June 2024


The origins and obsolescence of an epithet

Hunter Dukes

“What’s so sapiens about Homo sapiens?” A young activist protesting in the Berlin subway, 6 January 2024.

In his final years, Carl Linnaeus began to forget the names of things. He passed much of this time at his country home outside Uppsala, where even in the protracted hours of Swedish summers, he had a mind of winter, as if waking each day in a foreign room. Illness was a known foe. There had been toothaches since the womb, he sometimes claimed, and gout attacks for decades. The former he treated with a tobacco pipe, and found relief from podagra by eating wild strawberries, two liters a day. (It is said that Linnaeus and his acolytes consumed so much of the fruit that its price sextupled in their local market.)[1] Even his most severe crises were soothed by nature. After sustaining a stroke in the botanical gardens of Uppsala, a place he thought had no precedent outside of Eden’s gates, it was the sight of specimens from Suriname, preserved in aquavit, that made him miraculously new again. But the old cures worked no longer, and there were fresh degradations of the mind.[2] In a letter written the year before his death in 1778, he reported that “God has determined to break all the bonds that attach me to terrestrial objects.”[3] Styled by admirers as God’s registrar, the father of modern taxonomy now embarked on a final task: relinquishing the subtle world he’d catalogued across a lifetime. “Few reach this stage, but if they do, they often are like children again.”[4]

As a child, Carl had once accompanied his father to a party on the Swedish lake Möckeln, whose winds were thought to gust when undines did their laundry. Here a pastor delighted guests by reciting the Latin words for local plants. Succisa, tormentilla, orchides: names fragrant and strange, a kind of botanical mass, which sounded to a contemporary like the “conjuration of hobgoblins.”[5] Revisiting this moment in his diaries, published in the third person, Linnaeus recalled how “from that hour [he] never ceased harassing his father with questions about the name, qualities, and nature of every plant he met.” But the child’s mind was not yet the storehouse its adult form would become: he used to rapidly forget what he had learned, “especially the names of plants.”[6] And his father refused to answer any further questions until his son committed known things to memory. This primal scene seemed to set ablaze a lifelong obsession with the retention of names. He was known to lecture students on how “if the name be lost, the knowledge of the object is lost also,” a sentiment repeated across many of his works.[7] And where there was nothing worth retaining, he created anew, baptizing more than ten thousand species with novel nominations. When not taxonomizing, he practiced medicine and published an early description of aphasia. This frightful strain of “forgetfulness” was spotted in a learned and gouty man from Uppsala, who “had forgotten all nouns.”[8] Linnaeus could not have foreseen, when writing these words at thirty-eight, that he was describing his future. Would it have been any salve to learn that some of his names will outlive us all?

Among his greatest acts of appellation, Linnaeus performed an act that Adam could not accomplish in the garden: he gave a name to humans and placed them within the kingdom of animals. While the term Homo sapiens does not appear until the tenth edition of his Systema naturae (1758), when binomial nomenclature was introduced into the work, humans had already been enshrined as sapient rulers of the taxon Anthropomorpha from the first edition in 1735.[9] Where other animals received descriptions based on the shape of tooth or claw, Homo here was followed by a maxim in the imperative mood, “Nosce te ipsum.”[10] Know thyself. What remained gnomic in 1735 was given a footnote thirteen years later. Among a series of elaborations of the maxim, we find: “You are an immortal soul created in the image of God”; “You are emperor of the animals”; “If you know these things, then you are human.”[11]

Title page from a 1760 edition of Carl Linnaeus’s Systema naturae. Linnaeus is depicted as Adam, diligently noting down the names for animals in a book. Is he inventing or merely transcribing?
Adam’s Children
In the final days, Linnaeus often left his mortal frame. A friend reported him as “dead to mankind, the soul being, I believe, sometimes out of the body.”[12] Perhaps he traveled back to another beginning: an illness cured, a garden lost. At eleven years old, Carl fell sick and was homebound from winter through midsummer. Finally emerging into July’s greenery, the landscape of Stenbrohult, in southern Sweden, “appeared to be not of this world but of Paradise.”[13] He later recounted that it made him think about Adam and Eve, who would inform his career for decades. During a lecture in 1748, for example, he painted Adam as the original taxonomist, who named animals “according to their kind, species, and nature.”[14] That Linnaeus saw a forefather in this figure was evident to others: Two years prior, Albrecht von Haller, tongue nearing his cheek, had called Linnaeus our “Second Adam.”[15] The title-page engraving for a 1760 edition of Systema naturae followed suit in kinder fashion, dressing the naturalist as God’s first animate creation from clay, dutifully assigning names to obedient beasts.

