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UnDisciplined: Should species be named after horrible people?

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Anophthalmus hitleri

When an Austrian bug collector discovered a new species of beetle in the 1930s, he bestowed upon it the name of a person he greatly admired. He called it Anophthalmus hitleri — and sent Adolf Hitler a note announcing the onomastic tribute. That was nearly 90 years ago. And for most of that time, biologists have treated this beetle’s name with a shrug. But some scientists are growing uncomfortable with the number of species that are named for really horrible people, and wondering why anything that isn’t human should be named in this way to begin with. Others reckon that what’s done is done. But Christopher Bae thinks that’s an indolent and irresponsible approach.

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Matthew LaPlante has reported on ritual infanticide in Northern Africa, insurgent warfare in the Middle East, the legacy of genocide in Southeast Asia, and gang violence in Central America. But a few years back, something donned on him: Maybe the news doesn't have to be brutally depressing all the time. Today, he balances his continuing work on more heartbreaking subjects by writing books about the intersection of science, human health and society, including the New York Times best-selling <i>Lifespan</i> with geneticist David Sinclair and the Nautilus Award-winning <i>Longevity Plan</i> with cardiologist John Day. His first solo book, <i>Superlative</i>, looks at what scientists are learning by studying organisms that have evolved in record-setting ways, and his is currently at work on another book about embracing the inevitability of human-caused climate change with an optimistic outlook on the future.<br/>