OK, this may seem like a pretty serious geek-out, but a pet peeve of mine has just been tweaked by the New York Times. Olivia Judson has written her usual stimulating and thought-provoking essay, this time on the recent decoding and publication of the Neanderthal genome by Svante Pääbo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. As she notes, this is a remarkable accomplishment that raises so many questions — in the best of senses.
My peeve is the use of the Latin binomial for our species in the caption of the figure comparing an anatomically modern human skeleton with a reconstruction of a Neanderthal skeleton. The caption reads:
A reproduction of a Neanderthal skeleton, left, and the original modern homo sapien skeleton, right.
Egads! First, our genus is, of course, Homo, not homo (note the capitalization and some sort of typographic elaboration, either italics or underline to denote the special status of a Latin binomial). Second, the species name is sapiens not sapien.
Systematic nomenclature is abused all the time. I shudder every time I read the ingredients list on the Aveda shampoo in our shower (ingredient #3 of the clove shampoo is written “Prunus Amydalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond)”). It’s nice that they are trying to be specific and precise about the composition of their product, but get the naming conventions right! Even if it’s impractical to italicize the text for printing reasons, please remember, genera are capitalized; species (and sub-species) are lower case.
Why am I so uptight about such a seemingly trivial issue of typography and convention? It’s because nomenclature matters in science. In particular, I think that systematic nomenclature (i.e., nomenclature that describes evolutionary relationships) does for biology what Bertrand Russell argued good formal notation does for mathematics and logic: provides a subtlety and suggestiveness that allows it to almost teach for itself.