This Week’s Book Review – Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider

Looking for a good read? Here is a recommendation. I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review. You do not have to agree with everything every author has written (I do not), but the fiction I review is entertaining (and often thought-provoking) and the non-fiction contain ideas worth reading.

Book Review

An Inquisitive Look at Naming Species

By MARK LARDAS

May 10, 2020

“Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels,” by Stephen B. Heard, Yale University Press, 2020, 256 pages, $28.00 (Hardcover)

People like order, especially scientists. The naming of living things has even become a science called taxonomy.

“Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels,” by Stephen B. Heard, looks at the naming of things, specifically the hows and why of naming living creatures for individuals.

Heard explains it started with Carl Von Linne, a man known as Carolus Linnaeus. (In the eighteenth century it was customary for scientists to Latinize their names.)  He invented binomial nomenclature and scientific classification of living creatures.

Binomial nomenclature is a fancy term for two-part name. The scientific name for human beings has two parts: homo sapiens (wise man).  Our species is homo (man); our genus sapiens (wise). Sorting creatures into species and genus is scientific classification. The names are Latin, bestowed by discoverers, the individuals who first bring attention to new creatures or plants by publishing a paper about them.

There is plenty to name. While names sometimes describe the characteristics of the item named (sapiens in homo sapiens as a debatable example) often discoverers name them for people. As Heard shows, therein lies a story.

A fascinating story. Heard starts by describing how naming works. The rules lack the force of law, but are followed regardless. He then plunges into the bizarre world of eponymous naming: naming things for individuals.

He starts with basics. Forsythia and magnolia were named for individuals. Heard tells us who and why. He next presents more interesting examples of eponymous naming, starting with a chapter on a louse named for cartoonist Gary Larson.

Heard examines different types of names. While many species named to honor an individual (including Gary Larson’ louse), other names are intended to insult the honoree. Heard discusses that. He shows the sometime whimsical nature of naming, naming things for celebrities, fictional characters or oneself (a no-no according to tradition). He discusses the practice of selling names, often done to finance research.

“Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider” is weird and wonderful. It examines an important corner of science with a lighthearted look.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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