Len Gillman was hiking among kauri trees with his wife in the forest-clad Waitakere Ranges near his home in West Auckland, New Zealand, when he remembered something that had bothered him since he was a student in the 1980s: Why was the scientific name for these giant conifers Agathis australis when they have been called “kauri” for centuries by New Zealand’s Indigenous Māori?
“It just struck me as a very colonial thing to do: to move into a place and essentially rename everything that already had names—names that embodied Indigenous people’s knowledge and were important for their sense of place and belonging,” says Gillman, who is a professor of biogeography at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.*
Scientists in the country are increasingly naming new species in consultation with local iwi (Māori tribes). But Gillman wants to go further. In a comment paper published in late October in Communications Biology, he and Shane Wright of the University of Auckland argue that taxonomic protocols should allow scientific names worldwide to be changed to reflect long-held Indigenous names for plants and animals.
Since the 18th century, biologists have used the so-called binomial nomenclature system devised by the Swedish “father of taxonomy” Carl Linnaeus, whose format gives every species a unique two-part name consisting of a broader genus category, followed by an individual species name. “The binomial itself is a great thing,” Wright says. “It really opened up our understanding of diversity in the world.” Yet that does not mean the system cannot be improved and modernized, he adds. Many species and generic labels are derived from the surnames of people who are, in many cases, Wright notes, “long dead and long forgotten”—expedition sponsors, minor naturalists or individuals to whom the taxonomist owed a favor.
Many of these names are now not only meaningless to most people but can also be confusing, Wright says. New Zealand, for instance, has at least 19 plant species, two birds and two fungi with the species epithet colensoi, named to honor 19th-century British missionary and naturalist William Colenso.
Some species are named after objectively awful people. Other bionomials use Indigenous names and words incorrectly or confusingly. And some incorporate racial slurs or other potentially offensive language. For example, although it is derived from a mountain range, the species name of Vosea whitemanensis (a gray-and-olive honeyeater endemic to the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea) now appears rather questionable.
In cases where an organism has been given multiple scientific names, taxonomists have traditionally prized “priority”—meaning the earliest properly published name is the “correct” one. In many cases, Wright points out, Indigenous name usage has long outlasted multiple taxonomic reclassifications. Persimmons have been called pessamin by Native Americans for at least hundreds of years. “If you’re talking about priority, that’s priority!” Wright says. Perhaps the scientific name for the common persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, should be Diospyros pessamin instead, he adds.
Then there is the conifer Prumnopitys taxifolia, which most New Zealanders know as mataī. Its Latin species name means “yewlike leaves,” which is itself a Eurocentric description that is not particularly helpful for New Zealand students of botany: many, Māori or not, would be far more familiar with a mataī than a yew.
Wright, who is Māori, would like to see the term changed to Prumnopitys mataī. “Mataī is a word that comes out of central Oceania, referring to the idea of prominence or leadership,” he says. “I don’t know who named it all those centuries ago, but when you see the mature tree—this huge presence in the forest—you think, ‘That’s a name that really fits. ’”
In Wright and Gillman’s vision, the process of reassigning such names would be Indigenous-led. They advocate for a system in which Indigenous groups could get together and submit a widely held Indigenous term to replace either the species or genus name of a plant or animal.
“It’s a really interesting idea,” says Sandra Knapp, a botanist at London’s Natural History Museum and the president of the Linnean Society. “It would be a disruption, but actually, some disruption is worth doing.” At least for the world of plant taxonomy, she says, she can envision a way of updating naming protocols so Indigenous groups can put forward proposals about particular species. Knapp adds, however, that there would be some complex and potentially sensitive implications to consider. “It’s easier to think about doing this in New Zealand,” she says. “But it would be much harder in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there are hundreds of languages.” Agreement would be crucial in such situations, Gillman says. “Names would only change if there was a consensus of Indigenous people that covered the whole range of the species,” he adds.
Concerns about the idea have emerged from the international body that regulates animal names. “The overarching goal that we’re working toward is stability in the scientific names of animals,” says Thomas Pape, president of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) and a zoologist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. “We really need to have one name, a standard international reference, for a given whale, a given orchid, a given monkey.” He says the ICZN favors using Indigenous or local terms as common names—and as part of the scientific names of newly identified species. But Pape contends that the threshold for changing an existing scientific name should be high. Scientific names already sometimes change as scientists refine their concepts of what a species fundamentally is, and as new data shed light on the relationships between them. Pape argues that altering a scientific name “because we find one that we like better” would add to the proliferation and make it harder for researchers trying to find all the published information about a given species.
Gillman and Wright are not surprised that there is resistance to their proposal. “The first time you present an idea like that, there is going to be an aspect of shock and awe, just because people are so comfortable with the way things are,” Wright says. “But even if the conversation lasts a couple of decades, it needs to start.”
*Editor’s Note (11/3/20): This sentence has been updated to reflect Len Gillman’s current position at the Auckland University of Technology.