Reading is a good pastime during the isolation most of us experience due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Recently I have been reading books that grapple with evolution, the species concept, and the naming of species (I also have read about wolves and cougars, making me much more attentive when in the great outdoors). As a student, I always thought of a species as a unique entity, clearly separated from related species by some type of reproductive barrier, whether it be physical, physiological or behavioural. As I learned more and more about biology, the concept of reproductive isolation as a defining characteristic of a species has become increasingly shaky in my mind. While useful for “higher” organisms, it quickly crumbles as we start looking at “lower” life, e.g., bacteria, protists, archaea and fungi. Thus, I now think of the need to define a species as little more than a useful bookkeeping method for humans, but of little actual relevance to ecology or evolution. Reading David Quammen’s “The tangled tree: a radical new history of life” all but put the final nail in the coffin, picking apart the comfortable image of the evolutionary tree and replacing it with a complex network of branches. Quammen tells of the discoveries of evolutionary processes, including those that elucidated Horizontal Gene Transfer and CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a prokaryotic immune system. CRISPR has revolutionized gene editing and is likely to play an enormous role in solving some genetic human health issues, e.g., the treatment of some blood diseases. Impressively, Quammen correctly predicted that a Nobel Prize would go to one or both of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their roles in the discovery of this powerful gene editing technique (The book was published in 2018, and they received the prize in Chemistry this year!). While some of the book gets rather technical, much of it focuses on the personalities, actions and interactions of the scientists behind the discoveries, including the arguments over evolution among these scientists. This makes the book quite enjoyable to read. David Quammen’s book also confirmed my sense of how utterly dependent we are on the myriad of microorganisms that we share our bodies with. Did you know that your body has more microorganism cells than human cells? Essentially, we are not autonomous individuals, but an ecosystem of symbiotes, most of which are commensal or mutualistic, but some that are parasitic. As someone with an at times less than cooperative intestinal microbiome, I certainly understand that better than I care to admit. Thinking back to my undergraduate days in Sweden, this book has been to me the literary equivalent to “Beam me up, Scotty”! (For another timely read by David Quammen, I strongly recommend “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” first published in 2012).
Right now, I am reading Stephen Heard’s delightful “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels” (if you are reading this, Stephen – sorry, but I am reading a library copy). The names of animals and plants, whether common or Latinized, have long interested me, and Heard discusses these in some detail in an engaging, educational, and entertaining style. He is not the first to tackle this topic of course. One of my favourite reads about organismal names goes all the way back to a 1993 Buzzwords column by the inimitable May Berenbaum. There is some overlap between Berenbaum’s column and Heard’s book, e.g., the story behind Strigiphilus garylarsoni and the less palatable story behind Rochlingia hitleri. Apart from that, Berenbaum highlights some names that clearly support that taxonomists are far from stodgy or boring, a fact that Stephen Heard also emphasizes. For example, a quote from Berenbaum’s column:
“A. Menke (1977, Contr. Am. Entomol. Inst. 24) named a species of sphecid wasp Pison eu, which is fairly innocuous with a long “i” but is something else altogether if pronounced with a short “i.” Such actions may well have led to the inclusion in the “Recommendations on the Formation of Names” (Appendix D.I.5) the statement “A zoologist should not propose a name that, when spoken, suggests a bizarre, comical, or otherwise objectional meaning” (p. 193).” (Berenbaum 1993)
Another example is this 2013 blog post or this one. Some of the most entertaining talks I have heard were by taxonomists. Anyway, some years ago, I actually wrote a blog about common names, and before I started reading Stephen Heard’s book, I had started on a 1993 book by Howard Ensign Evans, “Pioneer Naturalists: The Discovery and Naming of North American Plants and Animals”, that I found at the local used bookstore Literacy Central Vancouver Island. This bookstore has the mandate to provide funding for free literacy tutoring, so I like to support them. Evans’ 294 page book includes 84 chapters, all but three about the eponymous naming of various organisms. Like Stephen Heard’s book, it describes the person(s) honoured and the person naming the organism, but with less flair leading to some chapters that are quite short. Nevertheless, if you are interested in these types of stories, both Evans’ and Heard’s books are certainly worth reading.
I must end by stating that I actually had a species eponymously named for me. It is an obscure rove beetle, Metocalea lindgreni, named by my colleague and friend Jan Klimaszewski (Klimaszewski and Pelletier 2004). Stephen Heard discusses how people respond to having a species named after them, e.g., Gary Larson and Frank Zappa, and from personal experience I can confirm that even though I would not recognize M. lindgreni if it landed on my nose, having it named after me felt like a definite honour. Jan also named another species, Megocalea lemieuxi, for my graduate student, Jeffrey Lemieux, who collected these specimens as part of his Master of Science research. This came about because I contracted Jan to identify the specimens from Jeff’s pitfall trap collections near Smithers, BC. At the time, Jan was associated with BC Research, where he had to find his own funding. Not an easy task for a taxonomist of rove beetles as you may have already guessed. I had just started my new position at the University of Northern BC, and I had some funds that I could use for this.
Taxonomists are unfortunately becoming endangered, in part because of the perception that what they do is not important. We know very little about the organisms that inhabit this planet, particularly when it comes to invertebrates. We are still discovering previously undescribed large charismatic vertebrate species, e.g., a primate in 2017, and possibly a beaked whale very recently, and there are thousands upon thousands of insects in museum drawers still waiting to be described, with more discovered in nature literally every day. If we don’t know what is out there, how do we know what is important and what is not? We are losing both species that have been described and named, but also species that we do not even know existed, termed “centinelan extinction” by Edward O. Wilson in his book “The Diversity of Life” (Wilson 1992). We have a duty to our descendants to do better.
Berenbaum, M. 1993. Apis, Apis, Bobapis. American Entomologist 39(3): 133-134.
Klimaszewski, J. and G. Pelletier. 2004. Review of the Ocalea group of genera (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae, Aleocharinae) in Canada and Alaska: new taxa, bionomics, and distribution. The Canadian Entomologist , 136(4): 443 – 500. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4039/n03-069
Wilson, E.O. 1992. The Diversity of Life, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass., 440 pp.