Adam was on the bookish European mind during the Enlightenment and its aftermath. Philosophers exploring the origins of language were perplexed by two questions: What language did the first man and woman speak? And when Genesis 2:19 discusses Adam naming the animals—“whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof”—does this mean that he called them by their true names? The second question is important for it proposes a prelapsarian theory of language that haunted taxonomic efforts to correctly order the planet’s bounty. Before our expulsion from Eden, according to some accounts, one could simply read God’s plan as it was written in the book of nature, and be spared the effort of designating, classifying, and ordering all the elements on Earth. But that was long ago, when there was one divine and universal tongue. In a fallen world, how could anyone hope to compete with Adam?

There are two main ways to interpret Genesis 2:19. Adam is either performing an act of recognition, hailing Eden’s creatures with the “proper” names intended by God, or an act of creation, summoning animals into language with improvised human monikers. We find the former exegesis in Giovanni Francesco Loredano’s The Life of Adam (1659), when God tells Adam to “give [the animals] names as thou pleases,” and then—like a parent fearing the new cat will forever be called Kitty—decides to handle the task himself: “God first named the Fishes, and afterwards all the other Animalls.”[16] Johann Gottfried Herder allowed Adam to talk, but only to parrot back names announced by nature: “Divine nature is language mistress and Muse! There she leads all creatures past him; each bears its name on its tongue, and names itself to this enshrouded, visible god![17] Here our primus parens is basically doing a meet and greet, repeating—by echoing a sheep’s bleat, or the long halloos of an owl at dusk—something essential about these beings. Where Herder heard voice, Jakob Böhme saw text. The mystic believed that Adam must have happened upon his names while close-reading the book of nature, written into the essence, form, and properties of those fauna arrayed before him.[18] As in Milton’s Paradise Lost, name and knowledge emerge as one from Adam’s invocation: “I named them as they passed, and understood / Their nature.”[19]

The alternative interpretation makes naming a creative process, a second-order repetition of God’s eternal act, which is to say, the original human violence against our fellow animals. In the first edition of Leviathan, published in English in 1651, Hobbes sounds a lot like Loredano and the others above: Adam might be naming the animals, but God is holding up cue cards. “The first author of Speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as he presented to his sight.”[20] In the subsequent Latin editions of Leviathan, however, Hobbes purposely swaps his terms. “Sermonis author primus fuit Adam”—Adam was the first author of speech. A simple reversal has profound theological import. “From the very beginning of creation,” writes Pat Moloney, “humanity [was] obliged to bear alone the burden of nomenclature.”[21] Later thinkers would glimpse the consequences of this burden in the eyes of animals—the suffering they endure from the lashing of tongues. In his spirited retelling of the garden scene, Naming-Day in Eden, Noah Jonathan Jacobs thought Adam nominated the animals out of spite. There was no recognition of essence or property; the chosen words were simply meant “to give vent to the disturbing affections which the dumb, faceless beasts evoked in him.”[22] Hegel put it in slightly different terms, yet arrived at similar ends: no matter Adam’s intentions, naming was an act of annihilation. To establish his lordship over the animals, he “gave them a name, i.e., he nullified them as beings on their own account.”[23] Maurice Blanchot would elaborate: “God had created living things, but man had to annihilate them. Not until then did they take on meaning for him, and he in turn created them out of the death into which they had disappeared.”[24] This is why Walter Benjamin thought that naming always remains an “intimation of mourning,” even if the authority is “godlike and blissful.”[25] To welcome an animal into language, you must first flay it with phonemes. Only then can the beast be reborn under grammar’s yoke.

Frontispiece engraving for Cornelis van Dyk’s Osteologia (1680), a study of bones.

Yet there was one class of creature that Adam never thought to name while he dwelled in the garden of God: his own species, for it had been assigned already. If Hebrew was the original tongue, as several philosophers involved in the origin of language debates would conclude, Adam’s proper name and species were one and the same. In biblical Hebrew, “Adam” can denote either Eve’s husband or humankind as a collective.

Homo sapiens
By the 1758 edition of Systema naturae, when Linnaeus first endowed humans with the specific epithet sapiens, the maxim “know thyself” had blossomed into a creed that wed introspection with observation. “The first step of wisdom,” he wrote, is to observe “those marks imprinted on [natural bodies] by nature, to distinguish them from each other, and to affix to every object its proper name.”[26] Far from the oblivion of childhood innocence, and decades away from the cognitive decay that would return the natural world to indistinction before his eyes, Linnaeus once more worries about the cost of forgetting. “If the name be lost, the knowledge of the object is lost also; and without these, the student will seek in vain for the means to investigate the hidden treasures of nature.”[27]

It was perhaps this capacity for linguistic stewardship, and the threat posed to knowledge by cultural aphasia, that led Linnaeus to classify his species as sapient. After all, he thought, there are hardly any meaningful physical qualities that separate us from other primates. “I know scarcely one feature by which man can be distinguished from apes.”[28] Our ability to communicate through complex linguistic systems wasn’t significant; it was mere social convention. According to his most recent biographer, Gunnar Broberg, the choice of sapiens may have been an aspirational designation, “an affirmation that man is indeed essentially different.”[29] Yet we were not even the first species that the taxonomist described with this term. He had used the epithet earlier, during a lecture in 1753, when he named a species of monkey Simia sapiens.

