These changes aren’t just about removing problematic terms or figures. It’s also a chance to build a better and more inclusive scientific community.
Animal and plant names may seem like an innocuous topic, but many species have names with racist or offensive connotations that are harmful and exclusionary for people. Other species are named for racist scientists or for people who have otherwise problematic pasts.
New Names for Moths, Ants, and Birds
In July 2021, the Entomological Society of America announced it would no longer use the common names for the ‘gypsy moth’ and the ‘gypsy ant’ (their scientific names are Lymantria dispar and Aphaenogaster araneoides). The organization’s executive director explained, “Words matter, and what we call something matters. And by using the former name for Lymantria dispar, it really was very hurtful to the Romani people.”
In 2020, the North American Classification Committee changed the name of a grassland bird from McCown’s longspur to the thick-billed longspur. The bird was originally named for John McCown, a Confederate general. In 2018, a graduate student in ornithology proposed the name change but the committee rejected it, arguing that McCown made “legitimate contributions to ornithology.” The committee reconsidered its stance in the wake of the protests for racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
These aren’t isolated incidents but part of a growing movement.
Scientists Working Together to Reassess Names
While some changes are being driven by individual activists, there are now groups that exist to advocate for the removal of harmful names.
The Entomological Society of America runs the Better Common Names Project which seeks public input on what insect names should be changed, including:
Names that contain derogative terms
Names for invasive species with inappropriate geographic references
Names that inappropriately disregard what the insect might be called by native communities.
Bird Names for Birds campaigns to remove all eponymous bird names (meaning named after a particular person) or honorific common bird names “because they perpetuate colonialism and the racism associated with it.”As an example, the group cites Bachman’s Sparrow, named for John Bachman, a naturalist who owned slaves and argued there was a religious and scientific justification for slavery.
The field of ornithology is particularly fraught. Many birds are named for famous conservationists or birders who enslaved people, including John James Audubon. Further, scholars have pointed out that birds (along with other animals and plants) already had names when white people “discovered” them and that current bird names are a “reminder of how Western ornithology, and natural exploration in general, was often tied to a colonialist mind-set of conquering.”
In response to critics who claim that changing names might be confusing, scientists argue that species’ names actually change all the time. Though these changes are usually the result of scientific discovery as we learn more about how animals and plants behave in nature, the principle is the same. Names should reflect our best understanding of the world around us.
These changes aren’t just about removing problematic terms or figures. It’s also a chance to build a better and more inclusive scientific community. As Jessica Ware, the president-elect of the Entomological Society of America, says, “We can choose language that reflects our shared values.”