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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