As in exegetical debates about Adam’s intentions, scientists have historically disagreed about the remit of nomenclature. A contemporary view is that the Latin words for species are arbitrary labels, which possess no meaningful descriptive influence. Humans may be sapiens, but nobody is claiming we are wise—it’s just a nomen triviale, interchangeable with almost any other. The important thing is to create stability in the system by avoiding homonymy: each specific name should be unique within a genus. In cases where taxa have been named twice accidentally, the “principle of priority” outlined by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN)—the authority that regulates the scientific names given to animals—is almost always obeyed: the earliest zoologist gets to name the worm.

When Linnaeus was labeling his animals and vegetables, however, names had not yet been fully divorced from their descriptive powers. Although the purpose of binomial nomenclature was to simplify earlier systems of designation—replacing lengthy descriptive names (Tulipa flore erecto, foliis ovato-lanceolatis, for instance) with unique generic epithets (Tulipa gesneriana)—Linnaeus was by no means a servant of the arbitrary sign.[30] For him, writes Gunnar Eriksson, “naming a species was synonymous with defining it and was a form of description.”[31] Amid the lists of rules and best practices for designating plants in Philosophia botanica (1751), for example, Linnaeus suddenly waxes Edenic. “Names are the plant’s hands. … The plant should proffer them to the botanist to see if he will believe in the facts.”[32] We have once again crawled back to the Garden, where names are seemingly offered up by nature itself. Linnaeus possessed an “unshakable conviction,” Eriksson continues, that “his names are faithful translations of nature’s language.”[33]

But the translations went both ways. “It is commonly believed that the name of a plant which is derived from that of a Botanist shows no connexion between the two,” he writes in Critica botanica (1737). “But anyone who has but slight knowledge of the history of letters will easily discover a link by which to connect the name with the plant.”[34] The act of appellation mixes biography and phytology in a way that is more than figurative, for Linnaeus seems to find “human features on leaves.”[35] To take just two examples: The genus Dillenia has “the showiest flower and fruit,” and Johann Jacob Dillenius made “a brilliant show among Botanists.” The calyx of Milleria encloses its seeds for protection, and Philip Miller “spent much labour over acquiring rare American seeds, preserving them carefully and imparting them to others.”[36] These overlapping characteristics can be explained without resorting to onomastic determinism, that quasi-magical form of thinking where people (and flora, in this case) grow toward things that share their name. Most of the resemblances that interest Linnaeus were intended by the botanist who assigned the name as knowing tributes, or slighting ironies—more than one of Linnaeus’s critics was to find his name hung from an odious weed.

Cutting a path toward immortality tempted Linnaeus, who also inscribed himself into nature’s ledger. In the late 1890s, after coming across a Rocky Mountain bloom of Linnaea, the honeysuckle genus to whom Linnaeus gifted his own name, John Muir proclaimed: “Never was man’s memory more blessedly embalmed than is the memory of immortal Linnaeus in this little flower.”[37] It makes sense why Linnaeus would stress the importance of not forgetting the words for things. This is the taxonomist’s burden and his way out of certain death.

Hand-colored 1864 photograph by Emma Schenson of Linnaea borealis (twinflower), which Linnaeus incorporated into his coat of arms. The flowers are arranged in an L shape. While Linnaeus gifted his name to this genus of flowers, he grew up hearing stories about how his surname came from a linden tree that shaded his family’s ancestral land.

Wise man
There is one name, however, that the student of nature could afford to misremember: Homo sapiens. In 2008, the political nonprofit Responsible Policies for Animals (RPA) sent a petition to the ICZN, with a simple demand: change the epithet sapiens, which “promotes and perpetuates an attitude in human beings of their own exceptionalism and superiority.”[38] They suggested an alternative, Homo complexus, which recognizes “hyper-complexity” rather than wisdom as our distinguishing trait. The ICZN never acknowledged receipt and media outlets were unimpressed.[39] “No one responded to the news release of the petition’s submission,” said David Cantor, the founder and director of RPA.[40] But others would soon issue parallel calls.

