What's in a Name?
CITATION: Schueler, Frederick W. 1999. What's in a Name? EOBM Almanack, Summer 1999 1(3):4-5.

What's in a Name?

In most interactions between People and other species, those species which are more conspicuous, or those which have the greatest impact on People's activities, are most closely regarded. English has dozens of names for Canis familiaris L. (Dog, bitch, whelp, pup, puppy, mutt, mongrel, cur, hound, terrier, pariah, Dingo, Collie, sheepdog, Dachshund, Rottweiler, Spaniel, setter, pointer, retriever, Otterhound, Doberman, Poodle...) but we'll lump representatives of five kingdoms as "scum," just because they're small, 'unimportant,' and not closely related to us. The cultural point of view which systematic and museum biologists have introduced to the world is that all species are of equal value, regardless of how closely they are related to People. One lesson systematics teaches is that it's not other species' responsibility to be interesting to us, but our responsibility to find out about them.

The attempt to name all the kinds of organisms is the great scholarly expression of this biological egalitarianism, and it has consumed the efforts of naturalists for two and a half centuries. Ever since Linneaus began this project in the 1750's, systematists have tried to group species into 'natural' assemblages (taxa), so that as many of their characteristics as possible fit the classification. A century later, Darwin showed that the more 'natural' groups seemed 'natural' because they were related by descent. A century after that, Willi Hennig showed that the only scientifically practical way of delimiting 'natural' taxa was by grouping together all the descendants of a single common ancestor, on the basis of the derived characters that they share (and that, as a corollary, similarity based on shared primitive characteristics can't delimit a 'natural' group) [footnote 1].

"Reptiles," to use the classic example, can't be a class of Vertebrates of the same rank as Birds and Mammals, because the traditional 'Reptilia' excluded those descendants of the ancestral reptile that became Birds or Mammals. To a naturalist, then, every organism trails behind it an ethereal branching pattern of ancestry, like a shadow tree, tracing back into the mists of time, each node on the tree memorialized by the names of the taxon composed of all the descendants of this ancestral species. We build this shadow tree in our minds by identifying the patterns of shared derived characters in morphology, behaviour, biochemistry, or genetics.

One implication of this, which is not widely observed, is that in English the names of each of these natural groups is a proper noun. There has long been dissention among biologists and naturalists about capitalizing the names of species, but the recognition of species and higher taxa as historic individuals is an important advance in the philosophy of biology over the past twenty years, and requires the capitalization of their English names. Lower-casing the names of taxa is an assertion that they are classes of objects that could be made up anywhere or anytime, a convenient fiction for those who wish to ignore their significance. Capitalizing names is an assertion that taxa are individuals with a particular historical origin, duration, and extent [footnote 2]. It is perhaps significant that among North American Animals the main proponent of lower-casing names is the American Fisheries Society, with exploitation embedded in its name, while the main proponent of upper-casing species' names is the American Ornithologist's Union, the first advocates of a group of Animals to band together for their taxon's own sake.

Notice the similarity to the way groups of People are named: you can become a 'liberal' or 'anglophone' on the basis of your own efforts, but you can only become 'a Liberal' or 'English' through membership in an existing institution or nation [footnote 3]. The capitalization of the names of higher taxa assumes a kind of mapping of formal taxonomic names onto the English names which has not usually been thought of. "Amphibians" as commonly used is an English name for the formal taxonomic 'Lissamphibia' (the modern Amphibia: Anura [frogs and toads], Urodela [Salamanders], and Gymnophiona [Caecilians]), excluding the antique Labyrinthodonts, Microsaurs, etc., and as such it deserves capitalization.

The other side of treating the names of monophyletic taxa as proper nouns, is that the names of 'paraphyletic' groupings that exclude some of the descendants of the most recent common ancestor are not proper nouns, and are not capitalized: thus 'invertebrates' vs 'Vertebrates,' 'Passerine' vs 'nonpasserine' Birds, marine 'fish' vs 'Mammals,' and 'Flowering Plants' vs 'fern allies.' On the other hand, it's improper to make up names of non-taxa that have a taxonomic form, such as 'herpetile' to refer to Amphibians and reptiles. This kind of constant attention to the evolutionary status of the species referred to by an English name is unfamiliar to most writers and readers, but it accords the history of the organisms named the same kind of importance accorded to human institutions.

We try to be consistent in this usage in EOBM publications, but we're breaking new ground here, and there's no body of precedent on which to base our decisions. Certainly 'Coffee,' as a shrub (Coffea arabica) is to be capitalized, but is the beverage derived from it also capitalized? Probably not, on the model of 'french toast' and 'english' as the spin on a tennis ball, though when back bacon is called 'Canadian bacon' in the USA 'Canadian' is always capitalized. But right down at the heart of the matter, capitalization is used to accord and recognize respect for an entity. As no branch on the tree of life is intrinsically more important than another, the English names of all taxa deserve to be capitalized.


