Taxonomic Tithing: Science and Philanthropy at Work Together

by Trevor Goward

Saving It with Names

So what’s in a name, anyhow? Quite a lot actually – including a new way to raise money for conservation!

Some people dedicate their lives to classifying living things and, as necessary, giving them scientific names. Such people are called taxonomists.

Taxonomists worldwide contribute slightly more than one new species to science every half hour. Yet we still have a long way to go before the last of Earth’s life forms has been catalogued. Conservative estimates put the number of species still unknown to science in the low tens of millions.

The world is in now in taxonomic cataclysm. This much is clear. Every day human activity nudges untold numbers of species a little closer to extinction. In many cases these species will disappear even before we know they exist.

Some taxonomists would like to help build a brighter future for the organisms they study. I’m sure of this because I’m a taxonomist – I study lichens – and few things would please me more.

Imagine how much money could be generated for conservation if taxonomists like me agreed to put the naming rights to even a few of the 18,000-odd species described each year up for public auction.

The word tithe comes from Middle English teothe, a contracted form of Old English teogotha, one-tenth. It used to refer to that portion of one’s annual production owed to the church. Nowadays it means a tax or levy. One might speak of a tithe on carbon.

So here’s the question. Might it be possible to convince taxonomists around the world to accept a voluntary tithe on scientific naming? What if all of the world’s taxonomic specialists – in lichens, liverworts, mushrooms, mollusks, nematodes, nudibranchs, oysters, and so on – agreed to put the naming rights to one in every ten our new species up for public auction?

The answer, I think, is clear: the world would very soon be a better place; for if widely practiced, taxonomic tithing would yield several lasting benefits:

  1. to the organism being auctioned, which would be catapulted to public notice;
  2. to the ecosystems that support the organism, which would likewise be brought to public attention;
  3. to the donor scientist, whose work would surely benefit from the associated publicity;
  4. to the conservationist, whose efforts would acquire a mostly untapped funding source;
  5. to the winning bidder, who while earning public recognition as a philanthropist would have his or her name – or that of a favourite grandchild, sports team, novelist, or corporation – permanently associated with a living species.

Surely there can be few more satisfying – or enduring – ways to be remembered to posterity than in the name of a living species. Once your name is introduced into the taxonomic literature, it’s guaranteed to live on in human memory as long as our civilization continues to exist. I call that staying power. Not even Shakespeare could hope for more.

Next page: Science in Auction