John F. Allen's Blog at

12th January 2017

Evolving to Valhalla

Filed under: About language,About science,Diary — John Allen @ 1:35 pm

How I wish that cells’ ancestors were not, now, being named after Norse gods.

The whole of Norse mythology is dark, superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Giving names of non-existent quasi-humans to hypothetical organisms inferred from metagenomes is an obstacle to thought, and an open invitation to anthropocentricity.

The usually admirable Ed Yong in The Atlantic, 11th January 2017:-

In Norse mythology, humans and our world were created by a pantheon of gods who lived in the realm of Asgard. As it turns out, these stories have a grain of truth to them.

No they don’t. Not a single grain. They are complete tosh.

The precedent for the terminology seems to be a fascinating mid-ocean hydrothermal field gratuitously named “Loki’s Castle” (Pedersen et. al., 2010) – by researchers, as it happens, from Norway. From Science Daily:-

The field has been named Loki’s Castle partly because the small chimneys at the site looked like a fantasy castle to the scientists. The Loki part refers to a Norwegian god renowned for trickery. A University of Bergen press release about the discovery said Loki “was an appropriate name for a field that was so difficult to locate.”

That explains it, then… Give me strength.

The origin of eukaryotes itself is unsolved, interesting, and raises many important questions. There is progress.

But is there not an element of parochial atavism in Nordic researchers claiming ties to their local demon-haunted world? Might one reference The Mabinogion for no better reason than happening to have some connection with Wales? Who else might wish to get their oar in? Terms from classical Greek and Latin were chosen for their wide intelligibility, not as cultural appropriation.

For the prokaryotic host in the symbiosis that produced eukaryotes we now have an array of proposed, whole phyla – Lokiarchaeota, Thorarchaeota, Odinarchaeota and Heimdallarchaeota. “We decided to name this archaeal clade Asgard, after the realm of the gods in Norse mythology.” (Zaremba-Niedzwiedzka et al., 2017). Who next? Freya must surely get a mention soon. Perhaps in the origin of sex?

And could Darwin and Wallace have been inspired by Yggdrasil?

I fear that we may be working towards the super-kingdom Valhalla. That was the location, in the after-life, of warriors who had died in combat. It could be appropriate. A reminder that there is no evolution without extinction? A tribute to the branches that led nowhere?

Or could Valhalla become the metaphor of choice for discarded evolutionary hypotheses?


Pedersen et. al. (2010) Discovery of a black smoker vent field and vent fauna at the Arctic Mid-Ocean Ridge. Nature Communications doi:10.1038/ncomms1124

Zaremba-Niedzwiedzka, K. et al. (2017) Asgard archaea illuminate the origin of eukaryotic cellular complexity. Nature

McInerney, J. O. and O’Connell, M. J. (2017) Mind the gaps in cellular evolution. Nature doi:10.1038/nature21113


  1. I remember being introduced by my late PhD supervisor Rudolf Prins to Marvin Bryant, one of the Hungate people and of rumen microbiology fame. All I remember was Methanobacterium bryantii and that I was shaking the hands of someone they named a bacterium (old nomenclature) after. That’s how it was done, you either used a descriptor that described what the organism did (ruminantium for example) or you honoured someone who did great work in the field. Is this all in the name of fleeting fame, outreach, tax-payer relevance? What next? Escherichia harrypotterium because it makes zigzag movements? Gigantibacterium trumpanium because it is full itself?

    I hope I never have to write a paper mentioning these ridiculous organisms but will try to politely complain when I need to.

    Comment by Mark Van Der Giezen — 11th February 2017 @ 11:04 am

  2. That’s brilliant, Mark. I agree. Thanks! I attended a seminar recently on metagenomics and learned about Woesearchaeota and Pacearchaeota amongst other entirely imaginary groups.

    Comment by John Allen — 11th February 2017 @ 12:18 pm

  3. A different view (?)

    Comment by Sergio Munoz — 19th February 2017 @ 12:59 am

  4. “Who’s next? There’s no end to the fun!”

    Thank you, Sergio!

    Comment by John Allen — 25th February 2017 @ 4:08 pm

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