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Memes and phenotypes: Re-evaluating the role of taxonomy

A contribution to Dawkins studies

I’m not going to waste time putting this somewhere else, so I thought I might as well put it here …

Taxonomy is normally positioned as a long-running international research effort to recognise and delimit unique evolutionary lineages, describe and name these as species, and organise species within a hierarchical framework of higher taxa. Scientific names are accordingly seen as tools to facilitate human understanding, use and management of biodiversity. However, evolutionary biology reveals the inadequacy of this reductive and overly anthropocentric perspective. Scientific names are better understood as part of the extended phenotype (Dawkins, 1982) of many biological organisms, serving as avatars for collectives of these organisms to form and manipulate symbioses with Homo sapiens. These symbioses are mediated through the ability of these organisms to establish and control memes (Dawkins, 1976) that infect and penetrate human culture. Scientific names are the binding points that allow these memes to become established.

The process by which scientific names infect human consciousness is not dissimilar to mechanisms used by many parasitic organisms to infect their hosts. Scientific names are established when organisms successfully attract the attention of a susceptible and suitable human host. Most humans have some initial susceptibility, provided that the organisms are able to stimulate sufficient interest to become memorable to the infected individual. However, only a small subset of potential hosts is suitable as a vehicle for wider transmission of this interest. Taxonomists serve as the primary hosts that are suitable for transmitting the infection more widely through their activity in publishing species treatments and scientific names. A broader subset of humans, including naturalists and nature lovers, may serve as intermediate hosts that transmit interest in unrecognised organisms to a suitable taxonomist. The infection becomes established as a published scientific name is adopted and reused within the scientific community. In some cases, the infection reaches epidemic levels when the wider human population develops an interest in the species. Modern social media serve as the leading pathway for global infection.

The relationship between any scientific name and an evolutionary lineage is more or less coincidental. Multiple and even unrelated lineages may share characteristics that hamper human recognition and discrimination. This allows such organisms to form mimicry rings that may never or only belatedly be recognised as swarms of cryptic species. Over time, advances in human technology and scientific method have disrupted many of these mimicry rings, effectively modifying the environment within which organisms must maintain the memes associated with their scientific names. This changing environment drives evolution in the membership of the organism collectives that taxonomists recognise as species. This evolution has an epiphenomenal presentation to human observers as a proliferation of species concepts associated with each scientific name.

Scientific names vary in their efficiency and infectiousness as tools for meme propagation. Factors such as euphony and memorability (including the familiarity of name elements to humans) may affect the wider transmission and persistence of a name within the consciousness of the community. 

As part of the extended phenotype of the associated organisms, scientific names support a vast network of symbioses between the world’s species and the human race. Most significantly, the memes tied to each scientific name may increase the reproductive fitness of a species by promoting and facilitating its trade and cultivation by humans, for example via the pet and aquarium trade and in the context of agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry. In some cases, these memes can trigger the activation of human defence mechanisms, as for example when species are included in lists of undesirable pest or invasive organisms. However, some species may be successful in exploiting memes associated with their scientific names to avert human predation or exploitation (a form of aposematism) and even to elicit heightened human social responses (homologous to brood parasitism) and secure potentially significant assistance in the form of conservation or cultivation.

Some observers (e.g. Garnett and Christidis, 2017) have noted that certain organisms are disproportionately effective in propagating favourable memes and exploiting human responses. Those organisms that appear most charismatic to humans are most successful in parasitising human energy to support their conservation. In extreme cases, the heightened stimuli that these organism collectives present to taxonomists and the wider public trigger the splitting of an existing named collective into multiple named species. Each additional scientific name serves as a new avatar for the organisms to secure additional support and funding. Garnett and Christidis are concerned that such organisms have gamed human interest to a disproportionate extent and divert global resources from other species or components of the environment.

We should recognise that some scientific names are “sock puppets” that serve to deceive humans and subvert the perceived goals of the taxonomic community, conservation organisations and other stakeholders. Better governance mechanisms are required to inoculate the taxonomic community against super-charismatic taxa and protect the wider community from exploitation by these organisms.