The Naming of Names

Recently an American researcher traveled to Barbados and on finding that the world’s smallest snake lived there, cataloged it and named it after his wife, with the binomial Leptotyphlops carlae.

Just one problem — astonishingly, Bajans already knew all about the thread snake, their name for the tiny ophidian living in their midst. And some of them aren’t very impressed that a foreigner has dropped by to rename their fauna as though they were somehow unaware of it.

I’m with the Bajans on this one. All too often academics from the developed world get credit for “discoveries” that give no credit to indigenous peoples who knew about them long before. I’m reminded of how old people in Dominica knew to eat old bread when they were ill long before Alexander Fleming isolated penicillin from bread mold.

I also thought it was interesting that all the images I’ve seen that show how small the thread snake is use a U.S. quarter as a comparison object rather than a Bajan one, especially since they’re the same size. I suppose I understand the point of using an object the size of which is widely recognizable but why not use a culturally neutral one, like a pencil — or a ruler, for that matter?