Beige, blind and clearly disappointing, Hitler hides in the remote caves of Slovenia. This is not the Führer, but a small carabid beetle called Anophthalmus hitleri, or “eyeless hitler”, by Oskar Scheibel, a German entomologist, in 1937. The translucent insect (pictured) has little to fear in its natural habitat, except Nazi souvenir enthusiasts who collect it illegally. The beetle fetches over £1,000 on the black market. Even in death, the insect is looted – the Bavarian State Zoology Collection had almost all of its A. hitleri stolen copies. “It’s an innocent insect,” says Mirjana Roksandic, an anthropologist at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. “Why not stop this illegal trade by changing your name?”
Scientists for decades have asked Anophthalmus hitleri to be renamed to something less offensive. But zoological nomenclature obeys a priority code for the first taxonomist to describe a species. Either nannaria swiftae (Taylor Swift’s millipede) or Leninia Stellans (Lenin’s six-meter ichthyosaur), once a name is given, it should stick.
As statues of the story’s antagonists fall and their portraits and names are removed from the world’s great buildings, researchers wonder whether or not the names should live on in the world of taxonomy. Academics like Dr. Roksandic are calling to erase names honoring colonial figures and, in some cases, to restore indigenous names.
The species has a precise two-part scientific name (usually in Latin, but can be any language) that is understandable across the world. Homo sapiens or kennel lupus, where “sapiens” and “lupus” are the epithets of the species and “Homo” and “Canis” the genus, are recorded throughout history in a fixed and easy-to-follow manner. These rules were formalized by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, in 1753. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (iczn) applies the rules today. Thomas Pap, iczn‘s, says his organization serves the “stability and universality” of the nomenclature, which involves “compelling scientific nomenclature rules, but not ethical arguments”. At the hitleri Beetle, Dr. Pape says, “It wasn’t offensive when it was proposed, and it might not be offensive 100 years from now.”
This rigid stance also applies to human naming. In 2021, Dr. Roksandic suggested renaming an ancient human species found in Zambia, Homo rhodesiensisfor Homo bodoensis. writing in Evolutionary Anthropology, The Doctor. Roksandic urged taxonomists to abandon the “rhodesiensis” that was associated with the colonial state of Rhodesia and its human rights abuses.
“One option would be to informally change its vernacular name,” says Patrice Bouchard, vice president of the iczn. There is precedent for this – the Entomological Society of America decided in recent years that it would no longer use the common name for Lymantria Dispar“gypsy moth”, because it was considered derogatory to the gypsy people.
There is another wrinkle in the problem – the icznThe code, which was last updated in 1999, requires new species names to be published in the scientific literature, but not necessarily in peer-reviewed journals. While this increases access to the field for amateur taxonomists who can find and name new species, it also has a dark side — a type of scientific misbehavior known as “taxonomic vandalism.” By scouring preprints and other publications, vandals take evidence collected by others and publish their own names for hitherto untitled species.
Sergei Mosyakin, director of the Institute of Botany at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, suggests that taxonomic histories “cannot be undone” and “should not be erased”. Many problems could be avoided, he thinks, if researchers stopped naming species after people “quite unrelated to natural science.” This is perhaps going too far, as the excitement of having a new species named after famous people is likely to generate some interest in what might otherwise be ignored by the public. But perhaps taxonomists could think again of political names, out of reach or just plain offensive. ■
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