The ESA Linnaean Games Task Force

Summary

  • The Entomological Society of America's long-running student quiz competition, the Linnaean Games, is named for Carl Linnaeus, known as the "father of modern taxonomy."
  • In 2018, ESA received member feedback expressing concern about Linnaeus' classifications of humans, first published in 1758, that today would be viewed as scientifically inaccurate and offensive.
  • A member task force, appointed by the ESA Governing Board, is seeking input from Society members on their views about the name.
  • No decision has yet been made. ESA is committed to making any final decision based on the feedback of the Society's membership.
  • Read more and submit your comments below. 

Introduction

In 2018, the Entomological Society of America received member feedback concerning the name of the Society's student quiz competition, the Linnaean Games.

The competition is named for Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist known as the father of modern taxonomy. His standardization of binomial nomenclature was a pivotal point in the history of biological science, and his name lives on as the credited authority in the names of countless species of insects (and other animals and plants) commonly discussed in scientific writing today.

However, in the course of his career Linnaeus also published classifications of the human species, which labeled several "varieties" of human and ascribed to them various anthropological and cultural stereotypes that would be viewed as scientifically inaccurate and even offensive today.

Presented with the concern that this negative aspect of Linnaeus' legacy might make the Linnaean Games less than welcoming to minority participants, and given the importance of the Games to the student member experience in ESA, the ESA Governing Board formed a member task force to explore the matter in further detail and engage the membership at large on the question of whether an alternative name for the competition is warranted. That task force first convened in September 2018.

History

Linnaean GamesThe student quiz competition known as the Linnaean Games has grown to be a venerated tradition for the Entomological Society of America since the competition's inception in 1982. Today, with regional competitions at ESA Branch Meetings feeding to the national championship at the ESA Annual Meeting, the Linnaean Games are a critical pathway for entomology students to be introduced to the Entomological Society of America. Many long-time ESA members recall the Linnaean Games as an important element in their decision to become committed members of the Society.

The competition has always had a significant focus on taxonomy, which inspired the original choice to name the competition for Carl Linnaeus, as his contribution to the field—standardizing the use of binomial nomenclature—is undeniable. Students in entomology (and indeed in all biological sciences) learn Linnaeus' naming system in their foundational coursework. By the time Linnaeus published the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae in 1758, in which he introduced binomial nomenclature, he had named and described approximately 1,900 insect species—a small fraction of known insects today but about 40 percent of named animal species in the publication. And the names for six of the seven orders he described within Insecta—Coleoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Lepidoptera, and Neuroptera—are still in use today.

Elsewhere in Systema Naturae, Linnaeus classified humans as primates under the class Mammalia. He was the first to make such a claim, and it was controversial in its time for placing humans among animals. However, Linnaeus also further subdivided humans into several "varieties," which were attributed certain qualities:

  • Americanus: red, choleraic, upright; ruled by habit.
  • Europeanus: white, sanguine, muscular; ruled by custom.
  • Asiaticus: pale-yellow, melancholy, stiff; ruled by belief.
  • Afer or Africanus: black, phlegmatic, relaxed; ruled by caprice.
  • Monstrosus: varying by climate or art, with Mountaineer identified as small, active, and timid; Patagonian identified as large and indolent; Hottentot identified as less fertile; American as beardless; Chinese as having a conic head; and Canadian as having a flattened head.

(Descriptions above come from The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould, and from William Turton's 1802 English translation of Systema Naturae, Volume 1, page 9, hosted by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The Wikipedia entry for "Scientific racism" provides an expanded, alternate translation of the descriptions. For the original Latin, see Systema Naturae, 12th Edition, page 37, hosted by The Linnean Society of London. See also 'The Better Sort': Ideas of Race and of Nobility in Eighteenth-Century Great Britain and Ireland [PDF], a 2014 doctoral thesis by Tim McInerney, pages 217-220.)

Such theories were not uncommon in Linnaeus' time. Historians debate whether Linnaeus intended to imply a hierarchy in his classification of human races, but the classifications themselves have long since been discredited by science.

The Path Forward

The primary task before the Linnaean Games Task Force is to gather member input on the name of the Linnaean Games, beginning with a member comment from (see link below) and a survey of ESA Student Members.

Dr. Rob Wiedenmann, an ESA past president with a long history of leadership in the Society, is chair of the task force. Task force members include both students and professional members as well as Linnaean Games volunteers and past competitors.

The task force will make a report about its findings at the Summer 2019 Governing Board meeting. To be clear, however, no decision has yet been made to either change or retain the name of the Linnaean Games. The ESA Governing Board and the Linnaean Games Task Force are firmly committed to taking an objective approach on this issue and to making any final decision based on the feedback of the ESA membership.

If you would like to contribute your perspectives on this issue, please fill out our Member Comment form:

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