Hibbert’s flowers and Hitler’s beetle: What do we do when species are named after history’s monsters?

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“what’s in a name?” asked Juliet Romeo. What we call a rose by any other name smells sweet.

But, as with Montagues and Capulets, the names mean a lot, and can cause a great deal of grief.

My colleagues and I are taxonomists, which means that we call organisms. While we’ve never named a rose, we are discovering and naming new species of Australian plants and animals – and there are plenty of them.

For each new species we discover, we create and publish a Latin scientific name, following a set of international rules and conventions.

The noun consists of two parts: the first part is the genus noun (as Eucalyptus), which describes the group of species to which the new species belongs, and the second part is the name of the species (as Earth, making the name Eucalyptus globulus) for the new species themselves. New species are either added to an existing genus, or sometimes, if they are new enough, they are given their new genus.

Picture of a bright yellow flower growing among the grass and dead leaves
Common guinea flower, Hibbertia procumbens.(Wikimedia Commons: John Tan)

Some scientific names are widely known – it can be said that they are nothing more than our own, sane man. Gardeners or nature lovers will be familiar with genera names such as acaciaAnd Callistemon or Banksia.

All this seems uncontroversial. But as with Shakespeare’s star-crossed fans, history and tradition sometimes pose problems.

what’s in a name?

take the sex hypertiaAustralian guinea flower. This is one of the largest genera of plants in Australia, the species we are studying.

There are many new and yet to be named species of hypertia, which means that new species names are regularly added to this genus.

Many scientific names are derived from a feature of the species or genus for which it is named, such as Eucalyptus, from the Greek for “well-covered” (referring to the protective covering or bud covering of unopened eucalypt flowers).

Others honor important people, both living and dead. hypertia It is named after the wealthy English patron of botany, George Hebert in the 19th century.

Old painting of a man with blue eyes and short gray hair wearing a ruffled collar shirt
George Hebert: A huge fan of flowers and parchment.(Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA: Thomas Lawrence, Stephen C Dickson)

And here things cease to be straightforward, for Hibbert’s fortune came almost entirely from the transatlantic slave trade. He profited from transporting slaves from Africa to the New World, selling some and using others on his extensive family plantations, and then moving the sugar and cotton produced from the slaves to England.

Hibbert was also a prominent member of the British Parliament and a strong opponent of the abolition of the death penalty. He and his ilk argued that slavery was economically essential to England, and that slaves were even better off on plantations than in their homelands.

Even at that time, his views were considered repugnant by many critics. But despite this, he was nicely compensated for his “losses” when Britain finally abolished slavery in 1807.

So, should Hebert be honored in the name of a genus of plants, to which new species are still added to this day – meaning that he is honored anew with each new publication?

We don’t think so. Just like statues, buildings, and street or suburb names, we think the reckoning is due for scientific species names that honor people who have views or acted in ways that are extremely shameful, extremely problematic, or really outrageous by modern standards.

Just as the King Leopold Range in Western Australia was recently renamed to remove the link to the awful Belgian Leopold II, we wish hypertia To bear a more appropriate and less annoying name.

The same goes for the Great Barrier Reef’s coral Catalafilia Gardeni, named after Frank Jardine, a brutal Aboriginal hunter in North Queensland. Perhaps most surprising is the rare Slovenian cave beetle Anophthalmus HitleriNamed in 1933 in honor of Adolf Hitler.

This name is unfortunate for several reasons: Despite being a small, undescribed, blind beetle, it has been reported in recent years to have been pushed to the brink of extinction by fans of Nazi memorabilia. Specimens are even stolen from the museum’s collections to sell in this lucrative market.

Yes, there is a problem

Unfortunately, the official rules do not allow us to rename hypertia Or any other type that has an offensive or inappropriate name.

To solve this problem, we suggest changing the international rules for naming species. Our proposal, if adopted, would establish an international panel of experts to decide what to do about scientific names that honor inappropriate people or are based on culturally offensive words.

Image of a beetle in pale amber color seen from above
This beetle does not deserve to be named after the most hated character of the twentieth century.(Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA: Michael Munich)

An example of the latter are the many Latin-based plant names infidelsIts origin is a word so offensive to black Africans that its use is banned in South Africa.

Some might argue that the scientific naming of the species should be kept aloof from social change, and that Hebert’s views on slavery are irrelevant to the taxonomy of Australian flowers. We are against that, just like bringing down statues in Bristol Harbor or removing Cecil Rhodes’ name from public buildings, renaming things is important and necessary if we are to correct the errors of history.

We believe that science, including taxonomy, must be socially responsible and responsive. Science is an integral part of culture rather than being placed in ivory towers, and scholars should work for the common good rather than blindly follow tradition. Deeply problematic names are pervasive in science just as they do in our streets, cities, and landscapes.

hypertia It may just be a name, but we think a different name for this beautiful genus of Australian flowers would smell sweeter.

Kevin Thiel is an assistant professor at the University of Western Australia. This article was co-authored by Tim Hammer, a postdoctoral researcher at the State Herbarium in South Australia. This piece first appeared in The Conversation.


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