Book Tour: The Art of Naming

4 gaga

Specimen of Gaga marginata (Kunth) Fay W.Li & Windham (formerly Cheilanthes marginata) from the United State National Herbarium

This is the last post in a series (1,2,3) on books I read on a recent trip.  I found The Art of Naming by Michael Ohl (2018) on an earlier trip and brought it along on this one.  Ohl is a German entomologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, and he tackles many aspects of the question: how do species get named?  This is a work about nomenclature and taxonomy that sometimes borders on the technical, but always in a way that’s accessible to the general reader.  Of course, there is the issue of whether or not the general reader really wants to know this much about nomenclature, but Ohl provides enough good stories along the way to keep his audience engaged.  This work was translated from the German by Elisabeth Lauffer, and I think she is also partly responsible for its readability, though there is always a slight hint of the difficulty of smooth translation.

While understandably Ohl takes most of his examples from the insect world, or at least from zoology, I found this a fascinating book because he is so good at describing the ins and outs of taxonomy, a field in which I am definitely not an expert.  Yes, the rules of nomenclature are different in zoology and botany, but most of the problems are similar.  For example, at one point he deals with the issue of those who have named a great many taxa, thousands of them.  Here he refers to an article by Daniel Bebber and coauthors (2010) in which they describe “big hitters,” those who collected many new species.  In their study Bebber’s group found that just 2% of plant collectors were responsible for over half the type specimens in a sample of 100,000 types.

Ohl found “big hitters” in entomology as well, but they were not collectors, rather those who described and named new species.  There are such individuals in botany as well, and in both cases, their reputations are not all stellar.  A Ohl notes, taxonomy seems to cause a certain mania in some practitioners, a passion for naming as many new species as possible.  A number of these individuals are considered “splitters,” focusing on small differences and tending to write brief descriptions.  In naming so many species, it’s not surprising that they might name the same species twice or even three times, and a taxonomist’s rate of synonymy is considered a measure of reliability, the lower the better.  Ohl relates several stories of taxonomists gone wild, but tempers his criticism by mentioning all the good work these individuals did as well.  This sense of balance is what makes the book so interesting; he is not afraid to look at both sides of nomenclatural debates.

One topic Ohl covers in detail is what makes a name acceptable or not.  The rules here vary somewhat from those in botany, but many are similar:  not naming a species after oneself, following rules of Latin or Greek grammar, and not applying a name that has already been used.  He relishes the subject of naming as a way to draw attention to a species, or to the one for whom it’s named.  I know there is a fern genus named after Lady Gaga, but now I know that there’s a spider named for David Bowie.  Ohl also tackles the topic of naming as fund-raising, which apparently has been going on for some time.  The German organization BIOPAT was founded in 1999; it makes undescribed species available to donors.  Rates start at 2,600 euros per species and depend on what the market will bear, in other words how attractive in some way the species is.  By 2013, the organization had raised 620,000 euros.  But there are other approaches, including an auction in 2005 to name a new titi monkey species in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park.  The British biologist describing it, Robert Wallace, decided to set up the auction to raise money for the Park.  Ultimately, the name was “sold” for $650,000 to the Golden Palace online casino, and now the monkey is Callicebus aureipalatti.  There are auctions on eBay to name plants, but the stakes are definitely not that high.  In this survey, Ohl again balances questions about naming-for-money against the sadly underfunded world of conservation biology.

Besides telling such fascinating stories, Ohl also deals with fundamental issues:  “getting at the essence of a species is one of the most difficult, controversial, and yet most important questions in biology” (p. 84).  He explores the issue in terms of deciding on a type specimen or specimens and what this designation signifies:  “Type species are not representatives of biological species from representations of names of biological species” (p. 108).  He points out how types have become essential in taxonomy and discusses the ins and outs of designating a lectotype (in zoology, a type designated after the species has already been named) for humans.  It was in fact a botanist, William Stearn, who chose Carl Linnaeus’s remains as representative for all Homo sapiens.  While Ohl doesn’t deal much with the digitization of natural history collections and using bioinformatics to bring order to nomenclature, that may be because these projects are farther along in botany than in zoology.  In any case, this was definitely a good read on a rather “interesting” trip north.


Bebber, D. P., Carine, M. A., Wood, J. R. I., Wortley, A. H., Harris, D. J., Prance, G. T., … Scotland, R. W. (2010). Herbaria are a major frontier for species discovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(51), 22169–22171.

Ohl, M. (2018). The Art of Naming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1959). The background of Linnaeus’s contributions to the nomenclature and methods of systematic biology. Systematic Zoology, 8(1), 4–22.

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