Buy yourself a species nameby Thomas Barlow / April 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
In this morally dishevelled age, I should not have been surprised at the latest attempt to spin vanity into gold, for that is the alchemy of our time. A group of scientists have set up a shop on the internet, where they have started selling species’ names. For as little (or as much) as DM5,000, you can now select your own species and have it named in your honour.
The group responsible calls itself Biopat. Perhaps I should have cried with joy when I stumbled across their site (www.biopat.de)-there is always a need for the intrusion of commercial sense into the great scientific enterprise. But to be pawning orchids like so many Rolex watches, to be hawking Irian Jayan beetles like two-bit pedlars of cheap perfume, to be dispensing Madagascan frogs and sea anemones like door-to-door sellers of Avon hair products-it all seemed just a fraction tasteless.
There is a long tradition of idiocy in taxonomy. The father of both the discipline and its moral waywardness was Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swede, who had a nose like a parsnip and a surprisingly prurient imagination. Just to give you a smattering of his preoccupations: he named a mollusc, penicillus penis, and a butterfly-pea, clitoria. The calyx (the cup from which a flower blooms), he called the labia majora or “foreskin”; and to those flowering plants with two groups of stamens (the phallic part of the flower) he allocated the name diadelphia, meaning, roughly, “brotherhood of husbands.”