Silurian, Homo reptilia…what’s in a name?

The Silurians - The Defence Unit (Photo credit: >Rooners)

There’s quite a lot of liberty taken with science in Doctor Who, but that’s never bothered me.  It’s a fun, romping, thoroughly entertaining show which I almost always enjoy — and I absolutely love the timey-wimey paradoxes Steven Moffat comes up with.  Some episodes have even risen to the level of interesting social commentary or moving emotional content.  However, this post isn’t supposed to be a paean of praise for Doctor Who.  Instead, I’d like to rant about a particular peeve of mine.

Now, science fiction often requires a certain level of open-mindedness about scientific facts and this is particularly true of Doctor Who.  Time travel aside, there are things like the sonic screwdriver, an amazingly handy little device capable of nearly anything — as long as there’s no wood involved.  I can (and do) ignore all of that, though; after all, the Time Lords are (were? tenses and time travel make for a muddle) an ancient and advanced race who mastered vast energies and bend space and time to their will, so who am I to quibble?  But one particular detail troubles me: the Silurians and their taxonomy.  The Silurians are a race of antediluvian reptilian humanoids who’ve featured prominently in several episodes of the new series.  Regardless of any questions about their evolutionary origins and where or how they would fit into the history of life of Earth, I’ve found them to be a welcome presence on screen.  I don’t even mind the term “Silurian”, even though reptiles didn’t evolve until the Carboniferous, 100 million years after the Silurian period.  What bothers me is their other name, Homo reptilia.

Scientific names are supposed to reflect the underlying classification system; nowadays, that generally means the evolutionary relationships between groups of creatures.  The first part of the name is the genus, which is a group of closely related species (the second part of the name).  The name the writers chose for the Silurians implies that they’re in the genus Homo, a genus of great apes with notably enlarged brain cases.  In other words, the name implies that these creatures are closely related to modern humans, neanderthals and some of our recent ancestors.  In fact, it implies that they’re more closely related to us than they are to lizards, snakes, birds or crocodiles.  This clearly isn’t supposed to be true.  The Silurians may be highly intelligent and walk upright, but they’re clearly reptiles, not mammals.

Not only is the name scientifically inappropriate, but it misconstrues the logic behind the name of our species, Homo sapiens.  The important part of that name is not Homo, even though it’s capitalized.  The important part is sapiens, which means ‘wise’ or ‘knowing’.  Just as we are called Homo sapiens (‘wise/knowing human’), a sensible name for the Silurians would be something like Saurus sapiens — wise/knowing lizard.  Saurus sapiens properly reflects their evolutionary relationships and highlights what the two species actually have in common — intelligence.

Anyway, that’s certainly enough nerdrage for now.  I hope you enjoyed reading my rant as much as I enjoyed writing it (or more!).


About sedeer

I’m an eclectic talking ape with a long-standing love of language who has always been fascinated by the world around us. View all posts by sedeer

3 responses to “Silurian, Homo reptilia…what’s in a name?

  • johnamccolley

    I totally agree with your main point. I think this falls into the category of a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing. The writers knew Homo sapiens from school or general knowledge and tried to apply it to this other species without really knowing how the system works. As you say, they clearly didn’t mean to say that the “Silurians” are/were closely related to humans. Their name, I think probably falls into the same category. “Here’s a term that relates to ancient epochs and sounds cool, let’s name our lizard people after that!” Of course, the fact that they call _themselves_ that makes no sense at all as how would they know? That’s like ticking off the negative years in the BCE timeframe on your calendar. “Hey, it’s finally year 1! yay!”

  • Paul Trembath

    Could this be explained intradiegetically as a playful translation by the Tardis? (First used on screen by the Doctor in “The Hungry Earth”)

  • Chris Hamilton

    This was one of my pet peeves of the recent few seasons too … just an odd oversight to make and even more comical when I remembered Red Dwarf actually got it right labeling the Cat Felis sapiens … Then again, this wasn’t an inconsistency established back when the Silurians were introduced in the original series but a new mistake entirely.

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