Until this week, the genus Neopalpa consisted of a single species of moth, Neopalpa neonata, about which virtually nothing is known beyond its underwhelming appearance. The size of a thumbnail, with dark, mottled wings folded straight back, N. neonata could be mistaken for a dishevelled roach or a tiny, moth-eaten butterfly. The genus belongs to a wider family, Gelechiidae, the twirler moths, so called for their habit of spinning in circles on the surface of leaves. There are more than forty-five hundred species of twirler moth around the world, many of them agricultural pests—the conifer needleminer, the peach twig borer, the red-necked peanutworm moth, the pink-washed aristotelia. Neopalpa neonataoccupies a range from California to northern Mexico, but what it does there is unclear, since the moth isn’t well studied and just a few specimens exist in museum collections, including one recovered from a tomato plant.
On Wednesday, however, Vazrick Nazari, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist in Ottawa, reported that, on closer inspection, the one Neonata species is actually two that are closely related. This sort of announcement wouldn’t normally attract attention—taxonomists are making such fine-tooth discoveries all the time—except that Nazari chose to name the new species Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, for the distinctive wave of yellowish-white scales that cascades forward from the moth’s head. “It was in these scales that the author found an amusing reference to Mr. Trump’s hairstyle,” Nazari wrote in a press release. The news quickly echoed through social media, and Twitterers struggled to decide which detail was ripest for metaphor—that the moth is Mexican-American; that it’s distinct from its cousin in part by dint of its especially small genitalia; or that, like all moths, it has a habit of aiming directly for the flame.
In science, to name something is to mark it as known, to claim it from the dark. Life on Earth is spectacular in form and number, but most of it—as much as eighty-five per cent of species, by some counts—is still unknown to us. In 2014, a survey of the world’s oceans turned up more than fourteen hundred new species, including a humpback dolphin, a giant jellyfish, and a mite, Litarachna lopezae, named for Jennifer Lopez. But the hardest work typically involves not going out and claiming new species from the wild but identifying those already in hand; Nazari was examining museum specimens of Neopalpa neonata when he noticed that the “bilobate paired process arising from the sacculus”—an odd structure on the moth’s phallus—was “significantly reduced,” suggesting that he was looking at a previously unidentified species. In naming it after Trump, Nazari wrote, he hoped to bring attention to the “importance of conservation of the fragile habitats that still contain undescribed and threatened species.”
It’s a play for Trump’s vanity, and a canny one. Trump enters office with more things named for him, and after himself, than probably any President in American history. These include a dozen apartment towers and international hotels, another dozen golf courses, three plazas, and a winery. But so much of it—the fragrances, the vodka, the self-described university—is just elaborate fakery, like the caterpillar camouflaged to look like a snake. When the Trump name isn’t deployed as a statement of possession, it’s an effort to occlude reality. As our newly minted President takes over the White House, he has expressed the same disdain for scientific truth. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is on record as a climate-change skeptic—as is David Gelernter, his pick for science adviser. Rick Perry, the nominee for energy secretary, once called for the abolishment of the Energy Department but has acknowledged that he only recently learned what his job would actually entail—namely, overseeing the nation’s nuclear arsenal. (The fake-news press immediately decried the story as fake news.) Maybe Trump, in embracing ignorance, actually thinks he’s leading us toward some kind of light, or maybe it’s just for show; either way, it feels like being burned alive.
Moths are the plebes of the order Lepidoptera, more numerous than their butterfly cousins yet overshadowed by them, maybe not so unlike the “forgotten men and women” Trump mentioned in his Inaugural Address. But it’s hard to imagine Neopalpa donaldtrumpiever benefitting from the association; how it must envy Leonardo davincii and Orontobia dalailama, their names more aspirational than wishful, or the literary moths of Virginia Woolf’s novels and essays. Woolf hunted the creatures as an adolescent, and they appear often in her writing as symbols of imagination and creativity. (She even referred to herself as “tapping my antennae in the air vaguely for an hour every morning” before beginning work.) In “The Death of the Moth,” published a year after she committed suicide, Woolf writes:
Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. . . . It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. . . . When there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.
Hope is a thing with scales. Or maybe any metaphor—pest, President, plebeian, optimism incarnate—is more than one little insect should bear. Besides, Woolf’s account doesn’t end well; the moth is in its death throes, and not even her pencil, probing the animal, can save it.