The Preferred Nomenclature
August 12, 2021 8:03 PM   Subscribe

Fifteen years ago, biologist and Coen brothers fan Ingi Agnarsson christened two newly-discovered spiders Anelosimus dude and Anelosimus thebiglebowski (includes a spider photo). Why? Most spiders will be aggressive toward their own, but for these two dudes, "aggression, towards kin, will not stand." Naming new scientific discoveries is fun. Until it isn't.

From the transcript of It’ll Never Fly: When Gene Names Are TOO Fun:

"ELAH FEDER: In the late '70s, a pair of scientists were looking at mutations that affected development. So fruit-fly larvae have bristles on them, and they found this one mutation that caused the bristles to be all bunched together. And they thought, what does this bristly little creature look like? Let's call it Hedgehog.

"THOM KAUFMAN: Perfectly descriptive of the mutant phenotype. Everything is fine. OK. But then they found that there were mutants in mites, and mice have four copies of this gene. And the mouse people got cute, so they started naming these extra copies and said, oh, there's one that's Hedgehog, then there's one we'll call Sonic Hedgehog after the cartoon character...Well, then it was discovered that this gene caused a human disease that is a very bad thing for a child to inherit from its parents, holoprosencephaly. And when a child has this, and a doctor comes and says, oh, your child is mutant for the Sonic Hedgehog gene, well, it's not a joke to have a child with holoprosencephaly."

Smokey, selecting new scientific names isn't arbitrary. This is nomenclature. There are rules.

How do I name a species after someone?
...Adjectives based on the endings –anus/ -ana/ -anum or –ianus/ -iana/ -ianum are not recommended because they can sound rude, for example using the surname Bush could result in bushianus. Do not use a name which may cause offence (Appendix A); it is advisable to check with the person after whom the new species is being named that they are happy for their name to be used.

Can I name a species after myself?
There is no rule against this, but it may be a sign of vanity!
posted by MonkeyToes (29 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Wow a post on Ingi on Mefi, my worlds have collided!
posted by dhruva at 8:18 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]

Please note: the inhibitor for the Sonic hedgehog gene is called "robotnikin".
posted by Merus at 8:26 PM on August 12 [12 favorites]

That web tied the whole room together
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:47 PM on August 12 [9 favorites]

Just a note: Coen, not Cohen.

(Response: "Yeah, well, like, that's just your opinion, man.")
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:49 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]

This is nomenclature. There are rules.

Where it gets interesting is when the rules get bent, and by whom. Naming rights have always been an arena of power. One case in point is when an explicitly negative epithet, chosen by 19th-century Europeans for a certain mushroom, was recently changed, overturning the rules, so as to recalibrate bias in favour of the species’ economic (and cultural) significance in Japan, rechristening Tricholoma nauseosum to Tricholoma matsutake.
posted by progosk at 11:09 PM on August 12 [9 favorites]

posted by Literaryhero at 11:47 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]

JOHANNA MAYER: That was it. Yeah, that was it. The gene was named White.

My dirty undies, Dude. The laundry. The whites.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:18 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]

Despite the dominance of English in science, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard [hats off!] was so astounded when she saw a novel developmental mutant in Drosophila that she cried "Das ist ja toll!" [amazeballs, super] and the name Toll stuck to épater les monoglots.
Other Drosophila coinages, some too clever by 'alf include:
ken-and-barbie ken (because mutant flies have no external genitalia)
abnormal spindle asp (has trouble with cell division)
cleopatra cleo (lethal if asp is also present)
tinman tin (no heart)
nanos nos (from νᾶνος = dwarf, as in nanometer)
smaug smg (suppresses nanos )
lush lush (inordinately attracted to the smell of ethanol)
methuselah mth (remarkably long-lived)

posted by BobTheScientist at 12:36 AM on August 13 [11 favorites]

Reading the article prompted me to wonder, isn't it interesting all the higher intelligences--elephants, dolphins, apes evolved to have some sort of kin structure, so would there be a relationship between higher life forms and social evolution (but then, what about the advanced molluscs?).
posted by polymodus at 1:10 AM on August 13

The naming of racehorses can be a pretty fraught business too, with mischievous owners often trying to sneak rude puns past the UK Jockey Club authorities. One popular (if rather childish) tactic is trying to name a horse "Norfolk & Chance" to reflect its prospects of ever actually winning a race. Pronounced quickly and without due care, this name emerges as "no fuckin' chance".
posted by Paul Slade at 5:31 AM on August 13

No strigiphilus garylarsoni?
posted by genpfault at 7:50 AM on August 13

I'm strongly in favor of all silly taxonomy that doesn't include made-up Latinisation. Homo Fantcypantsious ought to have gone extinct in the 1700s. (Unless it's all really an ironic joke biologists and geologists are laughing about and haven't shared with the rest of us who assume they're taking themselves seriously when they say incredibly silly things.)
posted by eotvos at 9:01 AM on August 13

It's our way of getting back at the people who forced us to take Latin in school.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:05 AM on August 13 [5 favorites]

Say what you will about the tenets of ICZN, at least its an ethos.
posted by nubs at 9:32 AM on August 13 [8 favorites]

My favorite iteration of this phenomenon, though informal, is also thanks to Gary Larson: the thagomizer.
posted by darkstar at 9:47 AM on August 13 [8 favorites]

a good fpp. and thorough.
posted by 20 year lurk at 10:21 AM on August 13 [7 favorites]

@polymodus, what if it's actually that we tend to recognize life-forms as having "higher intelligence" when they have cooperative, pro-social behavior? But, to be fair, Dunbar's Social brain hypothesis* is the scientific theory that you've derived de novo, positing that the need to keep up with complex kin relationships is part of what drove human cognitive evolution (and maybe it applies to insects!?!?!)

