Notes from the Field: What’s in a Name?

A field note written as a column for News North, spring 2011:

Arctic animals have different names in different languages, each suggesting unique meanings and histories. If Latin, the tongue of western science, is any indication of Arctic science’s past, than that history is strangely affiliated with dead white guys from the United States.

Consider Rangifer tarandus granti, the taxonomic title for the Porcupine caribou of Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories.  Rangifer and tarandus are the genus and species of the short-legged, antlered, migrating creatures across the circumpolar world.  To differentiate these animals by range and region, naturalists of the early twentieth century donned them with subspecies handles. These names reveal little-known histories of science and power in the North. 

Granti refers to Madison Grant, a wealthy New York lawyer and anthropologist renowned for his involvement with two movements in the early 1900s: conservation and eugenics. Conservation, often remembered as a compassionate effort to preserve nature, was also an endeavor by elite urbanites to control rural land uses, contain the mobility of nomadic hunters, and maintain populations of big-game animals for their own sport.  Seen in this light, conservation has historical kin in eugenics, the “science of good breeding.”  Eugenics is one of the sorest spots in American history, in which scientists, politicians, and influential citizens sought to eliminate poverty, crime, and mental illness by preventing lower-classes from having children and promoting reproduction among the “better” sectors of society. Grant, through his leadership in both social campaigns, advocated for strict immigration law, urged sterlization of the “feeble-minded,” and sponsored scientific surveys of endangered animals in the American West and Canadian North.

And this is how Grant got his name on a caribou.  Fascinated with wildlife, especially in the Arctic, Grant bankrolled an expedition that sent naturalist AJ Stone to document life from northern British Columbia to Herschel Island and along the Beaufort coast to Barrow, Alaska.  After five years of adventures, Stone returned to Manhattan with a canoe’s worth of field notes, specimens, and photographs.  He quickly transformed these into museum displays and scientific reports, laying claim to northern life.  Stone cleared his finacial debts and paid homage to his funder by christening the caribou he observed as Rangifer tarandus granti. Later, he inscribed his own name on mountain sheep and dubbed other Arctic species after colleagues on the east coast.

An interesting anecdote, but so what?  Rangier tarandus granti is hardly popular parlance—perhaps influences like Grant’s have been overcome through use of more commonmonikers like “Porcupine caribou.” Yet these latin names still do carry weight, if only by bearing clues to otherwise hidden histories of science and power.  These names and these histories reveal how researchers, northerners, politicians, and businessmen from North America interacted with the land over time and how the legacies of those interactions continue to surround us today. Science has a past—and because we rarely pause to consider it—coming to terms with Rangifer tarandus granti is a worthwhile task.  There is much in a name after all.


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