“An animal that imperils its own future and that of most other life forms and ecosystems does not merit a single ‘sapiens’, let alone the two we now bear,” argued the science writer Julian Cribb in a 2011 letter to Nature.[41] He is referring to Homo sapiens sapiens: our subspecies name in trinomial nomenclature, historically used by paleontologists and anthropologists to distinguish modern humans from extinct precursors. A useful specification or not, the trinomen “sapiens” blows coarser salt into the taxonomic wound, making us not only wise, but the wisest of the wise. “Repeating sapiens doesn’t get us any closer to wisdom,” writes the physician Warren Martin Hern. “It is a meaningless chant.”[42] Cribb concludes his letter with a call for humans to receive a new epithet, one that more accurately describes our collective impact on Earth. In 2015, The Ecologist published a letter addressed to Linnaeus, written by conservation biologist Gianlucca Serra, urging him to rename our species for similar reasons: “That name you gave us 256 years ago sounds frankly ridiculous in the light of the current situation, dear Carl. Do not take it personally, at your time you could have hardly imagined.”[43] Oceanographer Michael P. Belanger repeated this sentiment in 2018, relaying how he sees “no adaptation to a changing environment that would show evidence of human intelligence.”[44] In 2023, Hern offered his own redefinition of humans as Homo ecophagus (the man who devours the ecosystem).[45]

So far, the ICZN has been unwilling to consider these proposals. When I contacted Shane Ahyong, a current commissioner of the ICZN, he clarified that they have received no formal submissions to rename Homo sapiens, as the organization’s protocols require that such requests be published in the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature and then voted on by the Commission after a six-month window for scientific commentary. “As you’d imagine, we periodically receive communications about all sorts of subjects, of varying degrees of seriousness (including conjectures about mythical creatures),” he wrote. “The 2008 [RPA] petition would not be considered a formal submission.”[46] Formalities aside, other statements from leaders of the ICZN predict a certain reticence toward reexamination, should those formal submissions begin to roll in. “You can’t just go out and change a name,” said Ellinor Michel, executive secretary of the commission at the time of Cribb’s letter.[47] And even some scientists who live with a daily awareness of the unfolding threats to life on Earth have come out as skeptical. Sander van der Leeuw, an emeritus professor of anthropology and sustainability, found the effort misplaced: “We have much more serious issues to deal with.”[48]

In February 2023, twenty-six members of the ICZN, including Ahyong, put their names on a paper, published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, which claims that “renaming taxa on ethical grounds threatens nomenclatural stability.”[49] They argue that the implications of honoring petitions like the one drafted by RPA—or the intersecting calls to review zoological nomenclature in light of the colonial, racist, and sexist histories enshrined in the names of certain taxa—would be “particularly serious today, when the biodiversity of the world is increasingly under threat.”[50] And even if they were open to eponymous revolution, the commission claims it lacks the capacity to judge right from wrong; these are naturalists, after all, not moralists. “It is well outside the scope of the Commission to assess the morality of persons honoured in eponyms.”[51] This isn’t exactly true: the ICZN’s code of ethics mandates that “no author should propose a name that, to his or her knowledge or reasonable belief, would be likely to give offence on any grounds.”[52] And where authors fail to heed the code, a subsequent section states that editors must avoid publishing material in breach of any aforementioned principle. The real problem seems to be the organization’s ethical backlog. It’s hard enough to moderate the quick; who has stamina to litigate the dead? How much easier and more convenient it is to leave those designations done and dusted. As inheritors of the Enlightenment lineage from which Linnean taxonomy descends, the ICZN professes modest goals: “stability and universality.”[53] Their dreaded alternative is a Babel redux, a return to the chaos of conflicting nomenclatures that hindered scientific pursuit for centuries, and a loss of the ability to communicate across the borders of nation, language, and politics.

Less visible here is the theory of language against which these arguments are shored. Modern taxonomy holds that names designate but need not meaningfully describe. Article 18 of the ICZN’s international code states that a species can be named albus, even if it is not, in fact, white; it seems to follow that humans can be called sapiens, even though, on the whole, we are not. Renaming is dangerous because it acknowledges that names are smeared with historical, political, and semantic residua. For designation to function as a universal, all-powerful protocol, a name needs to reliably denote regardless of its connotative sense. If a name means something untrue—or if its denotative arrow splits in two and points at once to both animal and monster, as in the case of the Slovenian cave beetle still named after Adolf Hitler—this can have no effect on its suitability or function. “Some scientific names might cause discomfort or offence to parts of the community (such as eponyms of dictators or historical figures considered by some as racists, or because a word currently has negative connotations),” write the authors.[54] To them, “discomfort” is the price worth paying for a stable, universal system.