*Originally the "Machiavellian brain hypothesis", but turned out that that nomenclature produced some misunderstandings due to the association with deceit, so it was rechristened the "Social brain hypothesis". Just to bring it back to the thread.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:28 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]

The podcast didn't address the fact that there are a few gene names that cause the modern ear to wince, such as the whole family of transposable elements that Metafilter actually won't let me name (good call, Metafilter) because it's an offensive slur (transposable elements are also called "jumping genes", they travel around the genome) and the mohawk family of genes (Iroquois complex, including auracan, caupolican, iroquois, mohawk, and mirror). The mohawk gene was the first one named, after the mutant phenotype in which bristles just appeared in a thin dorsal stripe, mimicking a mohawk. iroquois was named to continue the First Nations naming trend, and then auracan and caupolican were kind of an attempt to turn it from being a set of names based on a pun about a culturally significant hairstyle into a set of names paying homage to indigenous people. mirror was discovered separately, and the null mutation causes half of a fly's eye facets to develop in reverse spirals, i.e. "mirroring" the other half.

Not to mention the Excel problem.

AND ANOTHER THING, Metafilter. The thing that I (an insect geneticist whose first love was history of biology) think is too underappreciated by modern scientists is that these gene names do not describe the gene function. The gene names are an inscription of the history of the gene's discovery. white for example is an ABC transporter class gene -- its gene product moves stuff in and out of cells. It's one of many of that kind, and in flies, its most obvious role is transporting precursors of red pigment, but in humans, in transports cholesterols. Because, by convention, we name genes according to the knockout mutant phenotype, we are predisposed to thinking that the gene name carries information about its function, but it really really super doesn't. Until very recently, we found the mutant phenotype *well* before we found the protein sequence or DNA sequence that caused it.

And lastly, just for what it's worth, it's not just the fly people and the mouse people that get cute. Botanists can get kinda bonkers, too, but it's less likely to cause a stir that your plant has an AXIS OF EVIL mutation. (Unlike flies, in which our gene names are mostly lower-cased and only upper-case if it's a dominant mutation, botanists put all their mutation names in all caps. "The SCARFACE gene is required for cotyledon and leaf vein patterning.")
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:57 AM on August 13 [11 favorites]

there are a few gene names that cause the modern ear to wince, such as the whole family of transposable elements that Metafilter actually won't let me name (good call, Metafilter) because it's an offensive slur

On the same note, it appears that the problematically named invasive moth species with scientific name Lymantria dispar still doesn't have an inoffensive common name? I assumed that one had been established and that I just didn't know what it was, but, nope, there's still no agreed-upon new name for it.
posted by jackbishop at 11:19 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]

Lymantria dispar still doesn't have an inoffensive common name?

Its common name in Italian is pretty nondescript… but since “zigeuner” is recurrent in German and Eastern European languages names for a whole host of flora/funga/fauna, I’ve wondered about it as a qualifying epithet in common names for species and organisms… sometimes meaning “foreign”, sometimes “motley”, and sometimes still other shades of… othering/stereotyping.

But definitely: there’s a trove of ill-advised nomenclature, both binomial and vernacular, that will need to faced up to / lived down, sooner rather than later…
posted by progosk at 12:06 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]

There's a small fish that lives only in a particular stream in Tennessee that's named after my father in law.
posted by goatdog at 2:00 PM on August 13 [3 favorites]

. . . And the grasshopper says, "You have a drink named Kenneth?"
posted by dannyboybell at 2:39 PM on August 13 [7 favorites]

jackbishop, I just go with "L. dispar" followed up with "yeah I'm not gonna call it that."

Or we could just translate the binomial! "Dimorphic destroyer moth" is a good name! ("Lymantria" means destroyer, the species epithet "dispar" is in reference to its sexual dimorphism.)

