Tag Archives: sister species

The origin, and fate, of “sister species”

Warning: etymological nerdery.

 The origin and fate of the phrase, I mean, not the actual species.

In evolutionary biology, a pair of “sister species” (or “sister taxa”, or “sister clades”) are each other’s closest living relatives. I was at lunch last week with an interesting assortment of biologists when the topic of gendered language in biology came up.  I think it started with “daughter cell”, which is routine in developmental biology, and expanded from there.  I was brought up short when the conversation turned to “sister species”.  It’s a term I know well and use often – and it had never occurred to me that it’s gendered.  This is, of course, a nice illustration of how insidious gendered language can be.  Whether or not there’s any real social consequence to our use of “sister species”, the mere fact that I hadn’t noticed the in-hindsight-blindingly-obvious gendered nature of the term was something of a shot across my mental bow.

Once you think about “sister species”, several questions seem obvious. Continue reading