These authors paint taxonomical nomenclature as a finely balanced structure: if one name changes, all others are put at risk. But would selective acts of renaming actually destabilize the system as a whole? In August 2023, a group of eighteen scientists led by Marcos A. Raposo responded to the ICZN paper and other opponents of renaming, adding that “due to space we are unable to address all the ‘paranoia’ expressed by some colleagues.”[55] The authors’ main claim is that the ICZN’s arguments are based on a category error: “ethical standards constitute a principle, not a consequence such as stability or instability.” They proceed to suggest that renaming could both serve our future and help confront the fraught past of the biological sciences. It would introduce “historical reparation” into a system that is often treated as at a remove from history, and it might just increase stability, as more “palatable” epithets ultimately have greater staying power. Nevertheless, when Raposo was asked in an interview about convening a review board for examining inappropriate names, as some of his peers have proposed, the scientist demurred: “There’s too much politics in that.”[56]

Is it childlike to believe that the names we choose for lifeforms might have some function or influence beyond workaday designation? Consider Anophthalmus hitleri, that blind cave beetle who now trades on black markets for over $1,000 (and whose name might one day come back into vogue, the authors above seem to imply). Thieves keen to capitalize on this beetlemania have almost completely looted the Bavarian State Collection for Zoology; war junkies and neo-Nazi poachers in Slovenia are thought to be driving the species toward extinction for no other reason than its nominal affinity with the Führer.

Some believe that a parallel process is at play via the baked-in wisdom of Homo sapiens. “Has naming ourselves ‘wise,’ in fact made us overconfident, hubristic?” asks Cribb. “How will it govern our ultimate fate?[57] Since at least Plato’s Cratylus, bales of manuscript pages have been blackened in the history of Western thought trying to strip proper names of their ability to enhance or harm their holder. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, various indigenous conceptions of naming—some of which hold, to differing degrees, that a name does not merely designate but also participates in the life of its bearer—were systematically evicted to the outskirts of knowledge by anthropologists and ethnographers.[58] Adam and Linnaeus might have been able to parse the essential connection between a name and its recipient, but any group trying to do so in the modern world was surely mentally ill or of a “primitive” mind. We teach our children that only sticks and stones can bludgeon, hoping that they will better endure the nicknames that hurt us so. Harmed that Herder took “such jocular liberties” by punning his name with Goth, Goethe once claimed that “a person’s name is not like a cloak, which only hangs round him and which may perhaps be pulled and tugged at, but a perfectly fitting garment grown over and around him like his very skin, which one cannot scrape and scratch without hurting the man himself.”[59] There is no substantial difference between this account and the “primitive beliefs” that anthropologists would dismiss as superstitious. Freud conceded as much while writing Totem and Taboo. After describing how “savages regard a name as an essential part of a man’s personality,” he admits that even “a civilized adult” may find that “his own name has become to a very remarkable extent bound up with his own personality.”[60] I’d suspect his species name is bound up in there too.

Lady Maud Montgomery posing in 1943 alongside her son General Montgomery’s initials carved on a tree at their Moville, Ireland, estate.

Homo … ?
What might Homo sapiens become if we were unbound from wisdom? In 1985, Ursula K. Le Guin published a story called “She Unnames Them,” which runs Genesis 2:19 in reverse: the time has come to shed Adam’s nominations. Most of the animals “accepted namelessness with the perfect indifference with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names.”[61] Chickens, fleas, and geese “all agreed enthusiastically” to give back their names. (The yaks object, digging in their hooves—“yak” just sounds so right for them.) When everything is finally nameless, our narrator returns her own to Adam. “Well, goodbye, dear. I hope the garden key turns up.” He calls after her: “O.K., fine, dear. When’s dinner?” She goes the way of the animals. “They seemed far closer than when their names had stood between myself and them like a clear barrier: so close that my fear of them and their fear of me became one same fear.”

Perhaps designation itself is the problem—the reason we cannot dwell within nature like water in water. Adam, Linnaeus, and centuries of namers, champing at the nib to scrawl their signs on things. Michel Serres used to argue that there is little difference between dogs marking hydrants and botanists naming plants: both acts leave a personal stain. In one cryptic interpretation of Genesis, the Fall results from naming: Adam commits the original sin by calling his wife “Eve,” a palindrome whispered in his ear by the devil, and a veiled denial of the irreversibility of time.[62] But time cannot turn back; we are born into language, which shapes our relation to all terrestrial objects and to ourselves. We will never dissolve beneath the blanket of namelessness while alive, but can, in the meantime, consider alternatives.

The Homo sapiens? exhibit at Zagreb Zoo, ca. 2008. Visitors were invited to step into the cage and become animals on display.

