It may (or may not) have been Carl Linnaeus who classified our species as ‘homo sapiens sapiens‘ in the late 18th Century. As you probably know, that label derives from Latin: ‘homo’ means ‘man’, while ‘sapiens’ can be translated as a number of almost-synonyms; the double-barrelled use here might be read as ‘the wise, thinking man’.
I’ve experienced several decades of life as a member of this species, being a spectator (thankfully, on the sidelines) to the various nonsensical and outrageous behaviours our kind exhibits. I’m sure you know of what I speak: miscellaneous evils and injustices of all sorts, such as installing building cladding that’s not fire-resistant (Grenfell), building clusters of massive condominium complexes on reclaimed land (Champlain Towers), launching ships deemed ‘unsinkable’ (Titanic), warring against others of our own kind (often perpetrated by fanatics whose mantras include “love thy neighbour” and “kill the infidel”) — those kinds of things.
An utterly barmy crusade
I believe that Linnaeus (if it was him) made a poor choice. Particularly in the light of our species’ inherent inability to acknowledge threats that aren’t imminent (climate change being the obvious example), it became clear to me that far from being ‘the wise, thinking man’, we ought to have a moniker that’s more honest, and a whole lot less pretentious.
And so, almost exactly a decade ago, I found myself pondering the question, “what would be a more appropriate name for our species?” ‘Homo sapiens sapiens’ was clearly a misnomer. I settled on ‘homo fatuus brutus‘, which translates as ‘the foolish, stupid man’. And thus, I embarked upon a (mostly tongue-in-cheek) campaign to try to get our name changed.
Why would I even try such a thing? One lone nutcase on a blog trying to persuade others to join a lunatic crusade is going to only elicit ridicule, right?
It’s just a crazy thought experiment, but imagine if enough people were to think it a Good Idea, and the name were to actually be changed… it could have far-reaching effects.
Unsurprisingly, my campaign, such as it is, hasn’t been all that successful to date. It’s got some laughs along the way, and some funny looks, but that’s about it. I didn’t really expect much more.
Contemplating the receptacle’s exterior
Over time, I came to believe that this is more important than it would at first appear. In order to address an issue, it is first necessary to admit that there is an issue; only by recognising that there is a problem can one ever hope to take steps to rectify it.
Labels are important. And while we all think of ourselves as ‘wise and thinking’ (and some even expanding that to mean ‘masters of the universe’), we are less likely to consider that, perhaps, we can be capable of making mistakes. Contrariwise, any serious attempt to rename our species would, at the very least, bring heated debate, which, regardless of the success or failure of the endeavour, would shine a light on the matter.
And so, I recently considered the idea of trying to get our species name formally changed. The only avenue I can think of by which this might be achieved would be by setting up a petition, in the (admittedly foolish) hope that it might be possible to gain enough signatures to be taken seriously. After all, if millions of US citizens can follow the lead of a prevaricating moron, and (a somewhat smaller number of) millions of UK citizens can idolize a corrupt buffoon, well, the planet is one’s carpius nana.
Archaic rules prohibit reclassifying an existing species
To be effective, a petition needs to be addressed to someone (or some body) that has the power to act on it.
I did some digging. It transpires that the body responsible for ‘zoological nomenclature’ (a fancy way of saying ‘animal naming’) is the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) [not to be confused with the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN)]. Huzzah! thought I, having believed I had identified to whom I should address my petition, should it ever get enough signatories to not be laughed out of court.
Founded in 1895, the ICZN (not the ICZN) is an organization dedicated to “achieving stability and sense in the scientific naming of animals”.
‘Stability’. And ‘sense’. I strongly suspect the sequence of those two words is important, and that the ICZN (entirely understandably) values the former over the latter. And I’m reasonably certain that a request to rename the human species would be dismissed out of hand as utter nonsense.
Which, of course, it is (that’s pretty much the whole point). But, on the other hand, is it any more nonsensical than perpetuating the use of a ‘wise’ label for a species that is arguably on the verge of committing suicide?
Unfortunately, some more digging has revealed that it would appear that our fate is sealed: according to the ICZN, names are locked in by the ‘Principle of Priority‘, which says, in a nutshell, that as we have already been named, we can’t be renamed.
The eternally hungry ouroboros
It seems that the phlyarological ouroboros is complete, and self-sustaining.
(Just out of curiosity… if I were to actually set up such a petition, would you sign it?)