Common names are interesting and weird anyway. Some scientists will refuse to try and make up common names because they belong to Common People, which I think is totally fair. And then, the birders actually control common name-space as rigidly as the ICZN does scientific names. So many things don't have common names at all! I have been trying to make "Camelback Treehopper" a thing for my precious study organism, Entylia carinata... (it can't be Keeled Treehopper! That already refers to too many other Treehoppers! They all have keels!)
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 8:11 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]

birders actually control common name-space as rigidly as the ICZN does scientific names

It's so instructive to look at this dynamic in various disciplines across cultures... German mushroom common-name-space has been strictly regulated (albeit implicitly, within and without academia) with what seems to me to be an intention to offer a complete alternative/parallel taxonomy to Linnean latin binomials (and unsurprisingly it takes shape during a period of German philological purism that would have shunned all "foreign" words...); Italian mycology, despite its centuries of active practice and research, today tends to eschew common names altogether, at least in part because their regional variation (indeed, variation between neighboring valleys) is so superabundant that science is at a loss for how to accomodate it; in the Netherlands there is an official commission tasked with assigning fitting common names to newly identified/described species where there are no vernacular ones yet, in both Dutch and Flaams (the Flemish dialect) :-D
posted by progosk at 2:21 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

Common names are interesting and weird anyway. Some scientists will refuse to try and make up common names because they belong to Common People, which I think is totally fair.

I think this is fair, but it does run into issues when Common People in your language don't really seem to talk about your organism of interest much! When my previous PI started working with singing mice, almost no one had really written about them or worked on them in English, and "brown mice" was actually a more common name to see in the literature than "singing mouse" even though they sing and it's cool! Complicating things, there are two species of singing mouse described in the literature: the one I worked almost exclusively with, which is much more common and more generalist, and a slightly larger one that lives at the top of mountains and produces much shorter songs, seems to be a bit less social, and appears to be more restricted to lower temperatures and higher elevations at the tops of mountains.

The more generalist and common one I worked with is formally "Alston's singing/short-tailed/brown mouse," after the Englishman who sorted through museum specimens from Central America in the British Museum and decided that the little dark brown mice in the specimens constituted a unique species of their own immediately before dying of tuberculosis; the other is usually referred to as "Chiriqui's singing/brown mouse" after one of the mountaintops it inhabits.

After eight years of studying the mice and rolling my eyes at Alston's name, I only ever bothered to look it up today. It seems that Alston's name is tagged onto the common name because he had only just put in the species name (his genus name was later reclassified out of existence as being paraphyletic) and had argued that the name assigned to it by the gentleman who pointed it out as a species but did not bother to formally describe it thirty years prior should stay. It seems to me that Alston's friends probably tagged his name onto the common name when they talked about the mouse, since he died pretty young at 35 and had not left much room to memorialize him in the species name. "Brown mouse" makes sense in that context, too: if you're defining the mouse from dead, preserved specimens, of course the singing behavior is totally unknown and unknowable.

But... does the wistfulness of British naturalists for one of their number need to be invoked every time people working on the live animal reference it? When there isn't really a name for a species in your language because the only people who speak it regularly have never taken much notice of it, it seems weird to tack the name of a dead Englishman to it. I'm chewing this over this afternoon: would it have been better to find local people working as field guides or naturalists what they called the mice? When you control how a species is discussed and named in popular discourse by virtue of popularizing discussion of them, what should you do about a common name? No one wants to talk about Scotinomys teguina constantly when they're trying to describe what the mice themselves are doing, and that comes across as stilted and strange. We want names to be consistent enough that we can be certain that communication emphasizes that the mouse I speak of and the mouse you speak of are the same category, but how much density of communication and discussion are necessary before inertia ceases to impact the way we talk about a species?

I don't know, but it's interesting to think about. Of course, I'm working on house mice now, so it's something of a moot point for me for the moment!
posted by sciatrix at 10:48 AM on August 16 [3 favorites]

> On the same note, it appears that the problematically named invasive moth species with scientific name Lymantria dispar still doesn't have an inoffensive common name? I assumed that one had been established and that I just didn't know what it was, but, nope, there's still no agreed-upon new name for it.

This is FINALLY FINALLY happening. Entomological Society of America announcement about the change process, which is actively seeking suggestions (said slur is named right in the announcement title and its original URL, just as an FYI.)
posted by desuetude at 1:20 PM on August 17 [2 favorites]

This is FINALLY FINALLY happening.

Question: is the explanation of the origin of the common name provided here - "The g. moth, Lymantria dispar (L.), gets its name from a behavior of its larger caterpillars, which generally migrate each day from the leaves and down the branches and trunk to rest in shaded spots on the tree or objects on the ground." - accurate/honest?

I couldn't find a history of its use, but did it really not coincide with its characterisation as invasive/pest in the U.S.? (I'm assuming it wasn't ever to do with anything about the moth's physical appearance per se.)
posted by progosk at 9:58 PM on August 17

did it really not coincide with its characterisation as invasive/pest in the U.S.?

Ngrams provides this 1819 UK use, so, no, that's not it...
posted by progosk at 10:25 PM on August 17

Found a better take on the likely origin of the L. dispar’s common name:
Ian Hancock, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and former representative for the Romani people at the United Nations, said he was pleased by the decision, which was shared Wednesday. The word, he explained, was probably associated with the moths and ants because of their “rootlessness.” These all play into one of the stereotypes; in story books we ‘wander’ and ‘roam,’ but as history clearly shows, we were not allowed to stop, and had no choice but to keep moving on.”
posted by progosk at 10:25 AM on August 18 [1 favorite]

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