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The Attack: Common names of birds, eponyms, and the woke

August 21, 2020

Lenin in Ulaanbaatar (Wikipedia)

[NOTE: The following is the work and opinion of the author. It does not reflect the opinions of any other member of SMBAS. Whether any of them agree with it is up to them and, prior to publication and with the exception of the one person quoted below, their opinions on this subject were unknown to the author. There was a great deal of discussion surrounding the name change of McCown’s Longspur, both after the initial proposal and after the decision from the AOS.]

In the science-fiction film The Matrix (1999), after the mysterious Morpheus takes Neo to his headquarters, he offers Neo two pills, one blue, one red.

“You take the blue pill…the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill…you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Neo takes the red pill, reality dissolves before his hands and eyes, and we all begin to find out about the Matrix.

This blog posting is a less dramatic, less life-critical offer, but still it offers a choice. You put it aside, or delete it, and you continue with your day. Read it to the end, you discover something you did not know, you may be surprised, you may be dismayed, you may be pleased. Either way, within two, three, maybe six years, you will know what this blog tells you today. It’s up to you. Reading Time: 45 minutes.

Don’t miss the exciting Followup posting to this lengthy essay.

Eager to see birds on our first morning in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, we rushed outside to a small park adjacent to our massive Soviet-style hotel. Among the migrating old-world warblers and flycatchers, and much to our surprise we found a larger-than-life statue of Vladimir Lenin. The statue was clean and very well maintained.

Choibalsan, still a Mongolian national hero.
(Photo: Chinneeb, Wikipedia)

Later we saw a statue of Choibalsan, Mongolian general, first leader of Communist Mongolia, responsible  for purges and the death of tens of thousands. Assisted by the Russian Army in 1939, he led three successful battles to keep the Japanese Army out of Mongolia. His statue still looked shiny and new.

We knew the Mongolians had nine years earlier rid themselves of communism, even before the Soviet Union completely fell apart. We were surprised to see that these statues still standing and well maintained. Our Mongolian guide said: “They are part of our history. We do not like them, we are glad they are no longer in power, but they are part of us. We will not forget our history.” This seemed to us an honorable attitude, humane and wise. I was sorry to later learn Lenin’s statue was removed in 2012, now held to be a hated reminder of the communist era. Yet Choibalsan’s statue still stands in front of the National University. People pick and choose; I think this decision comes down to Choibalsan being Mongolian and Lenin not.

Maybe it’s time to re-read Orwell’s 1984.
Ken, a local birder  —

The changing of the name of McCown’s Longspur was accomplished on the second try. [Link to BirdWatchingDaily 8/7/20 article by Matt Mendenhall, giving greater detail.] It’s now the Thick-billed Longspur (still Rhynchophanes mccownii). I posted here on July 22 on the proposed name change.  I disagree with this change for the following thirteen reasons, given roughly in order from the particular to the general.

The following four document links are supplied for reference purposes. I suggest you read them later.

Link to the June 22, 2020 letter to the AOS, requesting the review of McCown’s name. Sample excerpt:

We call upon the AOS to direct the NACC and SACC to publicly and directly address the issue of eponymous honors and other potentially derogatory, oppressive, or simply irrelevant holdovers in English common names.

Link to June 30, 2020 AOS “Statement on the McCown’s Longspur Naming Issue.” In the main it says they are reviewing the proposal and will post their decision. Many reader comments follow the post. In part:

Prompted in part by a 2019 proposal to change the English name of McCown’s Longspur, the North American Classification Committee developed and published new guidelines for English bird names that specifically address the issue of potentially offensive eponyms or other names. While continuing to emphasize the fundamental nomenclatural principle of stability, the Committee sought to avoid perpetuating harm and placed greater emphasis on present-day societal standards…”

A Bird Named for a Confederate General Sparks Call for Change
Smithsonian Magazine | Hannah Tomasy, Undark | July 21 , 2000. An excerpt:

Robert Driver, a graduate student studying birds at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, submitted a proposal to the North American Classification Committee (NACC) of the AOS to change the bird’s name, citing McCown’s position in the Confederate Army. McCown, Driver wrote, “fought for the right of states to preserve slavery.” All researchers, he argued, “should be able to conduct future research on any bird without feeling excluded, uncomfortable, or shame when they hear or say the name of the bird.”

Link to the AOS North American Classification Committee Supplementary Proposal of 24 July, 2020 recommending “the committee reverse its previous decision and change the English name of McCown’s Longspur” (Rhynchophanes mccownii).

McCown’s Longspur, Pakowki Lake Alberta, 4-18-15
(Photo by Andeansolitaire, Wikipedia)

1. Poor Choice for New Name. Other names suggested were Prairie Longspur, Shortgrass Longspur and Plains Longspur, names reflecting the bird’s breeding habitat, somewhat useful – but not much – for locating the bird. Good luck to those attempting to see how much thicker the bill is when compared to the other three longspur species. Good luck in seeing the long spurs, for that matter, as the bird’s feet are usually buried in grass. Those arguing for change claimed common names should be descriptive of the bird, and not mere eponyms. This argument was not applied in any useful way. Want useful? Try Pale-faced Longspur, although hyper-sensitive people might find that racist, and the reason for name change is because McCown was “perceived” as a racist.

