Published on Sun Nov 29 2020

Global inequity in scientific names and who they honor

DuBay, S., Palmer, D. H., Piland, N.

Linnaean taxonomy is a cornerstone of Western biology in which organisms are given a two-part name (a genus and species) In this system, the names of species themselves take on additional functions, such as describing features of the organism or honoring individuals. We show that 95% of newly described species are described from the global South.

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Abstract

Linnaean taxonomy is a cornerstone of Western biology in which organisms are given a two-part name (a genus and species), creating biological units that help us order and manage our knowledge of the living world. In this system, the names of species themselves take on additional functions, such as describing features of the organism or honoring individuals (known as eponyms). Here, we interrogate how power and authority over the natural world are claimed through Western scientific naming practices to evaluate the legacies of imperialism, dispossession, and exclusion in these practices. We compile and analyze a dataset of all bird species descriptions from 1950 to present, asking: who has access and power to name species, and who is honored in species names? We show that 95% of newly described species are described from the global South, but the majority of species and eponyms are described by authors, and named after individuals, from the global North. We find an increase through time in authors from the global South, which is associated with a rise in eponyms that honor individuals from global South countries. However, this formal inclusion of global South authors has not translated into increases in first authorship (a primary form of credit and authority in Western science). We contextualize these disparities in naming and authorship within broader global structures of access and power put in place through centuries of European and U.S. imperialism, but a historical perspective alone ignores institutional and individual agency and incentives in present-day actions. As we increasingly reflect on the social foundations and impacts of our science, these findings show how research and labor in the global South continue to be disproportionately translated into power and authority in the global North, upholding and re-enacting imperial structures of domination.