The moral dangers of finding and naming new species

S. Peter Dance

It was the last day of April 2011 and I was attending a meeting of the British Shell Collectors’ Club. Suddenly, without warning, a small plastic box containing a couple of shells was thrust into my hand. I was told these were personal gifts from some well wishers in the Club. The shells, moderately large turrids, looked strangely familiar. The accompanying label told me they had come from the collection of the Bosch family and had been dredged off Muscat. I was certain I had handled similar shells when working on Seashells of Eastern Arabia. That book, published in 1995, had been the joint effort of Don Bosch, Robert Moolenbeek, Graham Oliver and me. As editor I had given it my undivided attention for almost six years. The label also made it clear that the shells had been incorrectly identified in the book as Ptychobela opisthochetos Kilburn, 1989, and should now be known as Ptychobela dancei Kilburn & Dekker, 2008. In view of my close association with the seashells of the Sultanate of Oman, it is not surprising I was delighted to be honoured in this way. At the same time, it caused me to reflect on the peculiar nature of this kind of honour.


My delight, far from being diminished by the knowledge that I had been similarly honoured several times before, was actually enhanced. I may also hazard a guess that the delight I experienced would have been a delight for the majority in a similar situation. Anyone professing to be unmoved when their name has been appropriated for a species is probably lying! I say ‘probably’ because I have personal knowledge of someone who certainly did not want his name immortalised in this way. Many years ago, while studying the species of Pisidium collected by members of the 1924 Mount Everest Expedition, I intended to name one of the two new species I had identified after the man who had taught me everything I knew about this difficult genus: Arthur Wilson Stelfox (1883-1972). When I wrote to tell him I wanted to name a species of Pisidium after him his swift reply made it abundantly clear he wanted none of it! Undoubtedly his response represented the exception, not the rule.


Identifying and naming a new species may also be very satisfying. I know because I have experienced that satisfaction, too. Perhaps, at this point I should have made some critical observations, pondering, understanding, condoning or more likely deploring such practices. Fortunately, I am saved the trouble of doing so. More than 150 years ago, Charles Kingsley, a considerable naturalist in his own right, had this to say: ‘The truth is, the pleasure of finding new species is too great; it is morally dangerous; for it brings with it the temptation to look on the thing found as your own possession, all but your own creation; to pride yourself on it as if God had not known it for ages since; even to squabble jealously for the right of having it named after you, and of being recorded in the Transactions of I-know-not-what Society as its first discoverer:- as if all the angels in heaven had not been admiring it, long before you were born or thought of.’ (Glaucus; or the Wonders of the Shore, 1855). A few years later Leo Tolstoy hit the nail more firmly on the head with these few telling words: ‘Life without vanity’, he wrote, ‘is almost impossible.’ (The Kreutzer Sonata, 1886). How right he was!