2. So-called “descriptive” names for birds are often useless and confusing. Most magazines and newspapers, even those devoted to birds and birding, do not capitalize bird names. This can, and does, lead to confusion as to whether that yellow warbler they’re discussing is some warbler which is yellow or partially yellow (there’s about 40 of those), or a particular yellow warbler species that is actually named Yellow Warbler. Capitalizing the name removes that doubt, but many publications don’t, and some specifically won’t, do that. All such descriptive names can and do create confusion, especially those with difficult-to-impossible-to-see characteristics used as the descriptive name: Orange-crowned Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker, Semipalmated Sandpiper, anyone? How about Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet? Peruse your field guide for many, many more such names. These names, of course, were given by people in museums staring closely at dead birds. We know that. Both “Thick-billed” and “Longspur” are of little use to anyone not wielding a caliper in a museum. “McCown’s” Longspur, removes all doubt that it’s the name of the species, not merely someone’s attempt to describe a bird.

On BirdChat listserve (membership required) for 8/14/20, the appropriate comment was made:

[One] lament is “couldn’t they have done better than “Thick-billed Longspur? Its bill is hardly its most outstanding characteristic.” [This] rang a bell with me that somewhere I had read that naming birds is a game played by taxonomists in which they can score from one to ten points and that one of the higher scoring achievements was naming a species after its least conspicuous field mark.

3. Birds don’t care. These common names are created by humans for the use of humans. The birds don’t know about them, and wouldn’t care if they did. Considering the sensitivities of the birds themselves when creating a bird in order to honor its beauty is completely irrelevant. If you really want “bird names for birds” as one website insists, you’ll need to whistle bird calls and songs, as birds do not speak English or any other human tongue as their native language.

4. Many common names exist for the same bird. The names we are discussing are common English names. Every species of bird in the world now has an English name, used primarily by birders, people writing about birds, or people buying & selling birds. In other countries, many local birds have a name in one or more local languages. Many bird species never had a local name; before scientists and collectors appeared on the scene, most small birds were of little-to-no interest to local people, who called them by a generic name (e.g. Spanish “pájaro,” English “sparrow”) signifying “a small bird.” It was the Swede Carl Linné in the mid-eighteenth century really who got the ball rolling on giving a unique name to everything in the world with the neo-Latin binomial scientific name (e.g. Passer domesticus). Common names in local language(s) continue to be used by local non-scientists. Giving all species a common name in English came along much later, primarily for the convenience of traveling English-speaking birders.

5. McCown’s discoveries were honored. McCown’s name was given to the bird by ornithologist George Lawrence (as in Lawrence’s Goldfinch, another eponymous bird name) for his 1851 discovery of the bird, and for his other ornithological contributions including discovery of the Ash-throated Flycatcher and Olive Sparrow. He was not honored to recognize his participation in a war, unlike those soldiers whose statues adorn many towns, not just southern but northern. The bird he discovered and was named in his honor is his only memorial. Is it fair to strip someone of their sole public honor or recognition, simply because people one or two centuries later might “perceive” them as having bad morals or wronging others? Who then, now or centuries into the future, is safe?

Never forget that in the New Calendar Year 38 – 2157 by our calendar – the Universal Vegan Guard declared anathema the wearing of leather, backdated their edict, and deleted the photos, records and names of anyone pictured wearing leather shoes, belts, coats and so on in any of the 73 septillion “selfies” still stored in the cloud. After the “Selfied,” as they were called, were “canceled” from history, the UVG then tried to turn all descendants of those canceled into fertilizer for their approved line of Vegan Plants. The Second Order of the Orthodox Vegan Dominion then retaliated and the resulting doctrinal war eliminated all life from 93% of the earth’s surface. It was not a pretty picture.

6. Racist, slaver, or just another soldier? Others have addressed McCown’s supposed racism and support for slavery. People have written (here, paragraph 10) that he “…had a Confederate flag in his room when he died. So, he fought for slavery and against the USA and was unrepentant.” Even if he actually had the flag as alleged, it is an enormous cognitive leap from that to being an unrepentant racist. That’s merely inflammatory prejudicial innuendo. [People have souvenirs for many reasons. Nazi emblems and paraphernalia still strewn around our country probably number into the millions. The same goes for Korean and Viet Nam war paraphernalia. No one is claiming that the possessor of a Nazi medal is or was themselves a Nazi, repentant or otherwise.] Elsewhere McCown is reported to have said post-war that the Confederacy was “a damned stinking cotton oligarchy.”

Politifact states that in the 1860 census of the slave states, 24.9% of “households” (a larger-sized grouping than “family”) held slaves. Thus 75.1% of slave-state residents who could legally own slaves did not own slaves. Therefore, on average, 75.1% of Confederate soldiers came from non-slave-owning households. Tarring them as all slave-owing, unrepentant racists is tarring with a very broad brush. Some may wonder why such men would fight if not for the right to keep slaves? For their state, their hometown, their honor, to not appear a coward, to “teach them no-account rascals a lesson!” The very same reasons most Union soldiers fought. Additionally, it is reported (AOS 2019 5th NO vote), McCown came from a non-slave-owning area of Tennessee.

John Porter McCown was born near Sevierville in eastern Tennessee (east of Knoxville in Sevier County). This part of Tennessee was anti-slavery and very much against secession and suffered greatly for their views by the Confederate armies for their Union sympathies. Few slaves were held in this part of Tennessee, probably due to the Appalachian Mountains and because it wasn’t economically viable to own slaves.

At this point we begin to present reasons of a more general nature.

7. “Perception” does not constitute reality. The proposal (AOS 24 July 2020) to change the longspur’s common name says:

Notwithstanding McCown’s accomplishments as an ornithologist and his eventual misgivings about the Confederacy, he is perceived as a symbol of slavery and racism by many in today’s ornithological and birding communities.

