Picking nits is part of the good life

Economists sometimes need help from biologists

I started writing this back in November 2013, and put it aside until I had read the Skidelskys' book. I haven't finished yet, but ...

How strange to hear J.M. Keynes himself on the radio, telling us in his clipped tones how in 100 years time we would be eight times richer than we were then, how we would work a 15-hour week, how "Human beings would be more like the 'lilies of the field, who toil not, neither do they spin'." A little extract of Keynes talking about his essay Economic Possiblities for our Grandchildren, written in 1930, ended Laurie Taylor's interview with Robert Skidelsky on Thinking Allowed.

I skate around economics; I'm fascinated by it, although I have no formal training, and I do see how the allocation of scarce resources is the great problem of life. I also feel, as a biologist, that so much of what passes for sound economics is astonishingly naive, no matter how complex it may seem. Bad-mouthing Malthus, for example, just seems fundamentally stupid to me. Skidelsky, as befits a biographer of Keynes, was talking about the idea of enough, rehearsing ideas from his book How Much is Enough?: Money and the good life, co-written with his son Edward Skidelsky.

On the book itself, and its theses, I don't have an awful lot to say, except that the ideas resonate strongly with me. Resonance alone, however, is not enough. It would be better to live in a society in which at least some of the necessary policies had been enacted. Instead, I want only to criticise the Skidelskys and all associated with their book, for failing utterly to understand how Latin names work. This is not my standard rant in favour of Latin names, that they enable us to know that we're talking about the same thing. It is my other rant, that they are indeed names, not descriptions.

As part of their assault on quasi-religious environmentalism, the Skidelskys write:

"Does the 'equal right to live and blossom' imply that we should devote equal resources to saving the snow leopard and the acanthomyops latipes, one of many hundreds of endangered insects?" 1

Leaving aside the entirely egregious error of the lowercase a on Acanthomyops, the problem, which I accept other people will see as minor in the extreme, is to equate "Acanthomyops latipes" with "snow leopard" and give both a definite article, the, as if both were kinds of animals, rather than one being a kind and one being a name.

I see this all the time, and it always annoys me. While I happily refer to the Skidelskys, I would never dream of calling them the Edward Skidelsky and the Robert Skidelsky. How hard is it to use a Latin name as a name?

Of course, part of their argument is to contrast what everyone knows of the snow leopard's beauty, grace, wildness, etc. with the deliberately obscure Acanthomyops latipes. Would it help to call it the citronella ant, the only description I could find? Not really, because there are actually lots of different species of citronella ant, and some are considered pests to be killed. At least we know exactly which one the Skidelskys are talking about, even if Acanthomyops latipes isn't officially endangered, merely vulnerable.

Let me be clear. I am not faulting the core argument that there are deep problems with deep ecology. I am faulting the deliberately obfuscatory and nevertheless incorrect use of a Latin name. And because I am so in resonance with the overall thesis, I'm not even going to consider this, on page 139:

"A camel with only one hump is a defective camel, unless of course it is a dromedary."


  1. p138 in the paperback edition by The Other Press. 

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