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The Art of Naming

Out of Print
By: Michael Ohl(Author), Elisabeth Lauffer(Translated by)
294 pages, 61 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Publisher: MIT Press
A surprisingly engaging book about the little-known world of taxonomical nomenclature.
The Art of Naming
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  • The Art of Naming ISBN: 9780262537032 Paperback Feb 2019 Out of Print #244560
  • The Art of Naming ISBN: 9780262037761 Hardback Mar 2018 Out of Print #237933
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About this book

Tyrannosaurus rex; Homo sapiens; Heteropoda davidbowie: behind each act of scientific naming is a story. In this entertaining and illuminating book, Michael Ohl considers scientific naming as a joyful and creative act. There are about 1.8 million discovered and named plant and animal species, and millions more still to be discovered. Naming is the necessary next step after discovery; it is through the naming of species that we perceive and understand nature. Ohl explains the process, with examples, anecdotes, and a wildly varied cast of characters. There are rules for scientific naming; the vernacular isn't adequate. These rules – in standard binomial nomenclature, the generic name followed by specific name – go back to Linnaeus; but they are open to idiosyncrasy and individual expression. A lizard is designated Barbaturex morrisoni (in honor of the Doors' Jim Morrison, the Lizard King); a member of the horsefly family Scaptia beyonceae. Ohl, a specialist in "winged things that sting", confesses that among the many wasp species he has named is Ampulex dementor, after the dementors in the Harry Potter novels. Scientific names have also been deployed by scientists to insult other scientists, to make political statements, and as expressions of romantic love: "I shall name this beetle after my beloved wife".

The Art of Naming takes us on a surprising and fascinating journey, in the footsteps of the discoverers of species and the authors of names, into the nooks and crannies and drawers and cabinets of museums, and through the natural world of named and not-yet-named species.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Surprisingly engaging book on nomenclature
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 24 Aug 2018 Written for Hardback

    In my review of Kemp’s The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums, I highlighted the importance of naming species and the rich vein of undiscovered species hiding in museum collections around the world. But how does the naming of species work? And what complications can arise? With The Art of Naming, Michael Ohl has written a surprisingly engaging book on the potentially stuffy topic of taxonomical nomenclature that beautifully complements Kemp’s work.

    This book was originally written in German as Die Kunst der Benennung and published in 2015 by Matthes & Seitz Berlin. It kicks off with the linguistics of vernacular species names (i.e. the common name of a species, so brown rat instead of Rattus norvegicus) specifically geared towards a German readership. Understandable given the book’s origins, but for an international audience this is a bit abstruse (although I thought the episode of Hitler interfering with a proposed name change of bats was amusing). When Ohl then proceeds to list all 150 common English names for African shrews that the authors of the encyclopaedic Mammals of Africa made up, I was getting a bit worried. Nomenclature is not necessarily the most riveting of topics, and taxonomists can be rather eccentric. Is this book going to be any good?

    I need not have worried. In subsequent chapters Ohl branches out into a vast array of topics relevant to taxonomic nomenclature. Obviously, a book on this topic has to give a canned history of the binomial nomenclature formally introduced by the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in 1753. Biologists around the world use his system of naming species to this day. However, Linnaeus merely laid the groundwork, and more and more rules had to be created to deal with all sorts of complexities and exceptions that can arise when naming millions of species. This led to the development of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature in 1905, currently in its 4th edition, which is effectively a sleep-inducing legal document. Ohl masterfully distills relevant knowledge from this document. Whether you find the linguistic discussion of names-as-labels interesting is another thing, but it does explain how some names do not necessarily describe the characters of a species. And for the first time I encountered a clear explanation of what the differences are between for example syntypes, lectotypes and neotypes – designations I frequently encounter when reading summaries of technical literature.

    A book on this topic of course cannot shy away from the silliness of some species names. This was already explored at length in The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names. Authors have complete freedom when choosing names, which has led to all sorts of buffoonery. Whether it is raunchy references to genitalia (Probarbus labeamajor, a fish with big lips), nerdy nods to Lord of the Rings characters (Shireplitis frodoi, a wasp from New Zealand), or well-meant worshiping of celebrities (Heteropoda davidbowie, a spider) – it seems that spending hours staring down a microscope is not necessarily good for your mental health. Then there is the good-humoured use of scientific species names in works of speculative zoology, such as the recently reviewed After Man: A Zoology of the Future, or the doubtful status of species names assigned to non-existent cryptozoological creatures such as the Loch Ness monster. (Yes, it was formally described in a 1975 Nature paper!)

