What's in a name?

Science - Ziauddin Sardar finds immortality in a luminous frog

Having failed to be recognised for my polymathic genius, I have decided to take a more shameful route to fame. I am going to have a gorgeous frog named after me. The one I have chosen was discovered in the jungles of Peru in 1999. One of its particular qualities is that, like a firefly, it glows in the dark.

Needless to say, I did not actually discover this exotic frog. Indeed, I have never discovered anything. But scientific fame need not be limited to those who undertake the arduous labour of discovery. Anyway, there are more species on earth waiting to be named than there are biologists and zoologists trying to identify them.

Since 1758, when scientific nomenclature officially came into being, we have identified 1.8 million animal and plant species. But that's only the tip of the iceberg. About 90 per cent of species have yet to be discovered. When it comes to organisms and insects, which are exceptionally species-rich, even less is known to science. Currently, we are discovering around 10,000 species every year. But also every year, an estimated 17,500 species become extinct without the luxury of being discovered, largely thanks to "development" and industrialisation.

All new discoveries have to be classified and named. The classification of newfound species follows the well- established rules of taxonomy. The theory of evolution tells us that organisms come into being as a result of gradual change, and that closely related organisms are descended from a relatively recent common ancestor. Taxonomy reflects such change in a classification of groups, or taxa, which are arranged in a hierarchy. Thus, small taxa contain organisms that are closely related, and the larger taxa contain organisms that are more distantly related. So we start with the largest and work our way down: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species.

Assigning dedicatory names to newly identified taxa is a long-established tradition. Conventionally, the person who discovers and first describes the species, or the explorer who first hunts down a new species, assigns his own name to it. Such immortalisation is a small reward for scientific toil. Sometimes the benefactor who funded the research gets the honour; sometimes the place of discovery is incorporated into the name. But the honour of naming a new species, one of the grandest privileges in our culture, has remained limited to the closed body that is the scientific community.

That was before the advent of Biopat. The brainchild of a collection of German ecological and zoological bodies, Biopat was registered early this year as an innovative scheme that opens up to the public the whole process of naming new species. Thanks to Biopat, anyone with around £2,000 can have a slug or mosquito or dung-beetle named after him, her or a loved one. Already, a marine snail of the genus Bufonaria has been named borisbeckeri after the German tennis player, and a Colombian tree frog was granted the signature Hyla stingi by a fan of the ecologically sound British singer Sting.

Biopat is described as a boon to biodiversity. The purpose of the initiative is to raise funds for researching and preserving biodiversity. The idea is not only to discover new species and share the benefits of discovery with the public, but also to do something about all those species that become extinct every year. Hence, half of the "donation" from the "sponsor" goes to the institution where the species was studied, and half is spent on protecting biodiversity in the country where the species was discovered. So vain bastards like me are able not only to buy immortality for cash, but also to feel good about it.

The scientific name of a species consists of a genus part and a species part. If I were to be given a scientific name, my genus would be comparable to the category "writer". My species name would then correspond to a particular type of writer: contributor to the New Statesman, say. Except that, reflecting the Eurocentric nature of modern science, both my genus and species names have to be in "the traditional languages of scientific inquiry" - Latin or Greek.

On the whole, the discovery of a new genus is rather rare. So, in most cases, the genus of a new discovery will be given a priori. For example, many species of frog, including my one and yet undiscovered ones, belong to the genus Rana. The species name can be the name of a person. If the person is female, "ae" is suffixed to the name. So my frog could have a name like Rana cristinae. If the person is male, we attach the ending "i" to the name. So my frog will be known as Rana ziai. Or, if I wanted to give my family name to it, we would have to add the suffix "orum": Rana sardarorum.

In most cultures, names have meanings. For example, my own name, Zia, means light. In Urdu, Rana is a king. So my glowing frog is appropriately named "King of Light". The subtlety of this will doubtless be lost on Biopat, an organisation that is very particular about scientific procedure and very aware of temptation.

There is always a chance that some unscrupulous researcher will describe an already discovered species as new. So Biopat will not offer an unnamed species to potential sponsors unless the discovery has been written up and accepted for publication by a reputable journal. I am pleased to say that a paper on a new species of frog, Rana ziai, containing a detailed description of the unique characteristics of this particular species, with a glowing colour photograph, is pending imminent publication in Nature.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich