Reality Conditions

Friday, August 18, 2006

A Bemused Comment on the Pitfalls of Scientific Nomenclature

A bit of news that has appeared recently has set me thinking about how human thought in general, and science in particular, need to divide the world into categories according to concepts, and how the ultimately pragmatic nature of those concepts may backfire, when what seems to be a useful name for a kind becomes a bad one and unexpected problems arise...

Eh? You think I am talking about the polemic about the status of Pluto and our brand-new definition of "planet"? No, why would I get into that topic that has been beaten to death already? (I will only say that minutes ago chating with a friend on MSN I asked him if he knew our solar system had 12 planes now, and when he said he didn't I said "yes, they discovered 3 more made of dark matter which is why they hadn't noticed them before". I think he believed it for half a second.) I want to talk about a much humbler thing that planets -beetles.

There is a species of beetle which is being hunted down to extintion. This is despite the fact that there are 41 other species in the same genus, with only minor differences that could be of interest only to a very dedicated entomologist. The beetle is being hunted just for having the name it has.

Which is? Anophthalmus hitleri

Named to honour the Führer himself by the German collector who discovered it in 1933, and victim of the unbreakable rules of taxonomy which enshrine the name first given to the species. It is not being hunted down by odium towards the Nazis, but (depressingly) by the opposite: neo-Nazi sympathizers are willing to pay a large amount of money for them and use them as symbols.

Spanish-speaking readers can find more information in the Clarín article that prompted this post; English-speakers could go, as usually, to Wikipedia.

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