Ever since our species name appeared in Latin, people have proposed new epithets for humanity’s defining quality.[63] For some, the best course is simple inversion: Homo stultus, Homo imbecilis, Homo stupidus. Others place in the human’s hand what Linnaeus put in its mind. “If we could rid ourselves of all pride,” wrote Henri Bergson in a defense of Homo faber, we would discover that wisdom is really “the faculty of manufacturing artificial objects.”[64] Johan Huizinga suggested Homo ludens due to our capacity for play; zoologist S. A. Baker found Homo docens to better recognize the human impulse toward instruction; and many more have pointed to language as our distinguishing trait: Homo loquens; Homo symbolificus; Homo loquax. Still others seek a term like Durkheim’s Homo duplex, which acknowledges the contradictory drives of our species. Here’s a particularly dramatic coinage by Edgar Morin: “Homo sapiens is indeed a chimera, a monster, a chaos, a subject of contradictions, a prodigy, judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth, repository of truth, cesspool of uncertainty and error, glory and scum of the universe. … We are forced to see that Homo sapiens is Homo demens.”[65]

In an era of collapsing biodiversity, deepening inequality, and other ills inflicted asymmetrically by humans, many of the names above (bar demens, perhaps) seem a little quaint. When I corresponded with Julian Cribb, author of the Nature letter, he corrected my lazy language: “There isn’t just a ‘climate catastrophe,’” he said. “There are ten intersecting megathreats.”[66] As such, he offers ten new names for humankind: Homo suilaudans (The Self-Worshipper); Homo exterminans (The Terminator); Homo eversor (The Degrader); Homo carnifex (The Butcher); Homo pistor (The Baker); Homo veneficus (The Poisoner); Homo devorans (The Devourer); Homo urbanus (The Urbanite); Homo delusus (The Self-Deceiver); and Homo sapientior (The Getter of Wisdom).[67] The Baker offers fleeting levity—a species that coheres by breaking bread—but we proof too hot, with greenhouse gas.[68]

Curiously, his list ends where Linnaeus began the definition of Homo sapiens: with the imperative Nosce te ipsum, know yourself. “Foresight is humanity’s ultimate skill. … The question the twenty-first century will answer is: do humans have it still?[69] Or did we too forget what we once knew?

