Species names for sale

Jim McKenney jimmckenney@jimmckenney.com
Mon, 17 Sep 2007 13:38:23 PDT
Naming plants and animals for money is nothing new. The auction aspect
merely adds to the post modern crassness of it. 

In the past, starving botanists and zoologists who worked for wealthy
patrons often named things for their employer. 

Now days the starving botanists and zoologists are more apt to work for a
university or museum; and presumably their level of starvation is only
relative to what goes on in the private sector rather than absolute. The
practice has now sunk to the level of mutual back-scratching among peers. 

Centuries ago, in pre-Linnaean times, when biologists wrote in Latin because
it was widely understood across national borders, it was often necessary to
make reference to taxonomic concepts developed by other workers, taxonomic
concepts which did not have universal acceptance. No taxonomic concepts back
then probably had any more than local acceptance. Thus Albertus (all of the
names which follow are fictitious) in the Netherlands might sketch the
genera of birds one way, Salvator in Italy might sketch them in another way,
Grünberg in Germany yet another way. 

When referring to these various classifications, the norm was to cite the
taxon and then follow it with the genitive form of the author's name. Thus
there might have been references to Nucifranga alberti, Passer nucivorus
salvatori and Olethrokaryon gruenbergi. 

Citations like these are not to be understood as binomial species names in
the modern sense, but rather in the senses of "Nucifranga in the sense of
Albertus", "Passer nucivorus in the sense of Salvator" or "Olethrokaryon in
the sense of Grünberg". 

[And here's a totally off-topic grammar rant related to the above: I think
there are editors who would correct the above to "Nucifranga in the sense of
Albertus's", "Passer...in the sense of Salvator's" and "Olethrokaryon in the
sense of Grünberg's. That one drives me crazy.]

In post Linnaean times the practice of naming organisms for persons not
actively involved in research began to spread, and once the practical
utility of such "honorifics" was realized, there was no going back. 

Now days there are a lot of really pathetic taxonomists out there who name
things according to formulas. For instance, often when the newspapers
announce the discovery of a new dinosaur the genus name follows the pattern
name of person + saurus, species name location + ensis or some variation or
other combination of those basic elements, including the name of person + i.

A once literate, poetic tradition has been largely debased.

Those of you who follow the Agatha Christie adaptations in which Joan
Hickson  plays the role of Miss Marple perhaps remember the episode in which
one of the character's claim to fame is that a species (or, as his wife
continually reminds him, a subspecies) of butterfly has been named for him.
In her view it's evidently not much of an honor.  

It's certainly not in my mind, either. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where Sternbergia lutea is
about to bloom. 
My Virtual Maryland Garden http://www.jimmckenney.com/
BLOG! http://mcwort.blogspot.com/
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin http://www.pvcnargs.org/ 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society http://www.potomaclilysociety.org/

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