Wednesday, January 25, 2012

`Godfather to an Insect'

“They will have enough to do without having to memorize Latin declensions.”

The author is James S. Miller, and he’s defending the world’s poor overworked biologists. There’s something embarrassing about the dean and vice president for science of the New York Botanical Garden carrying on so in public. Bilingual whining is still whining. Imagine Darwin or some other sturdy Victorian conducting himself in so undignified a fashion. As of Jan. 1, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature has discarded its requirement that botanists provide a Latin description of a new species. No word on whether fauna will follow flora. Compare Miller’s display with a 1943 poem, “On Discovering a Butterfly,” by Vladimir Nabokov, lepidopterist:

“I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer—and I want no other fame.

“Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

“Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.”

Nabokov gave Latin genus and/or species names to twenty butterflies and moths. Other lepidopterists have bestowed thirty-nine names that allude to Nabokov or one of his books. Some of the latter are obvious: Itylos pnin, Nabokovia ada, Paralycaeides shade; others, more recondite: Leptotes delalande, Leptotes krug, Madeleinea nodo. Nabokov’s best-known godchild is Lycaeides melissa samuelis, the Karner blue butterfly, the endangered species he immortalized in 1943 and re-immortalized in 1957 in Pnin:

“A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin’s shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes before settling again.”

Almost uniquely, Nabokov took sublime zest in both butterflies and words. Though otherwise luxuriantly multilingual, his Latin was purely functional, a biologist’s “taxonomic Latin.” Its precision reflects the genius of binomial nomenclature, the system devised by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) that permits the particular to take its rightful place in the general. In An Autobiography (1913), Theodore Roosevelt writes:

“My first knowledge of Latin was obtained by learning the scientific names of the birds and mammals which I collected.”

That was my experience as well. Among the first I learned, even before formally studying Latin: Acer saccharum (sugar maple) and Passer domesticus (house sparrow). In The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (2010), Douglas Brinkley tells us Roosevelt as a boy studied Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum and Systemae Naturae. He writes:

“By the time Theodore Roosevelt was growing up, scientists and explorers seeking glory ranged far and wide in the remote wilderness, racing to discover organisms that could be named after themselves.”

Brinkley cites a passage by Nancy Pick in The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (2004):

“The Linnaean system eliminated the confusion of having, for example, a butterfly called the mourning cloak in the United States, the yellow edge in Canada, and the Camberwell beauty in Britain. People all over the world, whatever their language, can understand Nymphalis antiopa.”

Or could, until recently. The point is, no one would wish to eliminate the profusion of common names for plants and animals. They constitute a form of folk poetry, one of the glories of English. But neither should we eliminate the more rigorous poetry of Latin plant descriptions. The world always outstrips our capacity to adequately describe it.

[Go here for Curious Taxonomy and here for a blogger at Scientific American defending the elimination of Latin “diagnoses” of new plant species.]

1 comment:

S R Plant said...

As a working class boy I too found a back door into Latin via Passer domesticus on so on.
For others like myself I would greatly recommend “Latin Names Explained – a guide to the scientific classification of Reptiles, Birds and Mammals” by the late A.F. Gotch”.

(I think the link to 'Curious Taxonomy' is on the blink)