“…perceived as a symbol of slavery and racism..” So he doesn’t actually have to have been a racist? It’s sufficient that someone, somewhere merely perceives him that way? And I suppose this “perception” somehow diminishes this person or made them feel “unsafe?” Or, as Robert Driver wrote in his proposal for name change, “…feeling excluded, uncomfortable, or shame when they hear or say the name of the bird.”

“…by many in today’s ornithological and birding communities?” Really? How many? Until someone rooted this detail out, I’ve never heard or read a single mention of either this purported fact or anyone’s supposed “perception” of it.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is familiar with the terms phenomena (the appearances – which constitute our only possible experience – of things), noumena (the presumed things-in-themselves), and the fact that phenomena can never perfectly replicate noumena. “Perceptions” are phenomena, and there is no guarantee that they replicate closely any thing-in-itself. In fact, Kant ably demonstrates that the less our phenomena is verifiable by reference to our external sensory world, the more unreliable that phenomena is.

In other words, our internal thoughts and feelings, unless they are supported by external experience, are not to be relied upon. Just because they feel right, even if we feel convinced they are right, does not make them right. People have done great evil throughout human history because of their inner conviction. Bad perceptions lead to false conclusions. Be skeptical of inner certainty.

When we start making decisions based on the “perceptions” of one, two, ten or hundreds of people, it is a very steep and slippery slope. (More on slippery slopes in #11 below.) We all know people whose perceptions are utterly unreliable or extremely biased. Including racists. Are we to fall all over ourselves to salve supposedly wounded feelings based merely on their owner’s “perceptions”? People with poor eyesight might perceive me as drop-dead handsome. They would be wrong. Until I was twelve, I “knew without a doubt” that tree leaves and bricks in a wall could not be individually discerned from a distance greater than 10 feet. Then I got glasses and was astonished. Perceptions without proof are not merely useless, they are potentially fatally biased. Racist attitudes and racist behavior rely largely on such faulty and biased “perceptions.” Millions died in the Nazi death camps because of faulty and biased “perceptions.”

8. It’s dangerous to destroy or “cancel” history. Ken, a member of SMBAS, in response to my July 22 posting on the proposed name change, responded succinctly:

Maybe it’s time to re-read Orwell’s 1984.

The Dresden Codex, pp. 58-62, one of the few remaining Mayan books (Wikipedia)

Destroying yesterday’s creations breeds tomorrow’s regrets. Spanish priests destroyed nearly all of the Mayan Codices.  In 1562, Catholic Bishop Diego de Landa, convinced of his perception of the superiority and absolute truth of Christianity, wrote:

We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

Many First American mounds in the eastern United States were leveled, now gone forever. The pyramids of Egypt and the Colosseum of Rome still stand; we still visit and marvel at them, knowing full well that slaves probably built them and – in the case of the Colosseum – hundreds of thousands died within, specifically for the entertainment of the audience. The Library at Alexandra, the greatest library of the ancient world, is long gone, along with hundreds of thousands of one-of-a-kind scrolls and codices.

Martin Luther, prime instigator of the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe, virulently hated Jews. Nowadays people don’t like to think about that, but thankfully he has not been “canceled” for being a bad person. He is still a tremendously important person in European history. Besides, what would the Lutherans call their religion?

St. Jerome (Jerome of Stridon) is justly honored for his 382-405 C.E. translation of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into the language of his day, common (or vulgar) Latin. The Vulgate was used as the basis for translation into other languages for well over a thousand years. He was also a terrific hater of Jews. Even saints have warts and feet of clay.

Destruction of Buddhas of Bamiyan, March 21, 2001 (CNN, Wikipedia)

Not twenty years ago, the Afghan Taliban, in their variation of Islamic purity and political correctness, decided it was right and proper to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan, as they were – in the eyes of the Taliban – dead emblems of a false and discredited religion. The statues – tallest of which was the 53-meter “Solsol” – were initially fired on with anti-aircraft guns and artillery. When that failed, dynamite was used. The world watched in horror and dismay at the destruction of these 1400-1700 year-old works of art. Taliban leader Mullah Omar later said they did it out of horror that westerners wanted to come and fix non-living statues but not to help the Afghan people themselves. He thought his reasons were just. Don’t we always think all our actions just?

9. Need a PhD.? Attack your predecessors. A professor told me decades ago that the easiest way to write your dissertation and earn your Ph.D. degree is to attack the work of one of your predecessors. Especially dead ones who cannot defend themselves, disprove phony “new evidence” or rebut false charges.

In 1983, five years after Margaret Mead’s death, Derek Freeman launched a major attack on her 1925 work in Samoa and her book, Coming of Age in Samoa. Freeeman’s charges were later refuted as being factually inaccurate and ideologically driven. He reattacked in 1998; his charges were refuted again.

Since sociologist Napoleon Chagnon released his book “Yanomamö: The Fierce People” in 1968, it has sold over a million copies. That made him fair game for big-fame-hunters. In 2000, journalist Patrick Tierney published “Darkness in El Dorado.” The New York Times described it in 2013:

A true-life jungle horror story redolent with allusions to [Joseph] Conrad, the book charged Chagnon with grave misdeeds: not just fomenting violence but also fabricating data, staging documentary films and, most sensational, participating in a biomedical expedition that may have caused or worsened a measles epidemic that resulted in hundreds of Yanomami deaths. Advance word of the book was enough to plunge anthropology into a global public-relations crisis — a typical headline: “Scientist ‘Killed Amazon Indians to Test Race Theory.’ ” But even today, after thousands of pages of discussion, including a lengthy investigation by the American Anthropological Association (A.A.A.), there is no consensus about what, if anything, Chagnon did wrong.

