Birding Despite Disability

Obsessions Don't Care About Limitations

More Thoughts on Bird Names and Barriers

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.

Albert Einstein: Genius. Pacifist. Humanitarian. Racist.

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.

8 responses to “More Thoughts on Bird Names and Barriers”

  1. You make perfect sense. It’s a tremendous self-own for a scientific organization to capriciously purge and indiscriminantly defile the legacies of its pioneers like this. It sends a cultural message that, rather than standing on the shoulders of flawed (i.e., human) giants, each of us is simply the latest in a long line of utter degenerates — so indistinguishable and collectively guilty (if white and male) that the naming police can’t be arsed to so much as explain what each has done to warrant censure. In a twist that Orwell would relish, they’re doing this in the name of “inclusivity.” I’m hard-pressed to imagine a course of action more polarizing and divisive than this one. I urge the AOS to reconsider.

    -Robb Hamilton

  2. Thank you Forest for posting this as it so eloquently speaks for me and my thoughts almost to the ‘T’. Enough of this nonsense and let move on.

  3. Thank you. Well said and important well beyond bird names. Sally Conyne

  4. The physicists you reference actually *discovered* things. These were things prior to their work unknown –– perhaps even unknowable. There’s a vast difference between that and an animal species named in someone’s honor. In the latter case, the species had been known –– perhaps by dozens of names for as long as people had been seeing, hearing, eating them, etc. Our modern English nomenclature, however, creates a game with its own rules that include collecting a specimen of something, saying “this is this thing”, curating it in a museum collection, and bestowing upon it a name that people playing the same game will agree to use henceforth. That’s description, but hardly ever discovery. For birds that we all experience all over the globe, it’s practically tautological that the person who is credited with describing a species cannot be the first person to discover it. For honorific naming the connection is even more tenuous: Audubon named multiple species for benefactors who helped pay his engraving and printing bills. It doesn’t matter how genuinely lovely some of those folks might have been, there’s a broader question here concerning whether living things should bear the names of individual humans.

    You mention Wilson – beloved, ambitious, talented, tireless, died-way-too-young Wilson. His mentor Charles Peale was aghast at the trend among naturalists at the dawn of the 19th Century to name species for people. Wilson would’ve died a second death to learn that multiple species had been posthumously named in his honor.

    Lost in the reactions to the AOS’s recent decision is this major point: Regardless of the difficulty in judging historical figures through modern ethical lenses, it has never been established what name-worthy means. The ad-hoc committee recommended to the AOS leadership that the better way forward is to leave it undefined, like zero in the denominator. Let’s simply cease to recognize primary, eponymous common names for birds. The AOS leadership adopted that recommendation and the rest is a continuing, growing, new chapter of of a rich and fascinating history.

    1. Tim! Thank you for taking the time to write this.

      I will first say that your comments are the best piece of writing on this topic from the “pro” side that I have yet encountered. You make good points and exert persuasive effects. I agree with various ideas in there.

      One place where we disagree (and where I am in a minority, I must concede), is that I don’t draw a thick line of demarcation between “living being” and the rest of nature. Nature is a handful of coupled quantum fields that follow certain rules. Everything else comes from that fact. Atoms, molecules, chemistry, rocks, planets, biochemistry, cells, and organisms. With incredible economy, we yet get limitless complexity emergent from simplicity. I find it all miraculous and have sat in wonder at it ever since I started my formal education decades ago. Nature is all one rich and gorgeous tapestry in which some parts can replicate and evolve. I see no reason to set rules about how we should name some parts after people but not other parts. Moreover, we’ve been naming organisms after people, especially in the binomial, for as long as science has existed. Whether you discover something utterly new, or are describing for the first time, systematically, something that others have already seen, is a distinction without much difference to me. It is still all the work of science, often difficult, worthy of incentivizing.

      I don’t begrudge your personal preference to eschew honorific monikers for living beings, but that is all I see it as. A personal preference. Okay. What I have a problem with is its use (by others) as a stalking horse for a political cause that really isn’t even about bird names. Take our conversation on names qua names out of the political context, and it changes somewhat. I wish it didn’t. But the intentions and machinations behind the effort matter. Some of those intentions are good. Some are not, IMHO.

      You personally may be content with the naming of Gadolinium atoms (not discovered by Gadolin, but named after him) for they are not living beings. But should anyone claim that this elemental moniker is “exclusionary” or “harmful” or a “barrier”, because it is yet another verbal statue to another European scientist, well, then, your rule can be disposed of. Some people will use your maxim if it is convenient to their cause, and drop it when it isn’t. Exhibit A: certain parties now demanding that the Magellanic Clouds (!) be renamed. Or the James Webb Space Telescope. Or closer to home, the Audubon Society. Why shouldn’t they ask that the name Cornell be removed, so as to make eBirding more inclusive? That honoree has some “problematic” issues, which you can look up. Honestly, if I was choosing to be offended by the likes of “Bell’s” Vireo, I’d be even more up in arms about the idea that I should photograph or record the bird and send my media on to the Macauley Library, until they change the name. That would require no AOS committees nor years of deliberations.

      If I were Emperor of bird names, there would be no changes; at least, that would be my baseline position But I’d listen, and I’d be willing to make some concessions if the Birds Names for Birds folks could argue a case as compellingly as you do, Tim. Especially if their motivations were in line with what you are expressing. I’d try to make everyone happy. Blathering on about “decolonization” as they do is the opposite of compelling.

      There is a wonderful moment at the end of the wonderful 2009 documentary, “Collision.” The film follows the late Christopher Hitchens and Pastor Douglas Wilson as they travel together to do a series of debates on religion. Here they are, going at it hammer-and-tongs on questions such as the existence of God, where little compromise is possible. At the end, during a taxi ride, atheist Hitchens tells Wilson something astonishing: that even if he could change the mind of every last believer, and drive extinct what he regards as nothing but pernicious superstition… he wouldn’t do it. He would leave a few believers behind. (Maybe because he could not imagine not having people to argue with!) There is something poignant in that and it keeps coming to mind as I ruminate on our bird topic. I say: keep a few honorific names.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

  5. I think name changes need to be made on a case by case basis. Take the Kirtland’s Warbler named for Jared Kirtland. He was one of the foremost naturalists of his time. He was an abolitionist whose farm was on the Underground Railroad. He also used his botanical knowledge to help his neighboring farmers improve their crops, worked with the Ohio legislature for prison reform, helped to bring clean drinking water to Cleveland and helped start what became the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Does he deserve to be lumped in with those that had birds named after them that were slave owners, grave robbers, and insurrectionists?

    1. Thanks Mike. Well said.

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