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 spider has been called calponia harrisonfordi, another spider has been designated draculoides bramstokeri, and an unsuspecting wasp has been stung with the nomenclature polemistus chewbacca. There is also a midge in existence that goes by the name of dicrotendipes thanatogratus, presumably chosen in honour of that-most-midge-like-of-all-rock-bands, the Grateful (gratus) Dead (thanatos).
Even the civilising imposition of Latin and Greek has not ensured austerity in the names of things. A comedic biologist, a few years ago, named a fly brachyanax thelestrephones, which roughly translates as “little chief nipple twister.”
Now, though, it is not just the odd lunatic scientist who can throw a spanner into the taxonomic works. Biopat offers any old mug the chance to lumber into the field with his or her own personal idiocies. With over 10,000 new species described every year, the potential for some rich bugger to make himself famous among the readers of the world’s biology journals is enormous. The only snag is that most of the species up for grabs are so damned horrid.
At present, we only have proper names for a tenth of all the species on earth. But most of the good ones and all of the big ones have long since been classified. What is left are a lot of spiders and insects and bacteria and viruses. No doubt, if the lion (panthera leo) could be put up for auction, Biopat might get millions for its conversion to Pantera twentiethcenturyvulpes. But I cannot begin to imagine who would pay, for example, to give their name to the likes of the African swine fever virus. Or the faba bean necrotic yellow virus. Or the milk vetch dwarf virus. Or the subterranean clover stunt virus. Or some debilitating liver fluke-no matter how exotic.
With all the good species already spoken for, what could the people at Biopat be dreaming? I can only assume that they are planning to become an IIP (Internet Insult Provider). After all, if it hadn’t been discovered yet, I am sure that Alastair Campbell would have loved to buy the rights to the pygmy spotted skunk, simply in order to call it spilogale villiamhagui. And there must be millions of computer users who would have snapped at the chance to name the least weasel mustela billusgatesi.
If that is their agenda, I think it is a shameless way to raise money, no matter how cash-strapped taxonomic research may be. Ever since Ernest Rutherford derided biology as mere “stamp collecting,” taxonomy has found itself just a shade short of being the least glamorous field of science. (That dubious honour must go to myxomycology-the science of slime moulds.) Now, this inglorious discipline seems to have slumped to a new low.
Henceforth, when I think of taxonomy, I shall always remember the scientific name of a Fijian snail: ba humbugi. Most of the good species already have names. What is left is a lot of spiders, insects, bacteria and viruses