Racism in conservation: What’s in a name?

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Members of a sea turtle community, of which I am a part, have been having some fierce and interesting discussions relating to the scientific name of the black sea turtle (Chelonia mydas agassiz). The problem is that this sub-species was named after Louis Agassiz, a scientist that did a lot of work on sea turtles, but who also wrote extensively about how white people were great and other races less so. A quick Google revealed that this issue may be widespread across many taxa. For example, I came across this article about birds named after people with racist views.

Like statues, these names continue to celebrate characters that had strongly discriminatory views that do not reflect the understanding and values of a modern, democratic society. 

Below is a summary of arguments that I have come across for/against re-naming such species:

For:

  • These folk were evil/divisive/bonkers so why not name these species after something good/unifying.
  • Continuing to honour these evil/divisive people in this way helps perpetuate a society that still supports such view – at best excusing such views, at worse supporting, legitimising, and normalising such views.
  • Name changes happen all the time – country/city/street/people names in response to changing values.

Against:

  • The views held by these people were bad, but (some of them) also held and acted upon values that would be viewed as honourable/good by today’s standards.
  • They should be judged by the values of the time they lived in rather than in retrospect using the values of today.
  • Changing the names would delete/cancel/hide history that we should learn from.
  • Changing the names would take a lot of time and effort that could be spent on something else e.g. saving those species.

There are probably many more arguments/counter argument for and against and it is difficult to discuss without specific cases. But perhaps the questions could be broken down into:

Question 1: In principle: Should we re-name such species?

If so:

Question 2: What criteria should we use to judge each character involved?

Question 3: How should we re-name these species?

I would love to hear what other members think and if they feel affected by this issue.

Adam Barlow

Executive Director, WildTeam UK

I help run a UK charity that builds the capacity of conservationists to plan, implement, monitor, and report on their work. I also have a fair bit of experience in tiger and sea turtle conservation.
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Go to the profile of NATALIE RHOADES
29 days ago

I was quite excited about this post, Adam! I personally follow Birds Names For Birds (BN4B) on my own time and I really appreciate their initiative.

I like their emphasis on targeting common names as opposed to binomial names - changing the latter would be virtually impossible but the former is doable and has precedent. 

When it comes to picking and choosing which names to adjust, I also like BN4B's take on removing names of individuals in general. Everyone is going to have their own interpretation of what the limit is for unsavory history and behavior - that limit also adjusts with time. Avoiding names eliminates this subjectivity (easier said than done).

To note, eponymous species are oftentimes named after white colonial men who "discover" these organisms, but native communities already have the historical knowledge and names for these organisms. 

I personally think species should be named with useful information in mind - color, plumage characteristics, behavior, physiology, habitat niche, geographical range, etc. It's useful to hear the name of a species and already have an image or understanding of it forming in your mind. When I hear the name "Townsend's Warbler" it doesn't conjure a useful image besides a small songbird - it could very well be named "Mustard-browed Warbler" ... yellow- and golden-browed warblers are already described!

Go to the profile of Adam Barlow
28 days ago

Thanks Natalie for responding on this. Like the idea of focusing on the species to create the name rather than the person documenting the species. Why do you think changing the scientific names would not be possible?

Go to the profile of NATALIE RHOADES
28 days ago

Changing binomial names is possible, but there are some big obstacles to overcome ... namely the regulatory body. Thomas Pape, the president of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, believes that having stability regarding the scientific naming of animals takes precedence. He argues for a very high threshold to change binomial names and notes that changing binomial names would make it difficult for researchers to find relevant scientific literature. 

This is a great article! https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/change-species-names-to-honor-indigenous-peoples-not-colonizers-researchers-say/