GOB 177 – Yesterday is Cancelled

This article first appeared in the December 2023 edition of Birdwatching Magazine

Whoever thought that the ‘cancel culture’ would impact birders? Maybe I should have expected it as ostriches are falsely supposed to bury their heads in the sand. ‘Cancelling’ people or problems doesn’t actually solve anything. Exactly what does it achieve… being in denial about anything is no way to change things for the better.

So, the American Ornithological Society has decided to change some ‘common’ names of birds because they are named after people. Why? Because some of the people so ‘honoured’ were nasty. Never mind that those same people stay commemorated in the scientific names, and in common names out of their purview (i.e. the rest of the world) that still commemorate many of the same people.

I have written  eight books about zoological eponyms, that is to say the people after whom many animals have been named (and all other life too). Some are magnificent humans… giants of science like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Some have feet of clay, like Richard Meinertzhagen who claimed to have discovered birds he hadn’t and stole museum specimens to claim as his own. Many were unconnected with science and just flattered by their friends, subjects or servants. Still others include the worst of people, murderers, paedophiles, racists and misogynists et al! Some of these horrors were first class scientists at the same time and ‘deserve’ to be remembered for their scientific achievement whilst being abhorred for the evil they did.

I am 100% against this re-writing of history. Trying to write them out of every day birding doesn’t right any wrongs. Moreover, science has to be non-partisan and own up to the fact that the worst of human behaviour sometimes advances science. For example, it’s an unpleasant fact that nothing spurs invention more than war, and not just among the righteous. History teaches us that the Nazis had the best rocket scientists. Western democracies and the communist bloc all forgave their sins and stole as many as they could post WW2 to build their own arsenals and races to the moon.

Pulling down statues, doesn’t right wrongs either… surely its far better to let them stand and change the plaques so that they tell the real, full story along the lines of ‘this man (almost all are men) paid for this city’s town hall and art gallery by selling Africans into slavery’. Maybe put them all in a museum of racism. Telling the truth is the way forward, not pretending it didn’t happen by the use of a blue pencil and airbrush to edit them from history.

Much of scientific nomenclature is a potted history of colonialism. If you study bird names you will see that they reflect the rise and fall of powers. In the nineteenth century it was Brits & other powerful Europeans who are commemorated, in the late twentieth century it was Americans and now in the twenty-first century it’s the Chinese who are preeminent.

They must not be forgotten, but remembered for their great achievements and their crimes against humanity. John Audubon not only kept slaves but opposed the abolition of slavery. Gandhi believed in segregation of the races. Even the person whom we laud as the greatest Brit of all time, the very embodiment of our nation at war, Winston Churchill, believed in ‘Anglo-Saxon superiority’ and retaining colonial rule.

The  truth is an uncomfortable mixture, a spectrum we all sit astride. Changing names doesn’t change the truth, in fact it stops it being brought to light. Grown-up birders should remember their pioneers, their great achievements and their inhumanity and crimes.

Rant it out!