Naming the natural world

Echoes of colonialism in modern scientific practice

Image: Thomas Couvreur

A few days ago, The Guardian reported that naturalist Sir David Attenborough had received one of the greatest honours science can bestow: a plant had been named after him.

Actually, that’s underselling it a bit. It’s a whole group of plant species, a genus, that will now carry the name Sirdavidia. The flower of the first of these plants to be discovered, Sirdavidia solannona, is really rather lovely; with bright red petals and bulbous yellow centre, it looks like the sort of thing a clown would use to squirt water from his lapel. This striking appearance makes how it was discovered seem all the more strange, found growing by the side of the road in well-trodden Monts de Cristal National Park, Gabon.

Sir David accepted the honour with typical grace. “I know very well that such a decision is the greatest compliment that a biologist can pay to another and I am truly grateful,” he said. What a guy. The Guardian commenters agreed:

ID8869333, 3d ago: Excellent, Attenborough deserves this for his lifelong contribution to conservation and education. +7

So far, so feel-good. Now, perhaps the fact it was Groundhog Day earlier in the week has something to do with it, but the day after this story appeared The Guardian served up a fittingly hefty portion of déjà vu. There, splashed across the science page, was a bizarrely familiar headline: “Wild flower discovered in Wales named after Sir David Attenborough”.

Just one day after being honoured by science, it was happening again. This time a new species of hawkweed had been found in Wales’ Brecon Beacons, and is to be known evermore as Hieracium attenboroughianum: Attenborough’s hawkweed. Out came the humble – though now rather familiar – statement from Sir David, and out came The Guardian readers to have their say in the comments again. Only this time, their tone was ever so slightly different. See if you can spot the subtle change.

JonCymru, 7h ago: Don't get me wrong, I respect and admire Attenborough a lot. But this flower should have been named after a Welsh great, the English have helped themselves to more than enough of our natural resources and due to the rape of our countryside there are probably many planets now extinct we never even knew about. Herrlich, 7h ago: Typical English mindset: find a flower in Wales that is commonly known by everyone, and then name it after an Englishman. Why don't you just flood pour towns and take all our water while you're at it...oh wait!

The reaction, as you can see, was rather less positive. And I take their point: why should a newly discovered species be named, without any consultation with the people to whom it belongs, after an individual of the discoverer’s choosing? And if local feeling can be this strong, perhaps someone should ask the people of Gabon what they think of their new Sirdavidia plants.

The right to name your discovery is one of the great prizes of science. Some take a descriptive approach, like Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber, who gave the striped skunk its official name Mephitis mephitis, meaning “a foul or poisonous stench”. Twice. But often, the name is dedicated to someone important to the discoverer; a family member perhaps, or an inspirational figure. Or themselves.

There may be nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but I would suggest that perhaps they should think more locally. Walking into a distant country and naming things after people back home is not new. Lake Victoria, Kaiser-Wilhelmsland – this practice of applying names over the heads of indigenous populations is an echo of a colonial past that many would rather forget.

Take a look at the paper that defined the Gabonese plant genus as Sirdavidia. It has four authors: two are affiliated with French institutions – the lead and senior authors – one a Cameroonian university, and one Gabonese. Yet where the choice of name is explained, it says only that Attenborough has “inspired a generation of biologists and naturalists, including the first and senior authors of this paper.”

The absence of the two other authors from this line is deafening. It heavily implies that the two authors from European institutions named it after someone important to them and them alone, and I don’t think that’s right.

It might be just a name, but names are how we make sense of the world around us, and surely it is the people who live amongst and care for these new species that are best placed to give it its identity. Anything else is harking back to the days of empire, claiming the resources of foreign nations for King, country and Sir David Attenborough.

There are examples of scientists acting more responsibly. Eduardo Shimbori and Scott Shaw discovered 24 wasp species in Ecuador and named many after famous Ecuadorians, like Dolores Cacuango, a campaigner for the rights of indigenous people in the early 20th century. Even better, one was named Aleiodes napo after the Napo Runas, the indigenous inhabitants of the Eastern Ecuadorian region where the wasps are found. The wasps were given an Ecuadorian identity.

