Taxonomy and Sciences Relevance to Common Language

Charles Peckham

jane goodall and tess

I'm reading the autobiography of Jane Goodall right now. Early on in the book, she talks about her childhood, and writes “I remember having a huge argument with one of my aunts when I tried to make her believe that a whale was a mammal, not a fish. She wouldn't believe me and I cried. I was so frustrated” (Goodall, 3). Her tone preceding and following this quote gives one the distinct impression that she thanks her lucky stars that the majority of people she interacts with now believe wholeheartedly that whales are mammals. I argue that her aunt wasn't wrong in the full sense of the word. Now I have nothing against Jane Goodall. If you read my blog (which I'll plug later) you know that I think very highly of the merits of Jane Goodall's work, as well as the beliefs and values she upholds. Additionally, I want her to be a Maude to my Herold and I don't care who knows it. Here's what I'm saying though, before the invention of taxonomy, the word “fish” was a blanket term used to describe the variety of animals that lived underwater. This word would have included starfish, jellyfish, and whales, as well as much of the animals we call “fish” today. When taxonomy came about, biology appropriated the word “fish” to be used in a much more exclusive manner, referring to a specifically to animals with gills and what-have-you. Goodall was speaking of “fish” in scientific terms, and her aunt was using the word's everyday meaning. By the time Goodall grew up, science had influenced the way we speak to make it so most people understand whales to be mammals. From the word's creation until its appropriation by taxonomy, Goodall's aunt was capable of using the term. It's not that Goodall's aunt was so silly that she couldn't understand the distinction between what taxonomy labels fish and what taxonomy labels mammals. She simply didn't speak jive.

After reading about Goodall's argument, it got me thinking about the influence that science has had on our society. Clearly, if everyone sees a whale and says “mammal” instead of “fish” the world has not become a better place. It's semantics. What is the significance of what we call the whales? Furthermore, this new, possibly improved way of understanding the animal kingdom does not exactly give people a better understanding of their world. Admittedly, it can open up doors. If a person understands why we call whales mammals, it can expand their imagination to regard the possibilities of their universe. We can recognize that the same class that includes cattle and bats can also include huge animals that spend their whole lives underwater. That's an interesting thing to reflect on indeed.

However, with this reflection two issues appear. The first is that, this taxonomic link is merely a grouping together based on certain qualities. A set, if you will. If I were to say that unicorns, Martians, and butterflies are all part of the same class, we haven't actually found any sort of amazing link between the three animals (or whatever). All I've done is assign them to a set. Taxonomic sets are based on features, which makes them a little more interesting. Still, suppose I said that unicorns, Martians, and butterflies are all in the same set because they have legs and antennas or horns. Again, so what? There's nothing in that we can use to better understand unicorns, unless we've never heard of unicorns before and someone tells us “Oh hey, those are in the same set as Martians,” and we know what set they refer to. To use a concrete example, f I know little about whales, and I discover they are mammals, then I automatically can deduce that they give birth to live young, females have mammaries, etc. It's merely a convenience.

This leads to the second issue, which is that life is more diverse than taxonomy can sustain. There are plants that eat meat. There are mammals that lay eggs. There are dinosaurs that had feathers. These go against the rigid standards of taxonomic classification, but what can one do, the life forms are there. This is a perhaps different issue than Ludwig Wittgenstein addresses in his famous demonstration of the word “game” as indefinable. “Game” refers correctly to such a diverse group of things that finding a necessary and sufficient definition is apparently impossible. Wittgenstein has used the example of the word “game” to demonstrate that even though we can understand and utilize words on an intellectual level, coming up with a necessary and sufficient definition apparently isn’t contingent for doing so. Taxonomy starts with a necessary and sufficient definition, then tries to shoehorn all life into one place or another. At best, this limits the usefulness of taxonomy. “Sir, you said that echidna was a mammal, but it's laying eggs … Well it's a mammal anyway. Deal with it.”

Darwin is to blame for the second issue. Strictly speaking, every generation is a step toward a new species. To try to provide a cut-off-point for when the generation is in fact a new species is pretty much impossible. It's Loki's wager. Loki’s wager is used in logic to refer to instances where it is impossible to pinpoint the exact spot where a change occurs. The term comes from the Norse myth that Loki once owed his head as debt to some trolls. When the trolls came to collect, he informed them that he was willing to give up his head, but he demanded that they retain the entirety of his neck. Since the trolls could not discern the exact spot where Loki’s head ended and his neck began, they weren’t able to behead him, and Loki was allowed to go free. As this relates to the subject at hand, every generation is a step away from something old and a step toward something new, even living fossils are constantly changing at every generation. Taxonomy attempts to isolate a chunk of the process and say “See all these generations, those are horses. These other ones are not horses.” To that end, taxonomy can at best provide us with a generalization, since as stated before, it's unclear when the old species stops and a new one begins.

This is Thomas Kuhn's bread and butter. Modern day biology has involved itself with a system of classification that directly conflicts with it's understanding of the subject matter. Kuhn famously turned the philosophy of science on its head when he proposed that science actually reflects a system of trend-hopping as opposed to the acquiring of actual knowledge about the universe. Kuhn loves to see science unravel into a series of traditions and trends, but I feel he is too fast to trivialize (or do what I see as trivialize) the capacity of science. Taxonomy is a system that doesn’t necessarily reflect a more logical understanding of evolution and biodiversity. It has been used by science for some time because it is still somewhat helpful.

To put this in perspective, American biologist E.O. Wilson, has tried to encourage a classification system that was based on DNA analysis, as opposed to features, so that the system could better reflect Darwinian principles. I’m for it, but only in the same way I’m for the metric system. If we embrace the metric system, it’s helpful because we won’t have to whip out the calculator to figure out measurements quite as often. Similarly, taxonomy is used so that every life form can be accounted for. If I see a life form, I can use taxonomy to look it up, similar to how I can measure a distance in feet and inches. What would be nice about Wilson’s new system, is that it would give a more cut-and-dry classification system that would be more helpful to those who work in biology today. It would, presumably, allow biology to account for life forms and recognize each life forms place on a phylogenetic tree more accurately, all in one. That’s a really convenient thing. This doesn’t do anything to address the original concern of whether taxonomy, and moreover science, should influence, even override common language. In order to answer this question, we would have to consult a dictation of science’s role, and to that end, the real question is, what is science’s place in our world. Up until this point, an analytic philosopher might have bothered to read this essay.

I’m quite biased. Who isn’t? Still, I feel that science is a fun, useful, and innovative tool for understanding our world and creating within it. We can use science to do all these nifty things like put humans on the moon, or make a mobile phone that’s also a toilet, or whatever, but ultimately, science doesn’t ask the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ or if it does, it doesn’t do it in a way that addresses the question like humanities does. One might argue that science explores what it means to be human by giving humans a taxonomic classification (Ho ho ho!) and noting the functioning of the human organs, what substances are healthy for our bodies, etc. Unfortunately for science, that’s not a satisfying answer for most people. When something like art asks “What does it mean to be human?” it’s addressing being human as an experience and interaction with the universe, as opposed to science’s quest to discover the purpose of kidneys in the human body. I am of the opinion that developing an understanding of the human experience, for humans, is paramount. Knowing what kidneys do won’t in and of itself lead to a good life. Knowing what it means to be human, in the humanities sense, probably will help lead to a good life. To that end, if science wants to get pissy with me for calling a whale a fish, so be it, but it had better know its fucking place.

(Charles Peckham has written for The Synthesis, Chico News & Review, and Paper Cuts. He maintains the blog “Women Who Chuck Likes”,

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