    But Ohl also touches on more serious issues – for example the taxonomic vandalism that is committed by certain superproductive authors who describe thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of species in their lifetime. Are they geniuses or cranks? Few people have the resources to verify the prolific output of such experts, but it is not uncommon that their work leaves a field in taxonomic upheaval that can take decades to sort out.

    Similarly, how to exactly define what a species is is another contested issue. Despite decades of philosophising and debating, we still have no agreed upon definition (see for example The Species Problem: A Philosophical Analysis or Species Concepts in Biology: Historical Development, Theoretical Foundations and Practical Relevance), although in practice most biologists will settle for Ernst Mayr’s Biological Species Concept. When we deal with insects, the question of whether, say,Robineau-Desvoidy’s 248 described species of tachinid flies are all just colour morphs of one and the same species might seem like a whole lot of academic navelgazing. But when Colin P. Groves and Peter Grubb used different species concepts in their 2011 book Ungulate Taxonomy to argue that there were twice as many hoofed mammals as we thought, this suddenly has real-world implications where species conservation and earmarking of funds are concerned!

    The Art of Naming describes many other fascinating topics and historical anecdotes not mentioned here. But rather than a rag-tag collection of vignettes, Ohl uses them to shine a light on the manifold rules and intricacies enshrined in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, and what this means for the day-to-day work of the biologists that describe and name species. MIT Press is to be congratulated on making this book available to an international audience as Ohl has written a surprisingly engaging work on a topic that many people might otherwise write off as dull.
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Michael Ohl is a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin and an Associate Professor at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Out of Print
By: Michael Ohl(Author), Elisabeth Lauffer(Translated by)
294 pages, 61 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Publisher: MIT Press
A surprisingly engaging book about the little-known world of taxonomical nomenclature.
Media reviews

"Modern biologists have trouble with names. They can't keep up with the 20,000 species of living things newly recognized each year, not to mention the estimated millions that remain to be discovered. That's the focus of this brilliant book by Michael Ohl, a biologist at the Natural History Museum in Berlin [...] Taxonomy, as revealed through Ohl's expert commentary, displays both the wisdom and the wit of the artful scientists who practice it."
Natural History

"The history and practice of scientific naming is both presented as well as mused extensively upon with the intention of showing that far from being rigid and staid, the way in which names are assigned to species, as well as occasionally modified, is rich in creativity, cleverness, humor, and even at times used for the settling of scores."
The Well-Read Naturalist

"Detailed but engaging [...] The rules and traditions of taxonomy prove more flexible, even chaotic, than the lay reader is apt to imagine."
– Scott McLemee,  Inside Higher Ed

"Ohl is at his best in the book's final chapters, where he merges linguistics, philosophy, and biology together in a consideration of some particularly unusual matters of taxonomy."
– Gregory R. Goldsmith,  Science

"If you've ever wondered what's in a name – and haven't we all? – then The Art of Naming is the book for you. Smart, funny, packed with tales of scientific feuds, enraged politicians, outsized adventure, and egos, Michael Ohl reminds us that in the wonder of name lies the wonder of life on Earth itself."
– Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize winner; author of The Poisoner's Handbook

"Michael Ohl's brilliant book shows that although systematic biologists are sometimes said to be crazy, it's the other way around; taxonomy is a psychoactive science that prevents madness."
– Fredrik Sjöberg, author of The Fly Trap

"In The Art of Naming, Michael Ohl takes the reader behind the scenes with biodiversity explorers to reveal the fascinating and surprisingly human practice of naming species. An engaging storyteller, Ohl draws upon authoritative knowledge and unexpected historical tales to bring to life, with clarity and wit, this little-known corner of science. As millions of species face the threat of extinction, there is no better time to celebrate the diverse kinds of life on Earth and the sources of the names by which we know them."
– Quentin Wheeler, President of ESF, New York's global environmental college; author of What on Earth?

"Michael Ohl brings to life the scientific process of naming animals, and the fascinating people who name them, through a superb combination of storytelling and rigorous factual presentation. The Art of Naming is delightful."
– Justin Schmidt, Southwestern Biological Institute & Department of Entomology, University of Arizona; author of The Sting of the Wild

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