Organisms named after people abound. Thomson's Gazelle (Gazella thomsoni), Heller's Blazingstar (Liatris helleri), and Hungerford's Crawling Water Beetle (Brychius hungerfordi) all advertise their discoverers or honorees in their species name - the second part of their Linnean binomial - instead of supplying useful biological information to supplement their genus name. One may be able easily to justify the self-referential impulse of field biologists who discover new species after braving the great challenges of disease, distance, and dangerous predators they often face in pushing back the boundaries of humanity's biodiversity knowledge, or even the obligation to reward wealthy patrons whose financial support made the research possible. But what about simply selling the second half of a species' name for cold, hard cash?
For the first time, species names are to be auctioned off in multiple lots, just like Russian paintings or Roman statuary. The auction, to raise money for the Association Monaco Asie, an organization with the geographically unlikely mission of "turning Monaco and Asia into neighbours", and Conservation International, a leading biodiversity conservation group, will take place at the palatial Musée Océanographique de Monaco on September 20, 2007. Named "The Blue Auction", this auction
offers individuals, companies and organizations the opportunity to bid for the privilege of having their name (or a name of their choice) forever attributed to new marine life species recently discovered off the coasts of the Bird’s Head Seascape in Indonesia by Conservation International.
Suggested beginning bids range from $45 000 for a humble rainbowfish to $500 000 for a charismatic walking shark, with organizers hoping to raise millions from well-heeled, aspiring eponymizers for marine conservation:
A total of 12 lots shall be auctioned by Christie's, and the proceeds will benefit marine conservation programs associated with the long-term preservation of such species as well as other environment and biodiversity-related programs. Participation to the gala event is for qualified bidders and by invitation only.
The international law of naming species is governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Article 5.1 requires, in relevant part, that
The scientific name of a species, and not of a taxon of any other rank, is a combination of two names (a binomen), the first being the generic name and the second being the specific name.
Articles 8-20 further impose requirements of publication and name-availability.
Conservation of biological diversity requires vast amounts of funding to be successful. Such funding has been heretofore woefully inadequate. Innovative tools, such as auctions for naming rights, though not sufficient to make up the deficit, may be worth a try. Though naming a species after a wealthy donor - imagine, perhaps, a successful "barbarian at the gate" coveting the naming rights to the Hemiscyllium shark - may minimize the biologically meaningful informational richness in a species' name, the lucre thus raised might just enhance that species' chances of surviving. As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet,
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
But, to smell as sweet, that rose must first survive.