Discussing names worth talking about


Dr. Brian Crother focused on names for his Science on Tap lecture. Annie Goodman/The Lion's Roar

How do scientists decide on names for organisms? Assistant Dean of the College of Science and Technology Dr. Brian Crother discussed this and its importance in his Science on Tap lecture “What’s in a Name?”

“We use names every day,” said Crother. “We use names all the time, and we read scientific names in the newspapers and magazines. You hear it everywhere. You hear it in the classroom. What do those things mean? For the public, they see it all the time too. They see names, names, names.”




As a name enthusiast, Crother was concerned about giving a talk about a topic as in depth and complicated as names and admits putting the talk together was difficult.

“I started this particular talk from scratch,” said Crother. “In fact, I was kind of worried about it when I said, ‘I’m gonna do a talk on names.’ Then I realized that I committed myself, and I was thinking, ‘How am I gonna do a talk on names?’ I thought it was a huge challenge. I figured it out like you normally do. You sketch some sort of an outline, then you start piecing together slides and illustrations, and you beat on it with a hammer a whole bunch of times until it’s ready.”

Despite the difficulty, Crother chose this topic because he believes names are significant tools in communication.

“Names are funny things,” said Crother. “We take them for granted, and we often don’t think about what they mean, what information they carry, or maybe even in some cases, what kind of power they carry. Scientific names are no different. We have particular labels like ‘Homo sapiens.’ That’s the scientific name for this common name that we call ‘humans.’ So, if you have ‘humans’ and ‘Homo sapiens,’ how do those things differ? Are they both proper now? If they’re both proper nouns, then they carry very specific information. ‘Human’ carries a very general kind of information relative to ‘Homo sapien’ because there might be other things that we call ‘human’ if you look at all the species that have the genus Homo in front of it.”

Crother explains the complexity of how scientific names are more specific yet less certain than common names.

“Usually, people think common names are the bad things because if I say ‘cat’ here and then go to Spain and say ‘cat’ to someone who doesn’t speak English, they don’t know what I’m talking about,” said Crother. “But if I say ‘Felis catus’ to a biologist in Spain, they know I’m talking about a house cat. But common names it turns out, there is a funny irony, are far more stable than scientific names. So, ‘cat’ in English has been ‘cat’ for a long, long time and will probably forever be ‘cat.’ Whereas ‘Felis catus,’ that’s subject to change.”

Aware of the confusion this discussion would spark, Crother ended his talk by assuring that there are people who work diligently on naming organisms.

“At the end, I showed a slide ‘OK, are you sufficiently confused yet?’” said Crother. “It was an interesting slide. Everyone laughed because, yeah, all I did was sow a lot of confusion into people’s minds about names. Then I explained, ‘No, actually, all the groups of organisms have specialists that work on trying to understand names.’ I happen to be the guy that does these things. So, names are near and dear to my heart. That’s why I gave that talk. To talk to the public about something they don’t know much about in science and try to explain it. I think it worked.”

Crother explained why it is that naming organisms comes with uncertainty.

“What I was trying to do was get across that, ‘You know, these things aren’t that simple,’” said Crother. “So, I showed lots of examples about scientific names. Even though they’re supposed to be perfect, they’re not. One of the reasons is because they are hypotheses about things. They are hypotheses about lineages. As soon as you say it is a hypothesis, it can never be stable. They’re subject to change, like hypotheses are in science, and so, that screws them up. It makes it hard to figure out what a species is at all. That leaves a big debate, and so, scientific names are changing all the time.”

Crother believes names are more important than people often realize even if they are not perfect.

“Names are far more complicated things than we think,” said Crother. “We tend to take them for granted whereas perhaps we shouldn’t because there’s all this information in names. Then when you get into scientific names and common names for species of things, neither of those things are perfect, and they are subject to change.”