Even easier than attacking your target’s work, which might require actual research on your part, is to attack the person themselves. Bad morals, shaky marriage, wrong politics, wrong sex, race or native language. Whatever comes to hand. There’s always something that someone, somewhere will find reprehensible. Everyone has feet of clay. This is of course nothing more than the ad hominem (“to the man”) argument. In recent years, Ad hominem arguments have thoroughly permeated and polluted politics, philosophy, sociology, and education.

Definition: Attack The Person – ad hominem  “To the man” (Informal Fallacy > Red Herring > Genetic): You attack your opponent’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument. Ad hominem attacks can take the form of overtly attacking somebody, or more subtly casting doubt on their character or personal attributes as a way to discredit their argument. The result of an ad hominem attack can be to undermine someone’s case without actually having to engage with it.

10. The ad hominem attack on McCown. The argument against McCown is entirely on the man, not his work, which even his loudest detractors admit he performed without error. The attack is entirely on his character. But not truly. They cannot prove that he was a racist or slave-owner. Because there is strong evidence he was neither, they must rely on a purported “perception” of his “unrepentant” racism (reason #6 above) and support of slavery, based entirely on his having been a Confederate soldier. The attack is nothing more than ad hominem innuendo.

According to and Wikipedia, there were 750,000 to one million Confederate soldiers.  As previously mentioned (item #6 above) approximately 75% of those soldiers came from households-not-owning-slaves, making it 560,000 to 750,000 Confederate southern white men who very likely had nothing to do with slavery. That’s a lot of people to call – without significant supporting evidence – racists pro-slavers. This boils down to slandering a dead man – and by extension hundreds of thousands of dead men – in order to win some sort of “point:” perhaps gain notoriety, fame, career advancement, recognition, social network “likes” and “handclaps,” political correctness credits, perhaps even earn your Ph.D. I don’t know what the motives are behind this attack on a dead bird collector. Probably, as with the Taliban who destroyed 1500-year-old statues of Buddha, they believe their cause just and honorable, the expression of their faith and conviction. If this were the beginning and end of their campaign, it would merely be bad, not terrible. But it’s not.

11. The “Slippery Slope.” The logical fallacy of slippery slope can be described as follows:

Definition: Slippery Slope (Informal Fallacy > non causa pro causa “False Cause”): You said that if we allow A to happen, then Z will eventually happen too, therefore A should not happen. Lacking proof that such extreme hypotheticals will in fact occur, this has the form of an appeal to emotion fallacy by leveraging fear. Example: “If we allow same-sex couples to marry, then the next thing we know we’ll be allowing people to marry their parents, their cars and even shrubs.”

The key factors making it a fallacy are “extreme hypothetical” and “lacking proof.” Neither of these factors apply in this situation.

Those who pushed for McCown’s name change are just beginning. Their next move on this slippery slope is to attack all other eponymous bird names beginning with approximately 149 additional North American birds, such as: Hammond’s Flycatcher, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Bendire’s Thrasher, Townsend’s Warbler. Anything named after a human. A certain kind of human.

In their Aug. 4, 2020, Washington Post opinion piece, “The stench of colonialism mars these bird names. They must be changed.” (yes, that’s the actual title), authors Gabriel Foley and Jordan Rutter call for the elimination of all eponymous (named after people) North American bird names. That’s around 150 names. Why? These are names of Whites, Europeans, Colonialists. Evil, terrible people. They write:

Yet these honorific names — known as eponyms — also cast long, dark shadows over our beloved birds and represent colonialism, racism and inequality. It is long overdue that we acknowledge the problem of such names, and it is long overdue that we should change them.

Long dark shadows? Change is long overdue? The problem of such names?

They continue. (Maybe this opinion piece was actually intended as satire for The Onion and somehow wound up at the Washington Post instead. See comment #6  below.)

We cannot subjectively decide — especially if the adjudicators are White — that some names can be retained because they are associated with less abhorrent pasts than others. We must remove all eponymous names. The stench of colonialism has saturated each of its participants, and the honor inherent within their names must be revoked.

So being white is the problem, both for the source of the eponymous name, and anyone making a decision – “the adjudicators” – about that name. Fundamentally, the writers are saying, “If you’re white, sit down and shut up. We won’t listen to you.” Too bad for anyone white, male, and safely dead, unable to complain, unable to speak to the purported “perception” of their “stench of colonialism.”

Also notice the word “revoked,” used above In other contexts the removal of someone’s name – as was just done with McCown’s name – is termed “canceled.” When shouting down speakers or forcing them to not appear, the term is “deplatform.”

Why stop there? What about the thousands of other animals and plants from Aardvarks to Zebras with tapeworms and bacteria along the way? What about transuranic elements like Einsteinium, named for a man who is triple-damned as a German, a Jew and (gasp!) an American? Who cares about his life’s work? How many hundreds of thousands of species are named for people who probably had awful habits, dirty toenails and crooked teeth if we search hard enough?

For the writers of “The stench of colonialism…“, all human names appended to birds must be eliminated. I tried to check their website, but received a Warning: Potential Security Risk Ahead message from my browser, and changed my mind. Type it yourself if you dare.

The readers’ comments appended to “The stench of colonialism…” are worth reading. Here are a few with the names intentionally left off, but you can follow the link. My favorite is #6.