  1. This lovely anecdote comes from Gunnar Broberg, The Man Who Organized Nature: The Life of Linnaeus, trans. Anna Paterson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023), p. 303.
  2. An account of this period is given in Miss Brightwell [Cecilia Lucy Brightwell], A Life of Linnaeus (London: John Van Voorst, 1858), p. 174.
  3. Carl Linnaeus to Dean Baek, 9 December 1776, quoted in William MacGillivray, Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnæus, 2nd edition (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1834), p. 317.
  4. Carl Linnaeus quoted in Gunnar Broberg, The Man Who Organized Nature, pp. 381–382.
  5. The hobgoblin quotation is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Fragments pour un dictionnaire des termes d’usage en botanique, but his original phrase (évocations magiques) comes to life in English through the loose translation from Cecilia Lucy Brightwell, A Life of Linnaeus, p. 87.
  6. This translation of the diary of Linnaeus is included as an appendix to Richard Pulteney and William George Mason, A General View of the Writings of Linnaeus (London: privately printed for J. Mawman, 1805). The quotation is found on p. 512. Italics in original.
  7. Carl Linnaeus, A General System of Nature, vol. 1, trans. William Turton (London: printed for the bookshop Lackington, Allen, 1806), p. 3. For the sake of simplicity, this essay uses the most common rendering of Linnaeus’s name, even though his books often use alternative forms.
  8. Linnaeus’s medical paper is reproduced in Henry R. Viets, “Aphasia as Described by Linnaeus and as Painted by Ribera,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 13, no. 3 (March 1943), p. 326.
  9. While Linnaeus did not descend into scientific racism as deeply as some later naturalists, who would attempt to systematize racial difference as a difference in species, the various editions of Systema naturae offered distinctions between humans. Before the formulation of Homo sapiens, our species, then named Homo diurnus (humans of the day), was split off from Homo nocturnus, a group that would later become Homo troglodytes—a fictional category of caveman-like humans that arose from unconfirmed reports in early modern travelogues. Later, there was Homo caudatus (tailed man), whom Linnaeus called Lucifer in the 1766 edition of Systema naturae; Homo lar (found in the Coromandel peninsula, the Maluku islands, and Bengal’s forests), who walked upright without a tail; and Homo monstrosus, a catch-all category for both mythical beings and humans affected by disabilities and deformities, in the style of Fortunio Liceti’s De monstris (1665). Speculative hominids aside, from the first edition of Systema naturae, Linnaeus differentiated human populations by continent—Europaeus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Americanus—but stayed firm in the belief that “it is surely a matter of one species,” of which “the white Europeans, brown Asiatics, black Africans, and red Indians are variations.” While there is the expected cultural chauvinism, Linnaeus’s subspecies are also inflected with a kind of “noble savage” discourse that glorified the indigenous Sami of Fennoscandia and pre-colonial Native Americans as free from the various corruptions that plagued Europe. For the quotations above and more on the subspecies of humans found in Linnaeus, see Gunnar Broberg, “Homo sapiens: Linnaeus’s Classification of Man,” in Linnaeus: The Man and His Work, ed. Tore Frängsmyr (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 1994).
  10. Carl Linnaeus, Systema naturae (Leiden: Theodorum Haak, 1735), n.p. While the 1758 edition of Systema naturae was the first time Linnaeus used binominal nomenclature in this work, he had implemented the system in his botanical study Species plantarum from 1753. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that we do not see binominal nomenclature in the ninth edition of Systema naturae, published in 1756. Yet Linnaeus’s use of the system did not progress evenly across time. For example, we find binomial nomenclature resorted to out of spatial necessity in the index of Öländska och gothländska resa (1745), Linnaeus’s record of his 1741 trip through Öland and Gotland. Of course, several of Linnaeus’s precursors experimented with binomial systems of nomenclature long before he standardized the form. For more on this subject, see John L. Heller, “The Early History of Binomial Nomenclature,” Huntia: A Yearbook of Botanical and Horticultural Bibliography, vol. 1 (15 April 1964).
  11. Carl Linnaeus, System naturae (Stockholm: Godofr. Kiesewetteri, 1748), n.p. My translation.
  12. Anders Sparrman to Georg Forster, 27 March 1777, quoted in Gunnar Broberg, The Man Who Organized Nature, p. 385.
  13. Ibid., p. 25.
  14. Ibid., p. 209
  15. Ibid., p. 305.
  16. Giovanno Francesco Loredano, The Life of Adam, trans. J. S. (London: printed for Humphrey Moseley, 1659), p. 12. Available at http://test.quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/A88553.0001.001/1:5?rgn=div1;view=fulltext. There are a number of variations on Loredano’s first name. The Moseley edition renders it as “Giovanno,” rather than the more familiar “Giovanni.”
  17. Johann Gottfried Herder, Treatise on the Origin of Language, in Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Michael N. Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 99.
  18. Robert N. Essick, “Coleridge and the Language of Adam,” in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, ed. Frederick Burwick (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989), p. 65.
  19. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Gordon Teskey (Chicago: Charles C. Thompson, 1900), pp. 191–192.
  20. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 25.
  21. Hobbes’s first Latin edition of Leviathan (1668) is quoted in Pat Moloney, “Leaving the Garden of Eden: Linguistic and Political Authority in Thomas Hobbes,” History of Political Thought, vol. 18, no. 2 (Summer 1997), p. 257. Moloney’s commentary is found on p. 258. Italics in original.
  22. Noah J. Jacobs, Naming-Day in Eden: The Creation and Recreation of Language (New York: Macmillan, 1958), p. 36.
  23. Georg W. F. Hegel, System of Ethical Life (1802/3) and First Philosophy of Spirit, ed. and trans. Henry Silton Harris and Thomas Malcolm Knox (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1979), p. 221.
  24. Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 323.
  25. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913–1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 73.
  26. Carl Linnaeus, A General System of Nature, p. 3.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Carl Linnaeus quoted in Gunnar Broberg, “Homo sapiens: Linnaeus’s Classification of Man,” p. 167.
  29. Ibid., p. 176.
  30. For a recent account of this simplification, see Maura C. Flannery, In the Herbarium: The Hidden World of Collecting and Preserving Plants (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023), pp. 93–96.
  31. Gunnar Eriksson, “Linnaeus the Botanist,” in Linnaeus: The Man and His Work, p. 85.
  32. Carl Linnaeus, Linnaeus’ Philosophia Botanica, trans. Stephen Freer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 225.
  33. Gunnar Eriksson, “Linnaeus the Botanist,” p. 85.