It’s time for the power to name the living things around us to be given to the people that live with and look after them, and I believe this could have a real impact on the appetite for conservation in some countries.

If the people who are ultimately responsible for conserving the nature around them were the ones picking the names, it is not illogical to suggest that they might feel a compulsion to protect it. There is power in an emotional or historical connection.

It’s nothing personal, Sir David; but it’s time for the Gabonese to be naming their own plants.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly asserted that lead author Thomas Couvreur is French. He is in fact only affiliated with a French institution, the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, Montpellier. This has now been corrected. 

This article originally appeared on Science 151 – find it here

  • Lars Chatrou

    Deception is an interesting phenomenon in the natural world. The deception of pollinating insects by orchid flowers, for example, has evolved under natural selection. Moreover, the capacity to detect deceit has evolved as well in the natural world. It seems, however, that Richard Hodson is not very good in disentangling deceit from truth in the case of the description of Sirdavidia solannona.

    Thomas Couvreur’s name is deceptive. He isn’t French. His intellectual inclinations were casted in Ecuador, with a colonial history indeed. So, Thomas was one of the “people to whom the species belong”. By the way, my family name is French too, but my ancestors have been as Dutch as wooden shoes for many generations.

    A deceptively French family name is not the only connection between Thomas Couvreur and myself. We both work on evolution and systematics of tropical rain forest plants, notably the plant group to which the newly described species belongs.

    The discovery and description of species in rain forests is a scientific endeavour. Hodson has been deceived into thinking that these activities are related to power. Or even to vanity, as he believes that some scientists name species after themselves (which is extremely bad form, only good for immediate ostracizing).

    Rather, describing species is related to scientific rigour. Anybody with a proper scientific training, and with access to knowledge and techniques, can do it. Absolutely, there’s a serious shortage of scientifically trained people, and limited access to knowledge and techniques in a country like Gabon. That’s why scientists like Thomas Couvreur, and colleagues from European and US institutes are putting considerable effort into encouraging Gabonese initiatives. As a result, the knowledge of the biodiversity of Gabon is the most comprehensive and most detailed for any African country, resources and knowledge are being secured in Gabon, and Gabonese botanists are currently describing their country’s biodiversity. I’d say that’s pretty responsible.

    Also, Gabonese students are getting PhDs from ‘colonial’ institutes, and return home to use the acquired skills. Most importantly, these collaborations build life-long ties between individual scientists and between institutes across the globe, based on friendship and mutual respect. To belittle these relationships, as well as the respectful act of naming a plant species after an admirable great naturalist, and put it all down as rooted in colonial sentiments is, indeed, the result of being deceived.

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m pleased that the article was able to spark debate.

      The assumption I made as to Mr Couvreur’s nationality, and indeed that of all four authors of the Sirdavidia paper, was based not on name but on the institutional affiliations given in the research paper.

      Mr Couvreur and Mr Sauquet are both affiliated with French institutions – the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, Montpellier, and the Université Paris-Sud XI, Paris, respectively – while Raoul Niangadouma and Bonaventure Sonké are affiliated with institutions in Gabon and Cameroon respectively.

      I apologise for this mistake and have updated the text to more accurately reflect what I mean by “European” authors.

      I do not believe, however, that this undermines my argument. Mr Couvreur’s Ecuadorian heritage makes him no more or less qualified to name a plant in Gabon after an English naturalist than when he had French nationality thrust upon him in error, nor does it make Sir David Attenborough’s name any more or less appropriate for this genus.

      You are welcome to disagree with me, but I would like to say if I may that I am not trying to paint scientists as power-crazed colonialists. I do not believe it belittles the hard work that goes into discovery and classification of species, nor the importance of international relationships within the scientific community, to say that the common practice of naming discoveries according to the finder’s whim is highly reminiscent of what used to be standard practice for entire cities in colonial times.

      To my mind, there must surely be a better way of symbolising the friendship and mutual respect between scientists that you speak of than by naming a discovery after Sir David Attenborough for what I believe is now the tenth time.

  • Sergio Aguero

    I really enjoyed reading this article, Mr Hodson. Your views and writing are nothing short of fantastic, and I’ll certainly be reading more of your articles in the future.