  1. While we’re at it, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the name “Washington Post”. Washington was an unrepentant slave holder, and post is a pole used to tie slaves to for whipping. Every time I read the name it makes me feel unsafe. Something must be done.
  2. Please stop trying to sanitize history, especially as it intersects Aves and other species outside the history of Homo sapiens.
  3. The only stench is from the rotting brain of the author, decaying from sheer stupidity.
  4. Considering that the vast majority of people are entirely unaware of the origins of these avian names, offense over the purported “stench” is, frankly, a choice being made by a tiny number of people who, apparently, can’t think of another way to get attention for themselves. Absurd and idiotic, in the extreme.
  5. “The stench of colonialism.” Ya know, I really wish people who hate the country so much would just leave.
  6. I had another [COMPUTER] window open and was reading the Onion. I thought I was in that window when I read this opinion piece.
  7. There is a bit of a problem. As the human species becomes less awful over time, the past inevitably gets seen for its faults and failures. A hundred years from now, how will our time be judged?

Note “unsafe” in #1 above, used in a satirical sense. We’ll return to this word.

Here’s a few comments from the American Ornithological Society (AOS), following their June 30, 2020 initial decision to not (yet) change McCown’s Longspur to something else:

  1. I think perhaps you’re getting too caught up in the passions of the day. You would have to really dig hard to link the name McCown’s Longspur to slavery and support of slavery. You would almost have to be looking to be offended.
  2. Yes, I agree, although i think many would be offended by such comments! I was “unfriended” by a longtime friend on Facebook who became offended by me agreeing to a similar comment! My opinion is gradually becoming one that NOW says, why stop at merely changing names of anything or anyone who has committed some form of racism? Why not include ANYONE’s name who has committed ANY offense against anyone or any thing? Racism is just the latest big trend! Why not change the names of those things that were named after people who have a prejudice against anything, anyone or any place? THAT way we’ll have it ALL covered!
  3. Unbelievable. Political correctness run amok…if 1% of all North American birders, black, white, or other have any idea who the hell McCown was, I’d be astonished! If no one knows who he was, how can anyone be offended?
  4. Terrible idea to change scientific publications due to the outrage of a few “woke” teenagers on Facebook.

Note the reference to “woke” in #4 above. We’re coming to that word as well.

The screenshot Tweets below are a small sampling of the pro-change people celebrating on Twitter #BirdNamesForBirds:

The Los Angeles Birders – Student Group has apparently signed on.

As has, I’m sorry to say, the American Bird Conservancy.

I don’t know who Thomas Blakiston is, but apparently he has offended at least one of the “woke” with his “moderate cultural racism.”

I’m sure that the “Wallace” referred to immediately above is Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the Theory of Evolution. The idea came to Wallace during one of his many malarial fevers, while he was lying down, sweating in bed. He wrote it out in a lengthy letter, and from the Moluccas (in present-day Indonesia), sent it to Charles Darwin in England. Darwin received it and nearly panicked, fearing his work of twenty years was in peril. He finished his paper on natural selection, and presented it alongside Wallace’s letter to the Linnean Society. He then wrote and published his famous and revolutionary books. Were it not for Wallace’s letter forcing Darwin to finally “get off the pot,” who knows where biology might be today. One hundred years behind, perhaps.

But – of course – anyone with a free twitter account and two functioning thumbs is now fully qualified to critique – not Wallace’s actual work for that would be difficult and time consuming, but the far more important moral character – of one of the giants of biology. Read Wallace’s book, The Malay Archipelago and discover how scientists would spend decades doing field research. Spoiler alert: it did not include sitting in their bedroom dashing off ad hominem attacks on their computer.

Chapter XXI of this book: The Moluccas – Ternate ends with a interesting and surprising description of how slaves in this region – owned by Asians, not Europeans – were treated and how the Dutch, around 1860, emancipated them and compensated their native slave-owners. Anyone irrevocably wedded to the “perception” that all slavery everywhere was caused by whites of European ancestry, probably won’t want to read this, as it turns that myth on its head.

This post has grown longer than I had hoped, but we’re approaching the end.

12. The Neo-marxists, the Woke.
My assumption is that – until now – most birders know little and care less about Neo-marxism and “Wokeness.” So here’s a quick lesson, because this topic is what actually underlies this entire changing of bird names, not just McCown’s, but all eponymous bird names, and many other social events completely unrelated to bird names taking place in America today. At the least, if things continue as they are, as seen in the discussion of Slippery Slope above and for the reasons given below, the pressure to eliminate all eponymous bird names will expand to all eponymous names in any science of any kind.


Neo-marxism [From Urban Dictionary] differs from classical marxism by abandoning the dichotomy of rich vs. poor and adopting identity politics, the dichotomy between successful and unsuccessful demographics. Neo-marxists divide all demographics – white, black, asian, male, female, gay, straight, etc. – and place them in a hierarchy of oppression as determined by how successful that demographic is. White and Asian men are at the bottom of this hierarchy [as least oppressed, I assume], whereas blacks and females are near the top, although the exact order is not widely accepted.

Neo-marxists believe that the successful demographics [White and Asian men] are only successful because they exploit the less successful demographics, and as such believe that the more successful demographics (i.e the ‘rich’ of classical marxism) should be punished in some way, and what they have should be given to the less successful demographics. Typically this involves giving these demographics money, positions, and political influence simply for being a member of an “oppressed” demographic.

Neo-marxist: “White men are evil and oppressive! We need to remove them from society!”

