Both Separate and Connected. But how?
I love to beat up on taxonomists because they tend to be constitutionally opposite of me. I see taxonomists as the accountants of the biological sciences, obsessed with making up rules out of thin air and trying to make everyone think they were made by God. But, I hate rules.
I’d like to keep talking about that but it is time for the Almanac Section, where I talk about what happened on the ranch this week. I know you don’t want to. You know I don’t want to. But it’s the rules. What are we going to do?
This week, Jonathon and I pruned a hundred foot tall spruce tree next to the house. Why? Cause humans like views. Really, Jonathon pruned it. I hadn’t even finished my discourse on why it should be pruned, using evolutionary science and what not, before he was up there. I was reminded of all the documentaries of hunter gatherers climbing two hundred feet up into trees to get honey.
Similarly, yesterday afternoon I was with Abel-the-two-year old when he picked up a pointy stick that happened to be laying around and started to chase the dogs saying ‘hunt dogs!’ They ran over to the chickens, and the game changed (‘hunt clucks!’) and the chickens ran over to the sheep and goats. This is a good lesson in herd behavior. ‘Hunts baahs! Hunt doats!’ He has a hard time with ‘g’ sounds. Then, ‘Hunt all animals! Hunt all animals!’ as he ran around with his replica Schonengen javelin. This is why the dogs, chickens, and sheep are so crazy around here but it is worth it if it means that Abel has a chance of being sane.
The technological disruption that is tearing apart our ideas of taxonomy also has me licking my chops, cause I never much liked it anyway. Even in the last five years, a pretty substantial body of science has developed showing that organisms that we call distinct
There is a table saw that has the tendency to cut off the pinky and ring finger of its users. After studying the issue, the government agency responsible concludes that with a few simple guards and rearrangements, these table saws could be much safer. However, this would require the users to dramatically change the way they have been using the tool for their whole lives. Instead, everyone agrees that it is better to prophylactically remove the pinky and ring finger of all operators so those things don’t get in the way. The needs of the tool, as constructed, take president over the needs of the user.
There is a very good reason to tie the basic building block of taxonomy to ‘reproducability.’ Taxonomists resist for a bad reason, the universally relevant truth that they all have tenure and, what, are they supposed to learn something new? Or worse, scrutinize the closely held ideas that got them in their current position? They memorized the obscure difference between Planaria simplex and Planaria
But this is not going to just be an adjustment for academics. The rest of us will have to come to terms with the fact that a coyote is a dwarf wolf. Well, Linneas probably did the dog first, thats going to be a tricky one. P
And that is what has been missing from Taxonomy since its inception, with Ptolomey or Linneas or with whoever. Truth. Hard,
Then you take it up in front of a committee and people vote on it. If other taxonomists think that your protrudence is a pretty good protrudence than they will vote for it and it’s official. It’s a popularity contest. The problem is Truth is not a popularity contest. I know. By definition, I don’t like it
This is where we need the help of another discipline, made up by myself thirty seconds ago. Applied Philosophy. We applied philosophers will see this problem as a species of its own. This is part of one of humanity’s oldest problems, deciding where to draw the line. Where to divide one thing from everything.
Words and other symbols are extremely powerful. But like that table saw, they have their dangers. Having made a word, you need to draw a line. These are things in the real world that this word represents, that this word points to. Which means that everything else is different. Is out. This is a point of great responsibility. On the one hand you risk overstating the similarities between the things represented by your new moniker. On the other hand, you risk overstating the differences between that thing and other things.
Our words, if they are to do more good than harm, must cleave as closely as possible to the real contours of the things they are meant to represent. This is where I must take my hat off to the taxonomists and admit that they are right to make arbitrary rules. In this realm, it is important to have uptight rule followers that religiously believe their own rules to be true. You don’t want a freewheeler like me in there. The process of fabricating the idea of a ‘thing’ must be understood as both inherently arbitrary and extremely useful. But also fraught with peril.
The problem is, these
From there, I would suggest that we use the time of separating major speciation events as the new metric for taxonomic breaks. We could even use the old and rather dilapidated Kingdom, Phyllum, family, etc. system. Or some other words, the words aren’t important, it is the process for deciding on words that is important. If people didn’t want to call the fundamental building block of our taxonomy a ‘species’ I guess that’s fine. We could say that reproducibility is the hallmark of the Genus. But then you would have to discard the idea that the ‘species’ is all that important, or even based on anything. You’d have to give me a pretty good reason for that.
Then speciation (as defined by reproduction) goes on to inform every other step in the process. Ten million years of speciation gets you the genus. More than that? Sorry, your out. 50 million years gets you a family, and so on. I have no idea what the right number should be, and the point is, it doesn’t matter, its arbitrary, but if it’s going to be arbitrary it must be uniformly arbitrary. Or it could be based on a certain number of mutations on base pairs, I am not qualified to speak on the details of how it would look. What do I know is that if taxonomic terms are going to have any relevance in the future, they must be based on evolutionary proxies that can be quantified, and on rules that are uniformly applied. Taxonomy needs to be able to tell me, at a glance, how separate any two organisms are. And how connected.
This sounds ultra geeky, and of course it is. But it is also important. Many enormous human problems are fueled, or even completely generated, from such linguistic malpractice. For example, our species, like most mammal species studied so far, has been shaped by the ‘love’ between long-separated populations. The most famous of these are the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. But it seems increasingly clear that the African ‘anatomically modern human,’ previously viewed as the ‘pure’ species, is the result of crosses between populations that were separated for almost as long as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Hang on to your hats when we finding ancient DNA from European and Asian Hominins that predates the most recent interglacial.
We need to call Denisovans and Neanderthals, what they are. Humans. Homo sapiens. If those people are people, then that tells us something about all the humans that are alive today, way more closely related than H. denisova and H. neandertalensis. It tells us that we are definitely all one thing.