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Why Some Scientists Want to Stop Naming Organisms After People

Still Waters

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George Washington's palm tree. Thomas Jefferson’s sloth. Edward Harris’s hawk. Quite a few species come with a person’s name attached to them. Sometimes these names—formally known as eponyms—memorialize the original collector. Sometimes it’s a scientist’s family member, a benefactor or government leader, a colleague or even a celebrity. According to one official estimate, eponyms make up around 20 percent of all animal names in use.

Many species got their eponyms during the early days of scientific collecting, which was partially fueled by the broader colonization programs of European powers throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Over the past few years, however, that history has come under increased scrutiny. In 2020, for instance, amid the protests over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the push to remove Confederate monuments, some ornithologists began questioning whether birds named for Confederates and slaveholders should be retitled.


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