Woke [From New Discourses] is being acutely aware of racial and social injustice—not just of isolated incidents, but awareness of systemic and institutional racism. Getting woke encapsulates the first stage of becoming an accomplice in addressing systemic racism. It is insufficient for white accomplices to merely call themselves woke, they must strive to embody wokeness by building with people of color. You must continually learn that you are never woke enough.

Knowing the facts of systemic racism is necessary but insufficient for wokeness. Mere facts can be used to support anti-Black narratives and racial inequity. You must apply your knowledge to eradicate the problems of racial injustice.

“Woke” means having a particular type of “critical consciousness,” as these are understood within Critical Social Justice theory. It means viewing society through various critical lenses, as defined by various critical theories, bent in service of an ideology most people currently call “Social Justice.” This means acceptance of the worldview of Critical Social Justice, which sees the world only in terms of unjust power dynamics and the need to dismantle problematic systems. This means having adopted Postmodernist Theory and the worldview it conceptualizes.

The woke consciousness is set particularly with regard to issues of identity, like race, sex, gender, sexuality, and is aware of the allegedly systemic nature of racism, sexism, and other oppressive power dynamics and the true nature of privilege, domination, and marginalization in society and understanding the role in dominant discourses in producing and maintaining these structural forces. Being woke means to become a social activist with regard to these issues and problems, again, on the terms set by Critical Social Justice. This—especially for white people—is to include a lifelong commitment to an ongoing process of self-reflection, self-criticism, and (progressive) social activism in the name of Theory and Social Justice.


Many of the terms used in the two definition/descriptions above have become modern buzzwords, frequently used in magazines, books, newspapers, on TV, the radio and the internet. If you’ve seen them before but didn’t know to what they referred, now you have some idea.


I admit that Neo-marxism and Wokeness are relatively new to me, and so I limit my following comments. My understanding of classical marxism through reading and living concurrently with it’s several manifestations in the world (e.g. Soviet Union), and watching those failures and collapses, makes me think that Neo-marxism will be no more successful than classical marxism, and it’s failure will be for the same reasons.

In theory and on paper, classical marxism was perceived as a workable and laudatory system by those who promulgated it. They were wrong; their error led to catastrophic and lethal results for themselves and their nations. The reasons for this has been endlessly analyzed and enormous volumes written. I’ll skip that and give my succinct reason:

Ordinary human nature, throughout the world, was the downfall of communism.

All economic and social theories must pass an acid test: Will they work for ordinary humans in the ordinary real world? In my opinion, communism failed for that reason. Real human beings – consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, subverted it. Communism carried within it the seeds of its own destruction because humans, for whom communism was supposed to create a perfect world, are themselves those seeds of destruction. Capitalism as currently operating is failing for the very same reason – most immediately because capitalist enterprises successfully avoid paying their environmental and social costs, pushing those costs onto the general public and future generations, but ultimately because humans are the operators of such enterprises  – but even so capitalism is better adapted to ordinary human nature than was communism, so it is taking far longer to fail.

Communism in the Soviet Union – under the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (wherein the lowest classes got to run the show and make the rules) – was supposed to pass through a period of increasing socialism to eventually achieve “full communism,” a classless society with full equality. Obviously, that never arrived. This never-ending march towards full communism became a major subject of jokes in the USSR.

Soviet “full communism” jokes

  • Daddy, have we achieved full Communism or are things going to get a lot worse?
  • How will the problem of queues in shops be solved when we reach full Communism?
    There will be nothing left to queue up for.
  • It is a hundred years later. Full Communism was reached a long time ago. A young boy asks his grandmother what a ‘queue’ is. She replies, “They used to have queues in Socialism. People would stand in a row one after another, and they gave them butter or sausage.” “Grandma, what are butter and sausage?”
  • Will there still be a police force when we have achieved Full Communism?
    No, by then people will have learned how to arrest themselves.
  • Is it true that when we reach full Communism, there won’t be any more political jokes?
    Yes, except this one.

Now is a good time to start this song by The Who while you finish reading this blog.

Although terminology has changed, this is what I see while reading the descriptions of Neo-marxism and Woke above: re-education campaigns, endless self-criticism (which the Cambodian Khmer Rouge forced on their victims before murdering them in the Killing Fields), the dictatorship of the proletariat, socialism leading to full communism, the narrowing of language and thought, and extreme focus on class structure. These are all characteristics of failed classical communism. Neo-marxism will not succeed by using the same methods (under new names) that led classical marxism to failure. Neo-marxism’s intense emphasis on hierarchical demographics cannot lead us closer to a non-hierarchical society devoid of  oppressed and oppressing demographics, any more than Soviet socialism progressed onward to full communism.

Why not? Two primary reasons: 1) Human nature rebels and refuses to be stretched or whittled on anyone’s Procrustean bed of theory. 2) Authoritarians always arise; they always co-opt available apparatus of power and control; they always gather a retinue of willing supporters and enforcers because there are always people who “perceive” that following the dictator is their own best move towards personal survival and prosperity. Exchanging one authoritarian for another does not get our species anywhere beyond one more turn on the merry-go-round.

Advocates of neo-marxism and wokeness already demonstrate their lean towards authoritarianism just as fervently as did Soviet communists under Stalin, and Chinese communists under Mao. How many scholars and writers have already been “deplatformed,” “canceled” and ejected from schools, universities and conferences for being insufficiently woke or the wrong race? Even one is one too many. How many proto-Stalins are there today among the masses of the Woke and Neo-marxists? Even classical marxists like Adolph Reed, Jr. are fair game for charges of unwokeness. Read this from a blog by Jerry Coyne (see Coyne’s brief bio and additional links below).

