Crown of Creation

Scott McLemee reviews Michael Ohl’s The Art of Naming, which explores some of the one million animal species that have been identified.

June 15, 2018

Not long after waking up in Eden for the first time, Adam receives an important assignment. “Out of the ground,” we are told, “the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” Then he goes to sleep and loses the rib, and Eve shows up to keep things interesting.

Here, as ever, the narrative voice of Genesis is almost too efficient. The reader is left to wonder about crucial details of process -- and even literalists may be tempted to fill in the gaps. Thus, in Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown's Commentary on the Whole Bible (1871), we are informed that the Almighty “brought unto Adam not all the animals in existence, but those chiefly in his immediate neighborhood to be subservient to his use …” Normally Jamieson et al. stick as close to the words on the page as possible, but here I suspect they gave in a little to the pressure of 19th-century science. Explorers were constantly finding hitherto unknown beasts of the field and fowl of the air. Examining and naming them (let alone “all the animals in existence”) would take an implausibly long time, even for someone who lived more than 900 years.

Today we know of about 1,500 species of mouse. Nothing in the original text indicates that the Lord instructed Adam to concentrate on creatures “in his immediate neighborhood” and “subservient to his use.” But surely it stands to reason.

And, in fact, the task remains unfinished. My impression from Michael Ohl’s The Art of Naming -- published in Germany in 2015 and now out in translation from The MIT Press -- is that taxonomists are really only getting started. Ohl, a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin and an associate professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, says that about one million animal species have been identified. Estimates of the total number of species of organisms of any kind, including bacteria, run to has high as a trillion, most not yet labeled. And hundreds of millions of them will probably stay that way until Homo sapiens goes extinct, even if that takes a lot longer than sometimes feels likely.

Meanwhile, as new species are discovered and named, the established identifications are subject to review and revision. “The oldest names from the latter half of the 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular,” Ohl writes, “are often accompanied by descriptions considered inadequate by today’s standards, which often make it incredibly difficult or even impossible to match these names with specific species.” In addition, a species might be “discovered” more than once and so acquire a number of names. And conversely, researchers sometimes come up with a homonym: the same name applied to different creatures.

“As it happens,” Ohl writes, this creates “a remarkably simple way to arrive at one’s own species names, without having to set eyes on any of the animals in question.” It’s a matter of locating a homonym in the scientific literature, writing up the mistake and presenting a different name for the more recently identified of the species. “Some scientists actually do this, combing through taxonomic catalogs in the targeted search for such inconsistencies, and they almost always find something,” even if they “don’t necessarily know much about the respective animal groups …”

Taxonomic opportunism “is frowned upon in the guild,” Ohl writes. His detailed but engaging account of the process by which species are named shows why. A species name is the product of work in the field and the lab, but also of checking the ever-expanding mass of taxonomic literature to confirm (as much as possible) that the species is really a new discovery. The right to attach a name to a species is earned, then, or should be. And furthermore, the name itself can carry a charge of personal significance. Ohl reports that when reading a paper announcing a new species, his colleagues in the field of taxonomy are especially interested in “the etymology section … [which] isn’t just a linguistic explanation, it’s also a mix of social media and gossip column.”

The most striking examples he gives are the descriptions Peter Jäger, a German arachnologist, has given the spiders he has discovered in Asia, including a dozen names “highlighting the ecological problems resulting from overpopulation.” Heteropoda zuviele contains the German phrase zu viele, “too many,” while Heteropoda duan incorporates the Laotian word meaning “urgent.” There’s also Heteropoda homstu, which encrypts an abbreviation for Homo stultus, “stupid human.”

His nomenclature is not always so earnest, as the hairy-legged creature called Heteropoda hippie may suggest. Heteropoda davidbowie pays tribute to the songwriter who created Ziggy Stardust and the spiders from Mars. Jäger also named a species after the German punk goddess Nina Hagen, whose style can be compared to the demon from The Exorcist taking possession of an opera singer, as shown in this spider-related performance.

The rules and traditions of taxonomy prove more flexible, even chaotic, than the lay reader is apt to imagine. The identification of thousands of new species per year makes it a field where neologisms are the norm, with rigor and creativity each having a share in the process. My references to Adam above was tongue in cheek, of course. But something the English theologian John Gill wrote seems close in spirit to The Art of Naming.

Naming the animals “was a trial of the wisdom of man,” Gill explains, “being an instance of great knowledge of them to give them apt and suitable names, so as to distinguish one from another, and point at something in them that was natural to them, and made them different from each other.” Let's hope the work can continue for at least a few more centuries.


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