This year's gift: The vanity taxon

Scientific American reports on a taxonomic auction by Purdue University:

Naming your kid after you is one thing. But imagine if an entire species were named for you.
This week, Purdue University is auctioning off the rights to name seven newly discovered bats and two turtles, the Associated Press is reporting. The winners who will shell out a minimum of $250,000 for at least one of the bats, a Purdue spokesman told ScientificAmerican.com can link their own name or that of a pal to the animals scientific name.
"Unlike naming a building or something like that, this is much more permanent. This will last as long as we have our society," John Bickham, who co-discovered the nine species, told the AP.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong in principle with selling the naming rights to your new species. Heck, I’d be happy to name a new species after a donor, if I had either. I don’t even think there’s anything wrong with consistently adopting a splitter’s viewpoint on new species, keeping in mind that you have many donors and other people that you might honor with your work.

But it seems to me there is a truth-in-advertising problem here. Species names are not eternal. They are hypotheses. We re-evaluate the relations between living populations and fossil populations all the time. The scientific community ignores (“sinks”) taxonomic names that they come to believe are synonymous with existing taxa. So there is an obvious question: what are you really paying for, if you bid on naming rights for a species?

Naturally, it will depend on the investigators. Are they credible? Do they have a good record in the practice of taxonomy?

In the end, you’re taking a bet: A bet against future discoveries. A bet that today’s knowledge is the best there will be, at least where taxonomy is concerned. A bet that today’s fashion won’t reverse itself – where the fashion is to recognize lots and lots of species, which helps to promote conservation goals tied to Endangered Species status.

Well, I suppose we can say that the people who would splurge for more than $250,000 for a name don’t really care if the name sticks. They probably want something else – let’s say, a story. That might include a motive to fund research on bats (in this case) or some other group of organisms, or just to fund conservation work generally. Or it might just be a line at a cocktail party – hey, my wife has a species named after her. Or in the case of a recent taxon sale, good advertising for a casino.

But maybe the people who bid on species naming rights ought to be made aware that it is a bet. Not eternal glory, just a chance at it.

(via Sandwalk)