Most research institutions publish their own codes of ethics, and they’ve agreed to provide oversight for funding bodies and other supporters. Anyone wishing to complain about a researcher’s behaviour around nomenclature is free to complain to an employer’s ethics committee asking for an investigation.

For illustration, I am employed by UCL. If I succeeded in publishing a zoological name that unambiguously provoked wide offense, my employer might benefit from being made aware that my profession expects me to work to a standard I might not have met. While this likely would not lead to a change in one particular taxonomic name, a complaint of this nature might force me to be accountable to someone, in some setting. It also gives the institution the option to decide if its own ethical standards have been met. A complaint of this kind will not change past naming proposals, but it might alter future decisions, lead to a retraction, or curb similar behaviour in others.

Researchers are accountable to their employers for the work they produce under paid employment. Institutions have some responsibilities associated with the work their employees undertake. In many cases, those institutions have agreed to police accepted standards on behalf of the funding bodies who support research. Local oversight can be an effective tool in seeking to counter professional conduct that is agreed to be unethical. (For institutional standards of conduct, see for example, NHM and RBG Kew.)

Finally, campaigns directed towards international committees can raise awareness.

It’s too simplistic to describe international committees as “democratic”. However, those international committees are representative of specialist groups, and they purposefully include representatives from a broad range of perspectives. Raise concerns with committee members. Direct campaigns toward prominent specialists who contribute to those organisations. Build advocates though direct communication. The ICZN recommends this for zoology. Membership of these committees are listed on their websites. International collaboration has worked hard to move taxonomy past a neo-colonial framework in which Europeans impose naming practices upon others. Mertonian norms are the expressed foundations for these international committees.

Another route is tempting, but I recommend against it.

Rules have power only when they are enforced. A researcher who considers a name offensive could simply propose an alternative, then work as though that change had legitimacy. If no one argues against, the change might become effective de facto. Job done. The reason I don’t suggest this is the respect I have for stability. While this disruptive strategy is used widely in some specialist areas, the result tends to be substantial breakdown in international collaboration and inflamed passions. This can destroy generations of hard work. It might provide local, temporary satisfaction. However, it always will be open to dispute. It will add more synonyms and confusion. It will decrease standardisation. Thus, a short term gain at a long term and higher cost. My own preference is to advocate working for change within the system, using the tools that are already present, before working outside it.

Conclusion

I don’t believe the rules for naming organisms have been created to protect white or European privilege. I don’t think the rules encourage the celebration of racists or those infamous for other reprehensible behaviours. I think the desire for stability and standardisation are paramount, and this leads to rules against change on most grounds. The Linnean system was created to highlight certain virtues. Those rules also open the door for certain vices to flourish. Most taxonomists consider those vices irksome, infuriating, distracting, and condemnable. At the same time, they ultimately consider those vices not yet sufficiently intolerable to motivate the hard diplomatic work associated with agreeing how best to judge disputes they consider subjective. I wonder if more of the offensive naming were directed towards identities most taxonomists identify with, would rule changes be on the horizon sooner?

Beyond the rules, I think taxonomists must take more seriously their social responsibilities associated with equity as well as equality. They must develop strong ethical standards. They must give those standards some power of enforcement. They must expect more from gate keepers, such as journal editors, in the process of reviewing nomenclatural proposals. If the ethical standards are meaningless, then self-governance has failed. The case for dismantling or alternative governance will gain traction.

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