What’s in a name?

Biology professor Rick Lehtinen named two frog species last summer: http://www.wooster.edu/News-and-Events/News-Releases/2011/June/Lehtinen-Frogs

Geology professor Mark Wilson has named several (though they are all extinct): http://woostergeologists.scotblogs.wooster.edu/2011/04/03/


Putting aside the question of why we care about new species… What’s the big deal about naming them? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”… right?

Wrong, for at least two reasons. One, which is probably uppermost to biologists and geologists, is that an accurate name provides information. It tells you where the species fits.  So if you really understand the name, you have a broader understanding not just of that species but of the whole amazing network that connects each part of an ecosystem to the others, each part of the evolutionary record to those that came before and after.  Carl Linnaeus, the “father of taxonomy,” said “If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too.”

A second reason, more salient to psychologists, is that the act of naming is powerful.  By naming something you assert a kind of ownership. That’s why people enjoy the privilege of naming, and sometimes pay for the privilege.

But do you care about something more if you have named it? That’s the question I set out to answer with Finnish biologist Anu Veijalainen. She was able to give a group of high school students in Finland the opportunity to name a new species of wasp. To see if this made a difference, we designed a study with two control groups of students who did not get to name the wasp.  All three groups heard a lecture about the loss of biodiversity. We wondered if the naming group would feel more concerned, pay more attention to the lecture, or engage in more behavior designed to protect the environment compared to the other two groups.

This was not an ideal study:  our sample was small and we couldn’t randomly assign people to condition.  It turned out, too, that our test questions were too easy — all three groups scored pretty well, with no significant variability.  We did find, though, that the naming group reported more intention to engage in pro-environmental behavior, once we compensated for differences in personality among the groups.

Alas, when we re-measured them 4 months later the difference had disappeared. It was probably too much to hope that a single short lecture and a one-time opportunity to name a wasp would have a permanent effect. Still, the short-term effect suggests that naming the insect had at least a brief impact on motivation. If we could design an entire course that incorporated this opportunity, and gave them follow-up information about the wasp, maybe pride of ownership would be more powerful. We’ll be thinking about other educational interventions that might tap into this effect.

This is a known wasp, very similar to the one the students named

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One Response to What’s in a name?

  1. Mark Wilson says:

    “If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too.” Linnaeus in Philosophia Botanica (1751).

    Excellent post!

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