Adolph Reed, Jr., a black antiracist and Marxist who has taught at four universities (now emeritus at Penn) was scheduled to give a talk in May to New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Unfortunately for him, it was on one of his areas of expertise: the conflict between emphasizing race versus emphasizing class in striving for social justice. His topic: how the Left has, in his view, unproductively concentrated on the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on blacks, which he sees as unnecessarily dividing those blacks from  those whites who both belong to the real underclass: the poor. He sees this kind of identity politics as needlessly fracturing people who should be working together to assure equity. (To show how Left Reed is, he’s criticized both Obama and Clinton, the former as a man espousing “vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics.”)

The mob descended:

To let him talk, the organization’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus stated, was “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.”

“We cannot be afraid to discuss race and racism because it could get mishandled by racists,” the caucus stated. “That’s cowardly and cedes power to the racial capitalists.”

That last phrase baffled me a bit, but it appears to mean that because Reed was emphasizing class over race, he was “afraid to discuss race and racism”, and that racists could say, “See, a black man thinks we’re talking too much about race.” After further pushback, Reed and the DSA decided to cancel the virtual talk. (Yes, a virtual talk!). Among those who criticized the cancellation was, to my surprise, Cornel West, who describes himself as a “non-Marxist socialist” and is well known for his antiracism. As the NYT says:

“God have mercy, Adolph is the greatest democratic theorist of his generation,” said Cornel West, a Harvard professor of philosophy and a Socialist. “He has taken some very unpopular stands on identity politics, but he has a track record of a half-century. If you give up discussion, your movement moves toward narrowness.”

Here are two writers and samples of their articles on wokeness, neo-marxism and name-changing as a tactic of the woke. There’s a lot more on these topics subject available on their blogsites and elsewhere on the web.

Jerry Coyne is a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago in the Department of Ecology and Evolution. He is best known for his work on biological speciation, elucidation of the theory of evolution and commentary on intelligent design. He is the author of two best-selling books: Why Evolution is True and Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.
Why Evolution is True Blogsite
Search his blogsite for “Woke
Blog Posting: “First they came for the bird names. . .” Woke craziness creeps into bird taxonomy
Blog Posting: A new book on Woke Academia by two of the “grievance studies” authors

Andrew Sullivan is a prolific and excellent writer and blogger, a conservative and a Catholic (unlike me in all respects). The Dish is his old site, The Weekly Dish is the new. The latter site is fee-based, but has a few articles you can read for free. Among his books are The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back, and Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival.
Blog Posting: The Roots of Wokeness
Blog Posting: The Cascading Complexity Of Diversity

13. Anxiety and the Woke’s “feeling unsafe,” “microaggression.”
Every new movement and new generation create their own terminology and slang (most often for scatological or sexual purposes). Two recent “wokeish” terms caught my attention: “Feeling unsafe” and “microaggression.” They signify to me that the speaker is feeling threatened, anxious, nervous in some way, and has located (correctly or not) the cause of their anxiety in some external person, speech or situation. Whether they ever consider that the source of their anxiety may be internal, I don’t know.

First, microaggressions: From a June 9, 2020 NPR interview:

Kevin Nadal is a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has spent years researching and writing books on the effects of microaggressions.

Kevin Nadal: Microaggressions are defined as the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups. The difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination or macroaggressions, is that people who commit microagressions might not even be aware of them.

Other than the reference to “historically marginalized groups,” which locates it within the wokeness worldview, it sounds like ordinary insult-give-and-take that goes on everywhere all day long and probably began when humans began to speak. This sort of thing can be annoying, even painful; no one enjoys being the butt of jokes and “Hey dummy!” or “You moron!” comments intended to be insulting, intended to wound. But to imagine that such abuse, whether intentional or unintentional, is directed solely or even primarily at “historically marginalized groups” is so far-off-the-mark as to itself be comical. Pick any all-white, all-black, all-Hispanic, all-First American high school anywhere in the country and you’ll find that such interpersonal abuse – macro and micro – is non-stop among students. Blacks in particular are famous for their near-infinite variety of “Yo mama” put-downs. Anyone believing that white people are exempt from this treatment are out of touch with reality. As “perceptions” often are.

As many have pointed out, microaggressions are far better than macroaggressions such as a punch in the nose or a knife in the belly. I spent my early life swimming in a sea of microaggression. Unpleasant, but not lethal. Were you expecting human beings – sometimes described as “semi-socialized killer apes” – to cease immediately from all aggression? Dream on. We are not born a blank slate. We are each dragging six million years – or more – of non-teleological evolution around behind us, like Marley’s ghost with his chains.

This 1959 song from Bo Diddley, “Say Man,” fits in here nicely. It was a big hit in my neck of the woods. I used to know it by heart. If the Who song is still playing, put it on pause.

When insults are traded between people of different races, ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, language groups, etc, it is inevitable that such categories themselves become part of the insult. Thus “You’re ugly,” become “You’re one ugly honkie.” You don’t need a degree in Critical Social Justice Theory to know this. Simply grow up in America, pay attention, trade insults with others. Some people in “unsuccessful demographics” might be misled into believing that all such abuse is racially or demographically based, because the abuse they receive from those in more successful demographics always seems to carry a racial or demographic connotation. Again, another faulty “perception.” Insults come with the territory of human existence. To live among humans is to be insulted. Those of your own race or demography will rarely (with one well-known exception) refer to your race or demography when they tell you what they really think of you.

