The Original Question about Value of Naming

Margaret Thayer thayer at FMPPR.FMNH.ORG
Fri Jul 19 11:45:51 CDT 1996

Mike Morris wrote:
>It has been very enlightening to see how this thread has
>developed ...  [from]  ... what to do on
>a hike when a student innocently asks "what flower is that?" or
>"what is that brownish bird?"
It seems hard to interpret questions like those as anything _other_ than
requests for names, and likewise hard to think of a useful and/or
intelligent response that doesn't include a name of some kind.  But we can
include additional information besides the name, or ask the kids questions
about the organisms, to make it clear that the name isn't the end of knowing
about that organism.

I agree that students in a short-term field trip situation are unlikely to
remember every name they're told, a logical extension of which is that
there's little point in walking along reciting names of everything you
encounter.  If they _ask_ about names of particular things, though,
presumably something about those organisms caught their attention, and they
may in fact remember at least some of _those_ names.  I'd guess this is even
more likely if they're given some other interesting information about the
taxon, especially if it makes the name make sense somehow, i.e., provides a
mnemonic device.  [Aside - of course not all names, scientific or common,
lend themselves to that!]  At a bare minimum, they'll learn, if they don't
already know, that there are names for organisms that help interested people
discuss them clearly.  Of course, simply asking what something is suggests
that they already have an inkling of that.  During the hike, you may find a
chance to refer back by name (and also the reminder "the brown bird Lee
asked about") to the species you've named and discussed earlier, and
reinforce the idea of names as a tool for communication.

One alternative to choosing only one or the other is mentioning both a
common name and a scientific name if you know both, preferably (IMHO)
without apologizing for the scientific names - treat them as normal and
reasonable.  Species with multiple well-known common names (e.g., the tree
genus Tilia - basswood, linden, lime tree ...) can be used as good examples
of the need for some kind of standard names at least for international
communication and thus the reason for the existence of the probably less
familiar scientific names.

My 2 cents' worth..
Margaret K. Thayer      thayer at
Adjunct Curator
Field Museum of Natural History - Zoology, Insects
Roosevelt Road @ Lake Shore Drive
Chicago IL 60605, USA   tel. 312-922-9410, ext. 838   fax 312-663-5397

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