Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#2 Arjen Mulder 1 Jan 1993

World Names

Brief news item: in Bosnia and Hercegovina, the first children conceived by Bosnian women after being raped by Serbian soldiers have been born. The women refuse to recognize these babies and leave them behind in hospital as soon as they have recovered from their delivery.


World Names -

Plant systematists pinpoint the beginning of modern taxonomy as being May 1st, 1753, the day that Species Plantarum, by Carolus Linnaeus, appeared, the first work in which all descriptions of species and higher taxa were classified in accordance with the Botanic Code. This stipulates that a taxon will not be recognized until a type specimen has been given a rank (species, genus, family, order, class, realm), a specific description (of species, genera and families of the type specimen which are attributed to the taxon by an author), and a place in the system of plants. Animal systematics has been functioning similarly since 1758, when Linnaeus published his comprehensive Systema Naturae. In this book, Linnaeus described 9000 different species of plants and animals.


The species is considered to be a natural unity, members of a species recognize one another as such, but whether genera are natural is a point of discussion. However, taxonomists do agree that the higher categories from the system of the realms of plants and animals – family, order, class, realm – are unknown to nature's participants. That the researchers attach importance to these higher taxa is because this is where the evolutionary relationship between all genera and species is manifested. A family consists of genera all descending from a common ancestor, which is, in turn, part of an order in which all families descend from an ancestor from a class, etc. – at least, that is how it is meant to be. The theory of evolution from Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), with its later reinterpretations, gives meaning to the system in this way. And this applies to the entire field of biology: eventually something can only be considered to be understood when it has found its place in the great history of evolution (from primaeval stage to modernity).

It is estimated that between 1.5 and 1.8 million plants and animals have been described. The descriptions of these plants and animals have not been computerized. There is no central archive of nature, retrievable by the touch of a key. It is scattered over old books, card-index systems, articles in journals, reference books and data bases (of some groups) in the archives of renowned or completely unknown institutes all over the world. The archive is incomplete. For example, three to five new birds are still discovered every year, and some twenty new mammals (over and above a total of 4000 mammals). Half of these is genuinely unknown, the rest is the result of reclassification within the system of the animal realm. There are some 17,500 to 20,000 different butterflies on this planet. In Great Britain, 22,000 endemic species of insects have been described. An obvious question is now: how many species are still waiting to be discovered? There are only 30,000 active taxonomists in the whole world (the biology area of taxonomy, which had its scientific hey-day in the 19th century, has seriously been affected by cut-backs). Only four percent of all taxonomists works in Latin America and in Africa south of the Sahara, the zones of the tropical rainforests. This explains why about two-thirds of all designated insects are non-tropical insects. All taxonomists are convinced that most non-described land animals and plants are to be found in the rain forest areas. In order to clarify the scale of the unknown on earth, various methods of assessment have been developed.

Terry L. Erwin came up with the result most appealing to the imagination. In Panama, he spread a rug under the tropical lime variety Luehea seemannii and sprayed an insecticide onto the leaf-covered crown of the tree. This enabled him to retrieve 1200 new kinds of beetle from the rug in the course of three seasons. His reasoning was as follows: twenty percent of all beetles in the foliage of a tree is specific to this kind of tree (can live on that variety only) – 160 beetles per species of tree. On the basis of the usual relation between specialized beetles and the total of the specialized insects per tree species, he came to a total of 600 different species of insect occurring per species of tree in the tropics. There are 50,000 different species of tree known to exist in tropical areas. This would imply that there is a total of 600 x 50,000 = 30 million species of insect occurring in the tropics. Wow!

The Urge of Labelling

The fascination of taxonomy can be explained by the fact that the amazing number of species, either described or not, has developed on earth without any kind of human intervention. The biology-designed system of nature is therefore referred to as a natural system, which can be reconstructed, but not produced. This fascination has incited the ethical problems which now dominate the discussion in scientific journals and newspapers: in the first place, should we not immediately put a stop to the destruction of ecosystems in which there are still so many unknown forms of life to be found; forms of life which have developed for the benefit of, or independently from, us human beings? And in the second place, should we be allowed to start putting together new species with the help of genetic engineering, on the basis of the genetic material passed on to us by nature? In short, the key words in the debate are biodiversity and genetic manipulation. What is not part of the discussion is the question of whether the urge to put a label on every living thing on earth is an ethically responsible undertaking. Since Adam, as the first taxonomist, rounded off Creation by giving a name to all plants and animals in the Garden of Eden, the obligation to identify nature, imposed by God or man, is regarded as something good or self-evident. Once the name is known, the research into descent and kinship can begin.

The species' name as such is not logically consistent with that which has developed in nature without human intervention. Both first name, which refers to the genus, and the second one, which designates the species within the genus, are refreshingly random. The taxonomist who first claims the species can do as he pleases, as long as the name gives a Latin-like impression and the description of the type material meets the requirements of comprehensiveness and unambiguousness. Species names are concocted roughly on the basis of three criteria: the species is named after its appearance – grandis for 'the large variety', hirsitus for 'hairy', sapiens for 'with a consciousness', etc.; its ecological domain – palustris for 'occurring in swamps', fluviatilis for 'occurring near rivers'; or an existing name is used, which is 'Latinized'. This latter method allows the taxonomist to immortalize the name of loved ones (regis-fernandii), a scientist he wishes to honour (lamarckii), or for example the region where the species was first discovered (novae-angliae), a volcano (mistiensis), a garden (kewensis) or a city (ottawensis, odessanus, ravennae or byzantinus for 'from Istanbul'). First there is the newly discovered species, then comes the name. The species name is less important for the localization of an organism in the world than its genus name, or its family name. Whatever the species name chosen, it is always immediately clear where the new species belongs in the greater system of the realm of plants or animals.

The Act of Naming

In The Origin of Pride, a new species of insect is named after the gemeente Oosterhout, Paul Perry's proposal for a project, the artist defined art as the committing of an act in order to call that act into question. Assigning the name of a town to a South-American insect cannot possibly be regarded as subversive from a taxonomic point of view, let alone as an act which calls taxonomic thinking into question. If you want to give something a name, you can do as you please, as long as you obey the rules of the nomenclature for new species. If a taxonomist wants to name a species – for example, a minuscule fresh-water alga from a stagnant ditch – after a scientist who in his opinion is underestimated, he sends his champion a letter and the person in question is honoured to give his permission. At the level of species, it makes no difference whether we are talking about a beautiful bird from an African parkland or a beetle living in a heap of horse dung. The naming of species on the basis of existing names only makes it all the more clear that the system of nature is a human creation, despite the dream that it should be a natural system, the reflection of an evolutionary development as it really took place. It was therefore easy enough for Perry to find a taxonomist willing to give one of his newly discovered tropical cicadas the name oosterhoutensis. It would only have become difficult had he wanted to rob an already named insect of its name to offer this 'desidentified' animal to Oosterhout. Had he wanted to exchange the name of an insect for that of Oosterhout, this would also have created problems, for once a taxon has been given a name, it will keep this name forever.

Whatever Perry wanted to question with his project, it cannot be the functioning of science. Perry simply linked the name of an insect from the tropical rainforests with Oosterhout – and why not? Still, there is a snake in the grass. In his name-giving proposal he writes: Aesthetically, I am attracted to the idea that most people – including myself – don't particularly find insects – with the possible exception of butterflies – beautiful. One of the difficulties in drawing the public's attention to the issues of biodiversity is that the majority of species aren't as large and sentimentally appealing as whales and panda bears. Who is moved to action or tears by the threat of extinction of a cockroach or a worm? This is followed by a striking sentence, with no further explanation: It has crossed my mind that the ideologies of deep ecology, especially voluntary restraint and life for life's sake, seem in some way to mirror our 19th-century art model of aesthetic disinterest, the notion of art for art's sake. Since Perry did not regard his name-giving project as art for art's sake, but as art for Oosterhout, this sentence can only mean that with his action he did not wish to call the principle of name-giving (taxonomy, science) into question, but rather the field of ecology, the defense of biodiversity for the sake of biodiversity.

By naming an insect after Oosterhout, Perry made himself and the municipality of Oosterhout jointly responsible for the blessings and abominations brought about by science (because, that the rainforests, and consequently the abundance of species living there, are known and that they are threatened are both effects of technological and therefore scientific developments). The work of art, the insect named after the town, thus becomes a monument for the place that the town accepts in the world as it is today, at the end of the twentieth century, with any nineteenth-century ideas left far behind, but including the destruction which characterizes the times we live in. Even if our greed destroys the world, we will accept that, is the message carved into the bottom of the pedestal of this monument, whereas on the front it shows an inscription on ecological commitment. If a town gives a part of its public space the name of Multatulistraat (after Multatuli, the Dutch 19th-century writer), this is proof that until now it has accepted Dutch culture for what it is (including its troublemakers). If this town, under the guidance of Perry, accepts that the municipal boundaries will from now on encompass the whole world (Oosterhout too, will soon be full of satellite dishes), then why would it not be willing to grace an insect, wherever in the world, with its name? The insect could not care less. The lion never minded either that it was incorporated into the Dutch coat of arms, while in reverse this never stopped Dutch colonialists from shooting a few now and then, when the opportunity presented itself.


What exactly does the act of naming initiated by Paul Perry call into question? He himself defines the point at issue in The Origin of Pride as follows: Naming has always been a form of conquest and exercising power. Much of our human difficulty to reconcile ourselves with nature seems to stem from our 'will to power'. But in what way has humanity tried to reconcile itself with nature? By trying – in the certainty of the impossibility of the project – to fathom it completely, to explain it in a system reaching from the Big Bang to the ultimate bounds of the universe, from the first bacteria to the last human being. This attempt started with naming – the linking of a typically human feature (language) to something independent of humanity (nature). But the desire to use the knowledge gathered in this way for our own purposes (will to power) interfered with the original pursuit of reconciliation with, by means of understanding of, that which existed. What Perry is pleading for is non-normative science, which cannot be used for the wrong (capitalist) purposes. In the same way that natural scientists regard art-made-public, artists apparently regard popularized natural sciences – as an innocent form of recreation with here and there an edge to it. Cheerful, nineteenth-century forms of mind expansion. Art is warmly welcome in the public space of (natural) science and for many years now, science has been accepted in the public space of art. They get along well together there. Both spaces encompass the world, without ever touching each other.

Those children in Bosnia, what names will they be given before they are dumped onto the world adoption market? Even if they ever traced their parents, these would deny that they ever had anything to do with them. Obvious names for such war orphans would be those of the towns where they were born. It would be just as obvious to name them after insects, for example from the jungles of Latin America.

translation olivier/wylie

With special thanks to Kristie van Riet.