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.”
But the stupidity did not end with the father: it was inherited by many of his sons. Traditionally, of course, a new species is named by the scientist who first publishes a description of it in a scientific journal. This has never been a guarantee of good taste. There is, for example, a rhinoceros beetle whose proper scientific name is enema pan. There is a wasp called verae peculya, a water beetle named ytu brutus, a jumping spider called abracadabrella birdsville, and a salamander that goes by the name of oedipus complex.
Recent cataclysms in the taxonomic universe must also include the naming of a marine snail bufonaria borisbeckeri, after the tennis player, and the bestowal upon a Columbian tree frog of the title hyla stingi, after Sting, the British pop singer. Who would have dreamed that scientists should be so sycophantic?
In similar vein, an owl louse has been named strigiphilus garylarsoni, a…