What Goes Into Naming A New Species? A Lot : Krulwich Wonders... When someone finds an animal, vegetable or mineral new to science, the discoverer gets the privilege of giving it a name. Most of the time, it's done soberly, responsibly and carefully -- but not always.
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What Goes Into Naming A New Species? A Lot

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What Goes Into Naming A New Species? A Lot

What Goes Into Naming A New Species? A Lot

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There is a moment in the Bible when God asks Adam to name all the fowl and all the beasts of the field, so Adam does. And apparently, he was terrific at naming animals, because the Bible says whatever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. Well, Adam isn't the only one with a knack for names, as NPR's science correspondent Robert Krulwich explains.

ROBERT KRULWICH: About 300 years ago, a young Swedish scholar, Carl Linnaeus, devised a way to classify and give scientific names to pretty much every plant and every animal in the world.

D: You know, he gave the first names that we regard as valid.

KRULWICH: And Linnaeus' naming system worked so well, it was so simple and elegant and made such sense of things, says paleontologist Richard Fortey, it is still the system we use today, which was good for Linnaeus, he became very famous. Good for his friends, he named some of the prettiest plants after people he liked. But if Linnaeus didn't like you, well, there are ugly plants, too, and on at least one occasion...

D: Linnaeus named a small, insignificant weed after one of the people he didn't like.


KRULWICH: Is that right?

D: Yes, that's right.

KRULWICH: And in his new memoir, Richard Fortey tells stories about the strange, sometimes wicked names that scientists have invented, which they are allowed to do because once you discover a new organism, you have the privilege of giving it any name you like.

D: But once you've provided the name, if it's a valid name, it stays, or it should in theory, stay forever.

KRULWICH: So, just for example, in Linnaeus' system, every creature has two Latin names: the group name, or genus, and then the particular species name. So, say there's a bunch of clams with the group name Abra. If you find a new clam for this group, a new species, you can call it - if you want - Kadabra.

D: Thus, making the official name of the organism Abra Kadabra.

KRULWICH: Which actually happened?

D: Indeed. Yes.

KRULWICH: And it can be - I guess it can be any name, right? Any name you want?

D: Yeah. A friend of mine who's a particular rock fan named a whole series of trilobites after the members of the Sex Pistols.

(Soundbite of song "Anarchy in the U.K." by The Sex Pistols)


KRULWICH: So, there's a species of trilobite that's called Johnny Rotteni in the Latin version or Sid Viciousi?

D: Well, that's not to my personal taste, but I don't think it breaks any rules.

KRULWICH: Well, he's just sharing his enthusiasm.

(Soundbite of song "Anarchy in the U.K." by The Sex Pistols)

KRULWICH: But you also told me about a guy who went even further. His name was G.W. Kirkaldy from about a hundred years ago. He was a bug guy.

D: Oh, yes. That's right. Yeah, he was a bug guy.

KRULWICH: And the group name that he chose for his particular bugs, he spelled, C-H-I-S-M-E.

D: Which, of course, you pronounce kiss me.

KRULWICH: Right. So, he then made a list of all his girlfriends. These are the ladies that he loved, and he put their names in front of chisme.

D: Right.

KRULWICH: So, today there are bugs called Marichisme, Nanichisme, Polichisme.

D: Julichisme, Dolichisme, Peggichisme. Well, the list goes on.

KRULWICH: So, the point here is if you want to name your plant or your bug after somebody, even if they don't want it named after them, you can do as you please, apparently.

D: Yes, that's right. So it does have a long tradition in the scientific world.

KRULWICH: But what about the opposite, though? Can you use a name to intentionally insult somebody?

D: You're allowed to - there is a rule, which is, I think, enforceable, that you're not allowed to make your names offensive.

KRULWICH: But it's not a hard rule, because you told me about a scientist who has a kind of a weird name...

D: Magnificently eccentric man called Rousseau H. Flower.

KRULWICH: Right, Rousseau Flower.

D: And his politics were somewhat on the right.

KRULWICH: He didn't like communists, and he particularly didn't like leaders of the Soviet Union.

D: So, he named one particular insignificant worm Khruschevia Ridicula, after...


D: After Khrushchev.

KRULWICH: The Soviet leader. But, you know, one man's insult can become another man's compliment. And this is the curious case of Quentin Wheeler.

D: Quentin Wheeler is an entomologist, an expert on beetles, particularly small beetles that eat slime molds, rather sticky-looking organisms.


D: Not everybody's cup of tea, you might say.

KRULWICH: No, but Quentin, and his then student Kelly Miller, decided to name these beetles after the Bush cabinet.

D: So, there was a Bushi.

KRULWICH: I being the Latin ending. There's a Rumsfeldi, there is a Cheneyi.

D: Yes, exactly. So, I don't know, but some people of a liberal disposition thought that this might have been a comment - small, insignificant, slime-eating beetles - on the, what should we say, the qualities of the current leadership.

KRULWICH: Well, so I found Quentin Wheeler, who's now vice president and dean at Arizona State University. And I asked him, did you name these beetles to compliment President Bush or to not compliment the president?

P: No, it was genuinely meant as an honor.

KRULWICH: Not as an insult?

P: I hope not, because I also named one after my wife.


KRULWICH: Well, then, I guess this is the real deal.

P: It was, indeed.

KRULWICH: But now, what about President Bush? Because he didn't ask to have his name attached to a mold-eating beetle. But Quentin says that one morning, his office phone rang...

P: And a lovely female voice said Professor Wheeler, and I said, yes, and she said, please hold for the president. And then, I'm sitting there thinking, no, it can't be.

D: But, of course, it really was.


D: And the president said how flattered he was to be honored by having these small organisms named after him.

KRULWICH: And meanwhile, Professor Wheeler, you named them, you got your 15 minutes of fame and now, you slip, I suppose, into quiet scholarly obscurity.

P: I thought so until you called me.


KRULWICH: OK, well, then we'll make it 16 minutes of fame. I don't care. The point is the scientist does eventually disappear. But those beetles, they get called Bush and Cheney forever. Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

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