Roystonea, the royal palms, are the most striking palms in the Caribbean, and arguably, in the world (though, granted, a talipot palm in flower comes a close second). The name of the genus was coined by Orator F. Cook, an American botanist, in 1900, in honour of Roy Stone, an American general involved in the capture of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American war.

I've wondered for years why Cook replaced what seemed to be a perfectly good generic name, Oreodoxa, with Roystonea...turns out that there were problems with Oreodoxa that were not easily addressed. Over the course of trying to figure that out, I started reading some of Cook's writing. The article in which he first proposed the name1 gives fascinating insight into the state of botanical nomenclature a century ago (now there's a subject I can imagine throngs of people being fascinated by), so I did a search on Web of Science to see what else of his I could easily find.

And what I found made me wish that I had never started looking.

In between Cooks solid publications about genetics, taxonomy and evolution you find articles (mostly book reviews, from the look of it) with titles like Human Hybrids in Virginia2 and Idiots as Reversions: Mongolism and Other Abnormalities Ascribed to Racial Interbreeding3. Cook, as it turns out, was a eugenicist.

Eugenics  and marketing - "if inferior people have 4 children while superior people have 2, this is what will happen"

Now, it's important to look at historical writing in the appropriate context. In Idiots as Reversions (a review of F.G. Crookshank's The Mongol in Our Midst, a Study of Man and his Three Faces) Cook actually takes a more progressive approach than the author, who asserts that the three human races (Europeans, African and Asians) actually evolved from different ape species (chimpanzees, gorillas and gibbons respectively).

And despite his obvious distaste for mixing of the races, he is willing to concede in the face of data that it can be an advantage to the "less advanced" races (and suggests that Chinese men be allowed to settle the more primitive parts of the world and introduce superior genes into these populations). He even objected to Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws as too restrictive on American Indians.  (Actually he didn't; see my clarification below.)

Despite being willing to try to interpret this sort of thing in an appropriate context, it can be mind-boggling. Michael Flitner (2003), in a fascinating article which looks at agricultural moderisation and eugenics in the US, USSR and Germany writes:
Looking into the discursive context of these developments in agriculture, we again find plentiful references to eugenic thought current at the time (cf. Kevles, 1985; Paul, 1995). The Journal of Heredity, official organ of the American Genetics Association, is an exemplary source for this connection. It consists of a breath-taking and sometimes curious mix of papers on plant and animal breeding research on the one hand, and population issues, twin research and ‘‘race problems’’ on the other. Orator F. Cook, one of the most prolific writers of the journal, member of its editorial board and employee at the USDA's Bureau of Plant Industry, wrote about plant geography in Peru, about economic problems of American farmers, about the dangers of race mixing and the necessity of a ‘‘rural eugenics’’ for the US, anxiously arguing that ‘‘the race must be immunized against urbanism’’ (Cook, 1935, p. 204; see also Cook, 1925, 1928).Jack H. Kempton, also with the USDA and a learned corn breeder, dealt with the origin of cultivated plants and with eugenic measures to improve the American human stock. Plant breeding in maize, he wrote, could serve as a good model for eugenics, the maize plant thus becoming ‘‘a sort of beneficent Frankenstein’’ (Kempton, 1926, p. 51).Meanwhile, the ‘‘human stocks’’ sections at state agricultural fairs featured ‘‘Fitter Families’’ contests throughout the country (Squiers, 2001, p. 10).
Creationists like to use eugenics in their attempts to discredit modern biology; last year's propaganda movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is an excellent example of this. But even as we reject their spin, it's our responsibility as scientists to address and come to terms with this dark period in our own history. While we cannot reject Cook's scientific contribution simply on the basis of his embrace of racist pseudoscience, we also can't simply ignore it either. Sloppy thinking, after all, is sloppy thinking.


  1. Cook, O.F. 1900. The Method of Types in Botanical Nomenclature. Science 12: 475–481.

  2. Cook, O.F. 1928. Human Hybrids in Virginia: A Review. Journal of Heredity 19:115–118

  3. Cook, O.F. 1928. Idiots as Reversions: Mongolism and Other Abnormalities Ascribed to Racial Interbreeding. Journal of Heredity 16:171–184

  4. Flitner, Michael. 2003. Genetic geographies. A historical comparison of agrarian modernization and eugenic thought in Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Geoforum 34:175–185