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COMMENTS: We stated our basic policy on the capitalization of English names in the preface to Canadian Nature Notebook: "I have capitalized the common names of species because they are proper nouns and could otherwise be confused with description." (Aleta Karstad, p 7, 1979, CNN, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto. 144 pp.).

We were also part of the discussion a few years later, when the Canadian Field-Naturalist, under the editorship of Francis Cook, adopted this same policy of capitalizing the standard English common names of all species.

In the years since, especially in wrestling with the paraphyletic character of the organisms lumped under the term "herpetile," we realized that the names of all monophyletic taxa were proper nouns and their names should also be capitalized. Working with this idea in the pages of A Place to Walk (Karstad, Aleta, Frederick W. Schueler, and Lee Ann Locker. 1995. APTW: A naturalist's journal of the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail. Natural Heritage/Natural History, Toronto. 159 pp.), brought us to the stage expressed of the essay presented here.

This essay was composed in the search for a capitalization policy for the publications of the Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum. It failed to convince the members of the publications committee that the names of monophyletic taxa should be capitalized, though their objections did not refute the contention that these names were proper nouns, but centred around the unfamiliarity of the novelty of the practice. The journal Biodiversity, under the editorship of the late Don McAllister, on the other hand, did capitalize the English names of all taxa, with this:

"Policy of Respect: The fundamental policy of Biodiversity is to communicate knowledge of biodiversity and its conservation. In line with conservation, we view it as needful to engender and foster respect for all living species. One simple way to do this is to capitalize the names of all taxa within the journal's pages. This style of capitalization differs from the usual practice of lowercasing the common names of all organisms in many popular publications, and the varying practices found in scientific journals. For instance, common names for Birds are often capitalized, Fish names are not, according to their North American professional societies' rules, and so on.

"Capitalization has had a long editorial history of being used to draw attention to things that we deem important. This includes people's names, names of countries and other geographic units, religions, organizations like the United Nations, and many others. By capitalizing the names of all formally named species, Biodiversity reminds its readers that these species are an important part of the family of life. It is crucial for Humans to learn to live in harmony with the other species of the planet Earth, which sustain vital local and planetary support systems as well as proving biological resources and spiritual nurture. In addition, for purely practical purposes, capitalization makes it easier to search for name-based information." -- Catherine Ripley and Don McAllister - 21 Dec 1999.

It was interesting to us that for both the EOBM publications committee and Biodiversity, the argument that was advanced against capitalization of monophyletic names, other than unfamiliarity, was that opinions on the monophyly of groups might change with time: "Today's monophyletic group may be tomorrow's paraphyletic group. Molecular work is having surprising and contradictory results..." Our reply was that no document can be expected to anticipate future discoveries, and that if we differentiate those groups we think of as para- vs holo-phyletic we'll remind the future reader of the history of knowledge of the group he's reading about, just as 'Hyolcichla' now serves as a reminder of the history of our knowledge of the relationships of Thrushes.

The idea of capitalization is to communicate the author's beliefs about monophyly, not to divine the 'facts' of phylogeny. The basic point to us still is that the relationships and history of other species deserve the same importance we accord to the history and relationships of Human People and their institutions, and that if proper nouns are to be capitalized, no nouns are more worthy of this sign of respect than the names of natural taxa. -- F.W.Schueler - Janaury 2006.

footnote 1: He also, perhaps unfortunately, drew up a frightening suite of words to describe these relationships. Shared derived characteristics are 'synapomorphies,' shared primitive characteristics are 'sympleisiomorphies,' groups descended from a single common ancestor are 'monophyletic' or 'holophyletic,' and those that exclude some of the descendants are 'paraphyletic,' etc., etc.

footnote 2: Ghiselin, M. 1974. A radical solution to the species problem. Systematic Zoology 23:536-544; Ghiselin, M. 1987. Species concepts, individuality, and objectivity. Biology and Philosophy 2:127-143; Hull, D. L. 1978. A matter of individuality. Philosphy of Science 45:335-360.

footnote 3: We use "People" or "Human People" as the natural English common name for our species, since we feel that the widely used "human being" represents an anthropocentric commodification or abstraction or immaterialization, or something, of humanity. People who call themselves ‘human beings' don't think of this of an English common name formed on the basis of the same principles that they would use in calling Dendroica petechia the ‘Yellow Warbler,' so it's an artificial common name (like the made-up English names of many mushrooms, that were only called by their names until field guide editors insisted that every species must have an English name), for a species that already has a perfectly satisfactory colloquial name.