Category Archives: taxonomy

Charles Darwin’s other mistake

Images: Charles Darwin, age 33 (with his son William Erasmus Darwin), public domain; Leucospermum bolusii, photo by Andrew Massyn, released to public domain.

When I was a grad student, it was de rigeur to proclaim that every good idea was already in The Origin of Species, and to express amazement that Charles Darwin could have been so right about so many things.  It’s probably the astonishingly rightness of the Origin – along with the rest of Darwin’s writing – that makes his huge error stand out so conspicuously.  That huge error, of course, was the idea of blending inheritance.  It didn’t work in theory, it wasn’t (even then) consistent with available data, and Darwin should have known both of those things.  (His correspondence suggests that he probably did.)

I recently ran across* another Darwinian mistake. Continue reading

How bizarre: Names without things

Image: A grin without a cat.  Cheshire Cat, from Alice in Wonderland, illustration by John Tenniel, public domain.

 “Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!” (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

As you’ve probably read here on Scientist Sees Squirrel, I’m writing a new book.  It’s about the Latin names of plants and animals (and I promise, it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds).  And in thinking and writing about naming, I’ve come to realize that the way we do biological nomenclature leads to the production of some truly bizarre entities: names without things.  Let me explain.

Things without names are a perfectly normal category – even if individual instances of the category tend to be short-lived, because we humans really, really like to name things*Continue reading

Attempts to standardize the common names of species are deeply weird

Images: Canada jay, by Gavin Schaefer CC BY 2.0 via wikimedia.org.   Or maybe it’s a grey jay.  Or a whiskey jack.  Cougar, by Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikimedia.org.  Or maybe it’s a puma. Or a painter. Or a mountain lion.  Or a catamount.  Or a screamer.  Or…you get the idea.

It caught my eye, and the media’s, last month: an announcement that the American Ornithological Society would be changing the “official” name of the North American corvid Perisoreus canadensis from “Gray Jay” to “Canada Jay”.  The grey/Canada jay* is a wonderful bird – handsome, intelligent, and inquisitive – and “grey jay” sells it short, so I’m completely down with using “Canada jay”.  But: the notion that there’s any such thing as an “official” common name, or that the AOU gets to say what it is, is deeply weird. Continue reading

Folk taxonomy, the postal service, and mailing live animals

Image:  Letterbox © Tim Green CC BY 2.0, via wikimedia.org. Don’t mail a live animal here.

Early in the summer, the legal humour blog Lowering the Bar had a good time with the fact that in the U.S. you can mail live scorpions – under certain amusing but also completely understandable conditions. (One of which is that they aren’t this kind.  Another is that they’re being mailed for use in medical research or the manufacture of antivenins.  So maybe I should have said that live scorpions can be mailed, because most likely you can’t mail them. This is probably just as well.)

This appealed to my admittedly peculiar sense of humour, so I promptly read the entirety of the U.S. Postal Service regulations on mailing live animals.  Then the equivalent Canada Post regulations.  Then the U.K. Royal Mail’s*.  I’m happy, today, to be able to share the results of my research with you.

Cultural anthropology and biology have an interesting point of contact in what are called “folk taxonomies”.  Continue reading