  34. Linnaeus quoted in Lytle Shaw, “Linnaeus: Pruning Names; The Enlightenment’s Meta-Gardener,” Cabinet (Spring 2002). Available at www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/6/shaw.php.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. John Muir, “Linnaeus,” in A Library of the World’s Best Literature, ed. Charles Dudley Warner, vol. 23 (New York: Cosimo, 2008), p. 9083.
  38. David Cantor, “Petition to Change Human Beings’ Zoological Name,” 5 August 2008. Available at www.rpaforall.org/literature/rpas-anti-speciesism-petition-to-official-species-naming-group.
  39. They may not have acknowledged receipt, but the ICZN felt the need to respond semi-publicly to Cantor’s petition. In a transcript from an undated presentation given to London’s Natural History Museum by Ellinor Michel, executive secretary of the commission, we find the petition reproduced at length, under the header “What the ICZN Doesn’t Do.” See presentation note 15 below the following slideshow: www.slideplayer.com/slide/3466230.
  40. David Cantor, email to the author, 1 September 2023.
  41. Julian Cribb, “New Name Needed for Unwise Homo?” Nature, vol. 476, no. 282 (17 August 2011). Available at www.nature.com/articles/476282b.
  42. Warren M. Hern, Homo Ecophagus: A Deep Diagnosis to Save the Earth (New York: Routledge, 2023), p. 271.
  43. Gianluca Serra, “Dear Carl, It’s Time to Rethink Homo ‘sapiens,’” The Ecologist (26 January 2015). Available at https://theecologist.org/2015/jan/26/dear-carl-its-time-rethink-homo-sapiens.
  44. Michael P. Belanger, “A Case for Renaming Humans—Homo sapiens (‘Wise Person’) to Homo stultus (‘Unwise Person’),” Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology, vol. 10, no. 2 (2018), p. 4.
  45. Warren M. Hern, Homo Ecophagus, p. 271.
  46. Shane Ahyong, email to the author, 14 October 2023.
  47. Quoted in Wynne Parry, “Bid to Rename Homo sapiens Called Unwise,” NBC News (17 August 2011). Available at www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna44182081.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Luis M. P. Ceríaco et al., “Renaming Taxa on Ethical Grounds Threatens Nomenclatural Stability and Scientific Communication,” Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, vol. 197, no. 2 (February 2023), p. 283. Available at www.academic.oup.com/zoolinnean/article/197/2/283/6994476.
  50. Ibid., p. 285.
  51. Ibid.
  52. The code of ethics for the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature is available at www.code.iczn.org/appendices/appendix-a-code-of-ethics.
  53. Luis M. P. Ceríaco et al., “Renaming Taxa on Ethical Grounds,” p. 284. For a thorough overview of the theoretical and historical dimensions of taxonomic nomenclature, see Igor Ya. Pavlinov, Taxonomic Nomenclature: What’s in a Name—Theory and History (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2022).
  54. Ibid., 285.
  55. Marcos A. Raposo et al., “Is Stability Too Revered in Zoological Nomenclature?” Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, vol. 199, no. 1 (September 2023), pp. 7–8. All subsequent quotations in this paragraph can be found on these pages.
  56. Marcos A. Raposo quoted in Dave Kindy, “Scientists Want to Rename the Hitler Beetle—But Not for the Reason You Think,” The Washington Post (24 September 2023). Available at www.washingtonpost.com/history/2023/09/24/hitler-beetle-offensive-species-names.
  57. Julian Cribb, Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2017), p. 6.
  58. In The Golden Bough, James George Frazer catalogued how “the savage commonly fancies that the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary or ideal association,” and thus harm can come to a person “just as easily through his name” as through “any other material part of his person.” See Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1925), p. 244. In Primitive Mentality, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl described the tendency of indigenous communities in New Guinea to view names as umbilically tethered to the individual they reference: “The name is not merely a designation; the identity in the name implies an actual participation, an identity of being.” See Lévy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality, trans. Lilian A. Clare (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1923), p. 130. American ethnographer James Mooney saw the same thing in Cherokee individuals, who knew that “injury will result as surely from the malicious handling of [their] name as from a wound inflicted on any part of [their] physical organism.” See Mooney, “The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees,” in Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1885–1886, ed. J. W. Powell (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1891), p. 343. And Claude Lévi-Strauss famously coerced the Nambikwara children of the Amazon to disclose their secret names, which they kept hidden to ward off the agendas of outsiders, by stoking animosities in their community, egging “the children on, one against the other, till in time I knew all their names.” That’s a lot of social engineering to get ahold of arbitrary signs. See Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Russell (New York: Criterion Books, 1961), p. 270.
  59. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Truth and Fantasy from My Life, ed. John Michael Cohen, trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser (London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1949), p. 112.
  60. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, trans. James Strachey (London: Routledge, 1950), pp. 65–66.
  61. Ursula K. Le Guin, “She Unnames Them,” The New Yorker, 21 January 1985, p. 27. All subsequent quotations from this story can be found on the same page.
  62. Noah Jonathan Jacobs, Naming-Day in Eden, p. 43.
  63. The most complete list that I have found is in Luigi Romeo, Ecce Homo! A Lexicon of Man (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1979). While there are hundreds of examples, most come from Cicero, who describes various types of people, not humankind as a whole, and many are Romeo’s own coinages.
  64. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (London: Macmillan, 1922), p. 146.
  65. Edgar Morin, Le Paradigme perdu: La Nature humaine (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973), n.p. My translation. A Stephen King character arrived at a similar conclusion: “At the bottom, you see, we are not Homo sapiens at all. Our core is madness. The prime directive is murder.” See King, Cell (New York: Pocket Books, 2006), p. 206.
  66. Julian Cribb, email to the author, 20 August 2023.
  67. Julian Cribb, Surviving the 21st Century, p. xiii.
  68. James Boswell earnestly thought cookery was the mark of our humanity: “My definition of Man is, ‘a Cooking Animal.’ The beasts have memory, judgement, and all the faculties and passions of our mind, in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook.” See Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, vol. 3, ed. Percy Fitzgerald (London: Bickers and Son, 1874), p. 216.
  69. Julian Cribb, Surviving the 21st Century, p. 213.

Hunter Dukes is the managing editor of Cabinet.

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