Welcome to the new Saturday posting schedule! In honour of that, today we’re talking about… spite! Spite is an amazing thing. It’s actually the reason that Diane Duane started writing for Star Trek, which is simply fantastic. It’s also one of many ways to pick a name for a species. You’re not supposed to pick a species name to insult someone, but that doesn’t stop scientists from occasionally sneaking through a species named out of spite.
And just how long have people been using spite in scientific names? Literally since they were a thing. There are a few examples of species Linnaeus intended as insults to other parties. But one that has a particular lot of support is the genus Siegesbeckia.
The 18th century was a bit of a strange time. While the presence or lack of sex organs in different plants is a fairly sensible way of categorizing how they relate to each other, Johann Georg Siesbeck objected rather strongly to the system. Specifically, he called it “loathsome harlotry” and found the idea of a single plant fertilizing dozens of others to be immoral.
Linnaeus responded to this criticism by naming a plant after him. Specifically, a rather smelly one. Now there’s an insult that stands the test of time.
And then there was Daniel Rolander, the student who decided he wasn’t going to share all his samples. Apparently breaking into his house and stealing materials back and getting him banned from various academic organizations wasn’t enough. Linnaeus also decided to name a beetle Aphansus rolandri. Linnaeus often honoured people by naming species after them. But generally not by making the genus the Greek word for “insignificant”.
In the 19th century, paleontology got pretty heated. So it’s no surprise there were some classic spite namings that happened in that era.
J. Holland, the director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, was notorious for claiming first author on all papers for himself. Last week we discussed some more unusual ways of determining first authorship, but in general it’s supposed to be the person who did the most work on the project. So it was only a matter of time before an employee opted to name a giant prehistoric hog Dinohyus hollandi.
And then there were the bone wars, a period of intense and frankly foolish competition that I’ll have to write about in detail at some point. The short version is that rival paleontologists Cope and Marsh spent a ludicrous amount of time and money trying to discover more dinosaurs than each other. What began as a friendly rivalry quickly deteriorated.
Eventually, Cope named an extinct mammal Anischonus cophater, in honour of all the Cope haters he found himself surrounded by. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Oxyacodon marshater came along to honour the other side of the conflict.
Most of the examples of spiteful species names are older since there are supposed to be rules about that sort of thing now. But there was a recent controversy centered on Russia based journal pirating site Scihub.
There are, of course, the usual controversies about any website that illicitly reposts journal articles from in behind paywalls. But the story took a bizarre turn when the webmaster actually blocked access to the site within Russia citing harassment. Specifically, Russian researchers naming a species of parasitic insect after her. The study’s author insists that it was meant as an honour, but there are certain optics.