Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Species naming rights

I'm not a taxonomist. I have never been involved in the discovery, description, or naming of a new species. Or even in the renaming of a species once considered something else. So, I really don't know the logistics of providing a name to a species.

I know that species are named for what they look like, where they are found, who discovered them, or in honor of someone else. I don't know the official rules of the game or even if there are official rules, but I never once would have thought that someone could buy the rights to a species name.

Well, that's what seems to be happening according to a story out of Scripps. Apparently, Scripps has a collection of new species that need to be named and has decided to use this as a fund-raising tool. They've got "an orange, speckled nudibranch, a hydrothermal vent worm, two types of worms found living on deep-sea whale bones, and several new species discovered in local La Jolla waters" all up for grabs. Naming rights start at $5,000.

I'm not sure I like this idea. Sure, they're raising money for the preservation of their specimen collection - something that I think is incredibly important, especially at a time where it seems natural history has been given a cold shoulder by "hard science" disciplines. However, the idea of commercializing this scientific process does not sit well with me. Maybe Scripps has a set of rules that must be followed and perhaps I'm being anachronistic, but do we really want to open the door to things like Polycera fedexii or Nereis walmartia?


Neil said...

As far as I know the ICZN still hasn't issued clear guidelines on this topic although it's been openly discussed for a while.

At any rate, naming after wealthy patrons has a long tradition, and a dinosaur was recently named (partly) in honor of an energy company that sponsored the research.

Jim Lemire said...

Sure, I get the naming in "honor" of a wealthy patron - a reward of sorts for backing the research/expedition and probably facilitating future funding. But this auctioning off seems different to me. I did not know it had been done before.

Christopher Taylor said...

While I'm not that happy with the idea either (but then, I'm not a fan of patronyms in general), the simple and unfortunate fact is that it's not surprising in the modern working environment. Taxonomy is chronically under-funded, and so institutions are forced to come up with more imaginiative ways to secure some cash.

K T Cat said...

I would suggest that the whole pursuit of new species is a luxury career and they ought to be thankful someone is willing to pay for it at all. The naming rights are just about the only commercially marketable element of their work. How many more sea worms does Joe Six Pack need to know about?

Discovery for its own sake has always been at the mercy of patrons. It comes with the territory. If these guys had wanted a steady stream of income, they should have become plumbers. Instead, they chose to follow their passions and have to take what comes.

Good for them that they've been so creative!

Christopher Taylor said...

I would suggest that the whole pursuit of new species is a luxury career and they ought to be thankful someone is willing to pay for it at all.

Quite on the contrary - if a species isn't properly described and named, it becomes effectively impossible to do any other work on said species. Features such as secondary chemistry or diet (study of which may, for instance, lead to significant medical or biocontrol develops) can vary significantly between even closely related species. If the different species are unnamed or (even worse) no recognised as distinct, it becomes impossible to follow the paper trail of studies on the species.

Jim Lemire said...

As KT Cat's comments suggest, taxonomy is, unfortunately, generally considered, along with the rest of "natural history", to be a relic science - something that was already done back in the days of natural philosophers. It's seen as a "soft" science (if a science at all) and something not worth pursuing or funding. We had these big debates in grad school about the importance of requiring course work in natural history and/or taxon-based disciplines (e.g. entomology, phycology, etc).

There was a big divide within the department - generally referred (over-simplistically) as the molecular-organismal divide. It was/is unfortunate because, as Christopher has pointed out, there are important reasons for good taxonomy and I fear that a large set of knowledge is passing away. I wonder if these debates/divides are still out there - or has the "molecular" side won out?

Christopher Taylor said...

I believe that the excesses of the "molecular mania" that I encountered in the late 90s are, thankfully, dying down, but the debates over the significance of organismal vs. molecular work are still very much out there. Fortunately, focus has largely switched from arguing over which is better to the question of how to best combine the strengths of both.

Recent signals such as editorial pieces in Science and Nature do give me hope that the taxonomic crisis (and believe me, it is a crisis) is gaining recognition, but we are currently in the uncertain stage between the recognition of a problem and the actual appearance of a solution.