The image above pictures Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman. He was a brilliant physicist whose work helps us understand how blue feathers get their color, among many other things. His name is attached to concepts such as Raman scattering and Raman spectroscopy.
The natural world overflows with an abundance of variety and if we are to study it, we must name all the parts.
The natural world isn’t just birds and trees, slime molds and paramecia. It is also galaxies and exo-planets, sediments and geological layers, conservation laws and symmetries, chemical processes and pathways, and an uncountable number of other things that exist independently of humans.
Even mathematics is a part of nature; in fact, it is nature at its most fundamental level. It certainly isn’t a human invention or “language.” It unveils truths that exist “out there” no less than biology does.
We have to discover all of this, and that is not easy.
In naming what we discover, we sometimes, not always, give some credit to those that did the work. It is not a perfect process, and it has not always been fair. But there are good reasons to recognize people and provide additional incentive for contributing to our shared knowledge. In some fields, this is a common practice. In others, not so much. For example, only about 5% of North American birds have a common English name that commemorates a person.
Since I am a physicist, I will, off the top of my head, riff on some of the names we use to refer to other parts of the same natural world, parts that are no less real than a sparrow. In fact they are more fundamental than a sparrow, more universal. You may know some, not others:
Galilean invariance. Newton’s laws of motion. Bose-Einstein statistics. Fermions. Maxwell’s equations. The Stark effect. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Curie temperature. Planck’s constant. The Pauli exclusion principle. The Higgs boson. Fraunhofer lines. Helmholtz free energy. The Schrödinger equation. Minkowski space. Amperage. Voltage. Gaussian distribution. Lorentz transformation. The Laplacian. The Hamiltonian. Noether’s theorem…
Your eyes are glazing over… apologies! I’m a nerd and was just getting started, but I’ll stop. You get the idea: we name a lot more than 5% of our “birds” in physics after people.
You may or may not know much about the individuals in that short list. I imagine that if you did some digging, you’d eventually find something objectionable about most of them. (If you find nothing, well, then, that particular soul must have hid their skeletons pretty well.) I’ve never engaged in such an intellectually forlorn activity myself, but have at it, if you are so inclined. I do know that Johannes Stark was downright evil (he also won a Nobel Prize), and that even kindly old Albert Einstein, everyone’s favorite eccentric, genius uncle, expressed horribly racist ideas about Chinese people. Sorry to rob you of your innocence on that fact, if that’s news to you.
So, do these names, and the thousands more like them (not to mention those in other fields) all need to be changed to make science more “welcoming”? Are these “verbal statues” that must come down?
Where does it stop?
Please let that question marinate in your brain juices as we get back to the AOS bird naming controversy.
If we could have rational actors representing the two sides, they’d meet in the middle. And if I were one of the parties, I would most respectfully say to the other: I’m here to listen and take concrete steps to make birding better for everyone. And yes, I’ll make some concessions. I’ll accept (against my own better judgment) that we take down some bird names that are representative of the worst examples you’ve cited. I understand the symbolic value of doing this. I’ll meet you halfway. But you cannot have them all. You cannot have Alexander Wilson and a number of others who, despite whatever flaws they might have had, were extraordinary, inspiring individuals. They don’t deserve the ignominy, nor these first stones cast by the self-proclaimed sinless. Need I point out the equally powerful symbolic value here as well?
To negotiate in good faith, you need to be willing to give some ground. One side, so far, has refused to do this. But paradoxically, they would actually win more if they made some modest concessions, because reasonable people prefer to see accords made, and they lament the worsening polarization. Those who truly honor diversity will act to consecrate diversity of opinion.
When it comes to historical figures, let’s have some nuance. In judging them, let us be splitters and not lumpers. We can yet have Pinewoods (nee Bachman’s) Sparrow and Wilson’s Warbler. Bathwater status: thrown out. Baby status: safe and sound. Everyone wins. Everyone learns something.
What say you?
I wish you all the birdiest of days.