Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Blip: To name is to master.

The human condition has some very interesting and, above all, very funny effects for an observer to find. One is an extremely common belief that humans have the capacity of mastery, which is to say that we think we have beaten forces of nature or of each other. It comes in direct forms of manipulation, usually reducible to ‘if we can kill it, we are in control of it’ (and of course, ‘if it bleeds, we can kill it’) but also subtler, more insidious forms such as taxonomy. Taxonomy is the naming of plants, animals, viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa etc. through very official, albeit very vague and contested, rules and conventions. If you give a name to something, you have control over its fate.

Technically speaking, it’s an advanced form of the classic logical fallacy ‘The straw man argument’, which is where you describe your opponents position or argument badly, thus setting up a similar, but ultimately separate, argument that you can easily attack and destroy. You slaughter the straw man you’ve constructed and, to the untrained eye, it looks like you’ve won. Or at least like you’ve scored valuable ‘points’ against your opponent. Taxonomy packages similar looking animals that have similar behaviours into categories and gives those categories names. It’s a more powerful form of manipulation than causing death or forcing action because one slight linguistic turn and a creature can stop existing altogether.

If we stop using the word ‘Tiger’, then sure the big stripy cats will still rip our heads off if they so choose, and they will still wander around the same places hunting the same prey and such, but there won’t be any tigers anywhere. We will have committed instant tigery genocide. Seems daft perhaps but consider this: If we ‘discovered’ (that’s the scientific word for ‘made up’) that tigers were actually two species of very similar creatures that we accidentally grouped together, then the word ‘tiger’ would become obsolete. Or at least it would only refer to one of the species anymore and the other group would get another name.

That’s half of the tigers gone already.

Equally, if we decided that the things we call tigers are actually lions with a severe birth defect, we would be declassifying them as an animal altogether. They would share the binomial for lions (Panthera leo) and would be absorbed by that name. Seeing as every single instance of a species is distinct and unique, no matter how many of an animal ever exist, the next generation as well as all members in the current generation remain distinct and separate. Regardless of whether we can actually recognise them based on their differences, they are unique from each other method (after all, we aren’t the masters of everything, which is the point this post is hovering around. We can’t determine viral types by mere observation. If we aren’t capable of maintaining such distinctions in their perfection, the distinction is meaningless or, at least, purely subjective and quietly flawed).

A difficulty here being how to draw the boundaries because, if we take gradualism as given, evolution always provides us with tiny differences. When does an animal become a new species if every member is so incrementally different?

Another thought you may have is ‘Well, that’s great and all but this is all theoretical. It’s not like this would ever actually happen.’ Actually, it would, does and did.

Neofelis nebulosa is the binomial for the clouded leopard: A fantastic looking cat native to Southeast Asia and Borneo. That is, until 2007, when every Neofelis nebulosa was exterminated from Borneo. Not to say they died, as such. But the subspecies that lives in Borneo (Neofelis nebulosa diardi) was promoted to a wholly different species. It gained a name: Neofelis diardi. Thus, in an instant, all the population of nebulosa was exterminated from Borneo and was replaced by a brand new species. Not only that but nebulosa was the only species of its kind, meaning Neofelis has been split entirely in half. That’s a whole genus that was divided, sundering 50% of its inhabitants one way or another.

Perhaps you’d say evolution is ongoing and they have, due to geographical separations, just become distinct enough to warrant classification. But nope again. The brand new (2007) distinction states that the subspecies of the original cat (as they derived from a shared ancestor) appeared around 1 million years ago.

‘Science is ongoing and adjusts its view based on what’s observed.’ That’s true, except for the fact that science believes its observations to be flawless and as such, every new ‘discovery’ or observation leads to a new distinction and due purely to the definition of science and not the nature of science itself, that new distinction is always progress. The vernacular of science simply doesn’t have capacity for mistakes or for moving backwards.

I happen to adore taxonomy; it’s a fascinating realm of things to discover. Because of how it’s organised, studying it is like wandering through a magical castle where each plot of land opens out to multiple wings, which in turn have a handful of floors, all separated into corridors, then doors that lead to rooms of wonder. In a way, the truly magical thing about this place is the very fact that it changes all the time, corridors switch about, rooms become corridors, floors become wings and occasionally entire plots of the castle just disappear or are replaced with something new.

Taxonomy, like everything else, is better if you take it as given with no silly preconceptions about truth and, where possible, no self-serving delusions of mastery or understanding. 


picture reference - clouded leopard

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