Feeling “Unsafe”: Existentialism holds that angst, dread and anguish are central experiences in human life, briefly described as the fear of inescapable freedom and one’s responsibility for that freedom. More specifically (from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy): A recurrent state of disquiet concerning one’s life, evidence that human life has a dimension which a purely naturalistic psychology cannot comprehend. Introduced by Kierkegaard, later expanded by Heidegger and Sartre, used to describe a sense of unease concerning the structure of one’s life which, because it does not arise from any specific threat, is to be diagnosed as a manifestation of our own responsibility for this structure.

Of Buddhism’s famous Four Noble Truths, the first is commonly – and erroneously – translated as Life Is Suffering. This is inaccurate as “suffering” greatly overstates the meaning of dukkha (Pali) or duhka (Sanskrit). Starvation, torture, broken limbs, burning, drowning, end-stage cancer – these are suffering. Dukkha is “unease,” “disquiet,” “free-floating anxiety,” “sorrow,” “misery,” or my favorite, “unsatisfactoriness.” The pain of existence, always with you. The more the human is aware or “awakened,” the more they are aware of universal dukkha, the inescapable truth of the First Noble Truth, of existential angst. And the more they are aware of dukkha, the more they are awakened. For existentialists and Buddhists, it is counter-productive to blame the outside world for one’s own freedom of existence and the unending unsatisfactoriness of life. You get past dukka by recognizing its presence within yourself,  accepting it’s universality and inescapability.

Bottom line: Consider the possibility that what feels like someone else’s microagression towards you is your own existential angst. This is not to shift the blame. We all share angst as part of our fundamental human nature, the curse of self-consciousness. It may well be the remnant of our innate animal wariness, a survival-promoting feature of critical value during the long millennia when our ancestors were prey animals on the plains of Africa. Nowadays, as life (one hopes) becomes less and less threatening on a daily, even minute-by-minute basis, this primordial wariness and discomfort may become more and more like one’s appendix.

Russian-American geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote a paper in 1973, titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” This short statement has become for me the wisest, richest, deepest, most succinct statement anyone ever made about evolution and natural selection. Every day something occurs to again show me the truth of his statement.

All human thought, emotion, behavior, belief – anything occurring within the mind-body-emotion constellation of human existence – are all part of human biology; all human biology belongs to the huge field of general biology, and all general biology has been or will eventually be explained by the Theory of Evolution. All us creatures (and plants) now living are the result of “what worked for our ancestors” or, more accurately, “what didn’t kill our ancestors before they reproduced,” allowing to them survive and have offspring who could go on to survive and have offspring, ad infinitum.

This includes racism and hierarchy; social, economic and political theory; religion, philosophy, and what I call “groupism.” Evolving over more than six million years , groupism underlies all our human social activity. Racism and demographic hierarchies and all negative expressions of groupism can be addressed, altered, perhaps eliminated; we cannot eliminate groupism per se, our need to create, defend, support, adapt to and sometimes control our “group,” whatever kind of group it may be. When we remove one negative manifestation of groupism, we must take care that another “evil” manifestation doesn’t slip in to replace it. Something will replace it, to be sure; “nature abhors a vacuum” and humans without groupism will not long survive.

Groupism is to humans as water is to fish. It permeates us and supports us so thoroughly every second of our lives that we cannot see it.

There are 7.5 billion people currently on our planet, and there are probably at least 7 billion “groups.” Each of us may belong to dozens or hundreds of groups. Using the internet I can now join a hundred different groups a day, every day, if I so wish.

Neo-marxism and wokeness, a theory and worldview relying explicitly on categorizing people into a hierarchy of groups, then reshuffling these groups like a pack of cards and setting them at each others’ throats, is no way to get past the negative symptoms of our human need for grouping.

As with dukkha, the only way past “groupism” is through groupism. It is inescapable, we must recognize it and learn to deal with with it. Easier said than done.


  • Follow the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm. Buddhism and Hinduism call this ahimsa (“harmlessness”).
  • Avoid exclusionary groups. If a group considers its difference or superiority as integral to its purpose, if it needs an “us vs. them” atmosphere, find a non-exclusionary group to accomplish your purposes and satisfy your social needs.
  • Religions. All religions contain tenets of exclusion and inclusion. Emphasize the inclusive which work towards the greater good of all. When religions focus on the “hereafter,” they shortchange the here and now. Doing good for the world or for others carries its own reward; that’s the positive side of our “groupism” at work; we want to do good for others. (Unless we are mentally or neurologically disordered.) Doing good in order to get into heaven can be counter-productive. Vajrayana Buddhism holds that “the path is the goal, the goal is the path.” Make your greatest goal become your path.
  • Group competitions can be for the greater good, not solely for personal gain or fleeting glory. Schools and clubs can compete at picking up litter, planting greenery, improving their neighborhoods, benefiting our planet. Greater good activities should be part of the curriculum.
  • Meditate. Instruction is available everywhere, in books, on-line, at libraries and schools. Five minutes a day feeling your breath is sufficient, do more if you wish. The practice of Metta Meditation exercises mental muscles of compassion and forgiveness, muscles which atrophy without regular exercise. The benefits of both meditative forms appear in your ordinary, daily life.
  • A Poem by Edwin Markham, 1913. Markham was poet laureate of Oregon from 1923 to 1931. In 1922, Markham’s poem “Lincoln, the Man of the People” was selected out of 250 entries to be read at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, with the author reading the poem. Dr. Henry Van Dyke of Princeton said, “Edwin Markham’s Lincoln is the greatest poem ever written on the immortal martyr, and the greatest that ever will be written.”

He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Draw the largest circle you can.
[Chuck Almdale]


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