Friday, July 24, 2009

Who "discovered" a species?

Loren Coleman posted on Cryptomundo a comment from Jerome F. Hamlin, creator of, asking whether it is correct to say that museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer "discovered" the coelacanth in 1938, given that it was known to Comoros islanders for centuries. My thought:

“Discovered” as meaning “specimen obtained and made known to organized science” makes sense. It is simply, in biology/zoology, the meaning of the word. That the animal was locally known is true but didn’t have any scientific impact until Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovered the species by finding the type specimen. After that, this local knowledge became valuable, giving scientists information on the animal’s habitat and helping in the search for further specimens.

There is undoubtedly, back in the history of the Comoros or Indonesia, some fisherman who pulled in the very first coelacanth ever noticed by humans. His society would have rightly called him the discoverer. Modern science just as rightly calls Courtenay-Latimer the discoverer. If we adopted a new word for “obtained or reported the first example brought to scientific attention,” and perhaps we should, then the term “discoverer” would indeed apply only that ancient fisherman. (”Described” is too narrow for what we are talking about, since the discoverer and describer are very often different people.)

No comments: