Update (3 July): This story has been changed to include Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s decision to remove the name of famed biologist James Watson from its graduate program on account of his racial comments.
For Earyn McGee, terminology matters.
McGee, a herpetologist, studies the habitat and behavior of Yarrow’s spiny lizard, a reptile native to the southwestern United States. The University of Arizona graduate student and her colleagues regularly pack their things—boots, pens, notebooks, trail mix—and set off into the nearby Chiricahua Mountains. At their field site, they start an activity with a name that evokes a racist past: noosing.
“Noosing” is a long-standing term used by herpetologists for catching lizards. But for McGee, a Black scientist, the term is unnerving, calling to mind horrific lynchings of Black people by white people in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. “Being the only Black person out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of white people talking about noosing things is unsettling,” she says. McGee has urged her colleagues to change the parlance to “lassoing,” which she says also more accurately describes how herpetologists catch lizards with lengths of thread.
McGee isn’t alone in reconsidering scientific language. Researchers are pushing to rid science of words and names they see as offensive or glorifying people who held racist views.
This week alone, one scientific society is considering renaming a major journal that honors a renowned 19th century researcher who held racist views, and another is voting on changing the name of a trivia competition that canonizes a prominent eugenicist. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) decided to change the naming of its graduate school after Nobel Laureate James Watson because of his past racial comments. And a prominent university has said it will remove from a campus building the name of a famous scientist who supported white supremacy. The moves come in the wake of last month’s decision to rename a major statistical prize—and in tandem with efforts to change the names of animals and plants that include ethnic slurs or honor researchers who were bigots.
Unifying these initiatives is reinvigorated resistance to institutional racism. Kory Evans, a marine biologist at Rice University, says, “Dismantling white supremacism in science has taken on a new urgency” amid the broader reckoning ignited by the killing of George Floyd, the Black man suffocated by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May. The buildings, journals, prizes, and organism names that have come under scrutiny “lionize figures … who specifically took actions to undermine the humanity of people of color … [and] who laid the academic foundation for actual discrimination, sterilization, and genocide,” says Brandon Ogbunu, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University.
The current movement isn’t the first to target scientists whose actions were judged unconscionable by subsequent generations. After the fall of Nazi Germany, apartheid in South Africa, and various communist nations, the names of scientists who supported oppressive policies were stripped from institutions and awards. And even before the recent demonstrations against systemic racism in the United States, many scientists had lobbied universities and science groups to stop honoring prominent researchers who had bigoted views. In 2018, for instance, years of activism prompted the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor, to remove the name of Clarence Cook Little, an influential 20th century geneticist who supported eugenics, from a science building and a transit hub.
Universities concerned about creating diverse and empowering atmospheres are wise to reconsider whose names adorn their buildings, says UM historian Alexandra Minna Stern, who has chronicled the evolution of eugenics in the United States. The names, she says, “make visible the values and priorities and beliefs of an institution.”
This week, the University of Maine, Orono, followed UM’s lead, announcing on 29 June it would strip Little’s name from a building. “Little made an enduring positive contribution to science,” a university task force wrote. However, it added, “Major areas of his professional life violate the ideals that are central to the educational mission of the University of Maine and its commitment to the public good.” Drivers of the decision included Little’s high-profile support of eugenics and his work for the U.S. tobacco industry to dispute evidence linking smoking to cancer.
At the University of South Carolina, officials on 19 June moved to remove the name of physician J. Marion Sims from a women’s dormitory. He is known for inventing the Sims vaginal speculum, as well as for pioneering surgical techniques for vaginal fistula repair, both of which are still used in obstetrics today. Activists have noted that the tool and the surgery were developed through experimental surgeries on enslaved women conducted without anesthesia. The university’s move has been controversial in the state: “Changing the name of a stack of bricks and mortar is at the bottom of my to-do list,” tweeted Senator Harvey Peeler (R–SC).
On 1 July, according to a CSHL statement, its Board of Trustee “voted to restore the original name of the graduate program to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory School of Biological Sciences.” The move, which required 75% of the board to approve changing the institution’s charter, came after 133 CSHL students and alumni sent a 21 June letter saying Watson’s name was “inextricably linked with racism” given comments he had made since at least 2007, when a newspaper quoted him saying Black people were of inferior intelligence. CSHL remove him as chancellor then and in 2019, after he told PBS his views had not changed, the lab stripped his remaining honors except for the school’s name.
U.K. universities are also taking a hard look at whom they honor. On 24 June, the University of Cambridge decided to remove a stained-glass window named after biostatistician Ronald Fisher, who has been celebrated as “the single most important figure in 20th century statistics” but was also a prominent supporter of eugenics. The university acknowledged Fisher’s “remarkable scientific discoveries,” including his application of mathematical theory to the process of natural selection, but decided to strip the name to “broaden and strengthen our community for all its members.”
At University College London, officials are evaluating whether to rename buildings celebrating geneticist Francis Galton (who coined the term “eugenics”) and mathematician Karl Pearson (founder of the Annals of Eugenics). Pearson derived the correlation that now bears his name—a commonly used statistical technique—through studies designed to demonstrate “[the] problem of alien immigration into Great Britain.” Joe Cain, a philosopher of science at the university, says, “The science behind these discoveries may be groundbreaking,” but institutions need to “consider the man and his data set, too.”
He adds, “Students should be able to look at a name and ask, ‘Who is that?’ and have their professors respond: ‘That’s a person you can aspire to.’”
The swell of support for inclusive placemaking has not been limited solely to campus grounds. Earlier this month in Geneva, residents submitted a motion to the municipality’s Grand Council to rename a street memorializing Karl Vogt. The 19th century German zoologist is known for his influence on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. But Vogt was also a vocal advocate of irreconcilable differences in cranial capacity between Black and white people, claiming in his Lectures on Man that Black people were closer anatomically to apes than humans.
Scientific societies that fail to similarly reflect on the spaces they construct contribute to “an extremely poisonous … ambiance for people of color,” Ogbunu says. At the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, an effort to change the name of its flagship journal—Copeia, named after Edward Cope, a scientist who held racist views—is nearing its end. On Friday, the society’s board will vote on the matter, motivated in part by a June survey that found the society’s membership is 82% white and less than 1% Black.
Also under scrutiny: prizes and other accolades bestowed by societies, including those awarded to exceptional early-career scientists. This month, the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies both renamed awards that honored Fisher, the statistician. Still, resistance to such name changes persists. “We can at once celebrate and benefit from scientific contributions while disagreeing wholeheartedly with the personal beliefs of the scientists responsible for them,” wrote three researchers—statisticians Harry Crane of Rutgers University, Joe Guinness of Cornell University, and Ryan Martin of North Carolina State University—in a public letter opposing the change. Stripping Fisher’s name, they write, would “damage public trust in science by signaling that the evaluation of scientific advances reflects not only scientific achievement but also social acceptance.
Event names are also being re-evaluated. Some members of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) are calling for renaming the society’s annual Linnaean Games, a student trivia competition named after Carl Linnaeus. The 18th century botanist invented the system for classifying species, including Homo sapiens, which he categorized based on race, assigning negative social traits to nonwhite populations. “For those of us who have ever been called Black, brown, or yellow, Linnaeus’s legacy lives on every day,” says Taylor Tai, an entomology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and co-author of a petition to rename the games.
On Friday, ESA board members will discuss renaming the event. “By today’s standards, there is no way to read [Linnaeus’s] classification of humans as anything other than racist,” says Chris Stelzig, the society’s executive director. But, he adds, some members opposed to removing Linnaeus’s name wonder whether it is “right to judge our ancestors by today’s standards.”
Some researchers are also pushing to change species names they find objectionable. Graduate students around the world have contributed to a spreadsheet that lists potentially problematic common and scientific names of plants and animals. It includes a scorpion, a duck, and a buttonquail that carry the name hottentota, hottentotta, or hottentottus; colonialists in the 17th century used “Hottentot” as a derogatory term for Indigenous Black people in Africa. Researchers say other names—including those of the Nasutitermes corniger termite, the Orsotriaena medus butterfly, Speke’s weaver, McCown’s longspur, and the flowers, chives, and turtles named after Linnaeus’s apostles—also include slurs or glorify bigots.
“Nomenclature is in service to hierarchies,” says Harriet Washington, an ethicist who has written about structural racism in medicine. “Toppling these statues, so to speak, is not eroding history so much as issuing a correction to it.”
McGee, who co-organized last month’s #BlackBirdersWeek, favors such name changes. And she says she has been blindsided by the pervasiveness of racialized taxonomy, learning only recently that the lizard she studies is named for H. C. Yarrow, who “objectif[ied] the bodies of ‘others’ in order to explain and justify … [racial] dominance,” according to Museums and Empire: Natural History, Human Cultures and Colonial Identities, a book by historian John MacKenzie. McGee was “disappointed but not surprised” by that history, she says.
McGee’s campaign to change her field’s term from “noosing” to “lassoing” has made limited headway, she says, but she is not discouraged. “What is customary or convenient to a previous generation [of scientists] is not a good excuse for retaining racism,” she says. “I’ve accepted I’m the type of person who will speak up so the next Black herpetologist doesn’t have to go through this.”