“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked Romeo. “What we call a rose by any other name would smell just as good.”
But, like the Montagues and the Capulets, the names mean a lot and can cause a lot of grief.
My colleagues and I are taxonomists, which means we name living things. Although we’ve never named a rose, we are discovering and naming new Australian species of 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 name has two parts: the first part is the name of the genus (as Eucalyptus), which describes the group of species to which the new species belongs, and the second part is a species name (such as globule, thus making the name Eucalyptus globulus) specific to the new species itself. New species are either added to an existing genus or occasionally, if new enough, are given their own new genus.
Some scientific names are widely known – arguably none more so than ours, Homo sapiens. And gardeners or nature lovers know gender names such as Acacia, Callistemon Where Banksia.
It all seems fairly uncontroversial. But as with Shakespeare’s doomed lovers, history and tradition are sometimes problematic.
What’s in a name?
Take the genre Hibbertia, Australian guinea fowl. It is one of the largest genera of plants in Australia, and the one that we study.
There are many new and as yet unknown species of Hibbertia, which means that new species names are regularly added to this genus.
Many scientific names are derived from a characteristic of the species or genus named, such as Eucalyptus, from the Greek for “well covered” (a reference to the operculum or cap which covers unopened eucalyptus flowers).
Others honor important people, living or deceased. Hibbertia Named after a wealthy 19th century English patron, George Hibbert.
And this is where things stop being simple, as Hibbert’s wealth 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 family’s vast plantations, and then transporting slave-produced sugar and cotton to England.
Hibbert was also a prominent member of the British parliament and a strong opponent of abolition. He and his ilk argued that slavery was economically necessary for England, and even that slaves were better off on the plantations than in their homelands.
Even then, his opinions were seen as odious by many critics. But despite this, he was generously rewarded for his “losses” when Britain finally abolished slavery in 1807.
So, should Hibbert be honored with the name of a genus of plants, to which new species are still added today, which in effect means that he is honored again with each new publication?
We think not. Much like statues, buildings, and street or suburban names, we believe an account is due to the names of scientific species that honor people who hold opinions or have acted in ways that are deeply dishonorable, very problematic, or truly blatant by modern standards.
Just as the King Leopold Range of Western Australia was recently renamed to remove the link to the atrocious Leopold II of Belgium, we would like to Hibbertia wear a more appropriate and less disturbing name.
Ditto for the coral of the Great Barrier Reef Catalaphyllia jardinei, named after Frank Jardine, a brutally dispossessed of the aborigines of North Queensland. And, perhaps most surprisingly, the rare Slovenian cave beetle Hitler’s anophthalmos, which was named in 1933 in honor of Adolf Hitler.
This name is unfortunate for several reasons: Although it is a somewhat indescribable blind little beetle, in recent years it has reportedly been pushed to the brink of extinction by enthusiasts of Nazi memories. Specimens are even stolen from museum collections to be sold in this lucrative market.
Yes, this is where the shoe pinches
Unfortunately, the official rules do not allow us to rename Hibbertia or any other species that bears a disturbing or inappropriate name.
To solve this problem, we are proposing a modification of the international rules for naming species. Our proposal, if adopted, would establish an international committee of experts to decide what to do with scientific names that honor inappropriate people or are based on culturally offensive words.
An example of the latter is the many Latin-based plant names Coffee, whose origin is such an offensive word to black Africans that its use is banned in South Africa.
Some may argue that the scholarly naming of species should stay away from social change, and that Hibbert’s views on slavery are irrelevant to the classification of Australian flowers. We respond that just like overturning statues in Bristol Harbor or removing Cecil Rhodes’s name from public buildings, renaming things is important and necessary if we are to right the wrongs of history.
We believe that science, including taxonomy, must be socially responsible and responsive. Science is embedded in culture rather than housed in ivory towers, and scientists should be working for the common good rather than blindly following tradition. Deeply problematic names permeate science just as they permeate our streets, cities and landscapes.
Hibbertia It might just be just a name, but we think a different name for this lovely kind of Australian flower would smell a lot sweeter.
Kevin Thiele is Assistant Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia. This article was co-authored by Tim Hammer, postdoctoral researcher at the State Herbarium of South Australia. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.