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:
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.
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.
This article originally appeared on Science 151 – find it here