Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Homo confusus - a little (correction to) Fry and Cribb


As I walked among the Giant Sequoia in Kew Gardens this morning I listened to a 20 August podcast of the ABC Science Show (National Radio, Australia). Leading off the show was the always provocative, generally insightful, and often rather grumpy, Julian Cribb. Dr Cribb was petitioning us humans to change our scientific name to something other than Homo sapiens sapiens.

After reading out a litany of our crimes against the planet, Cribb concluded that because the species name 'sapiens' means wise it is no longer applicable. He said the international rules of nomenclature allow for names to be change when mistakes are made or scientific understanding of the species changes, and the name should more truthfully reflect our modern day characteristics.

I like the idea and it's a great way to generate interest in scientific naming, science and the human condition. I wouldn't suggest we call a halt to the party, but there is a weakness in the logic. Scientific names are frequently misleading, incorrect or obscure, but  this doesn't mean we change them. Advances in scientific knowledge, incorrect adherence to the naming rules or, rarely, conserving a name against another if it is the socially responsible thing to do, are valid reasons for change. But not liking a name or its meaning becoming odd or misleading are not (at least in the Botanical naming code...).

The Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, is big but it isn't the biggest 'Sequoia' - that honor goes to the Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens. Still the Giant Sequoia is big so we can't really complain too much in this case. However there plenty of examples of geographically based names being wrong due to the collection location being misunderstood or not known, or when something thought to be restricted to a single region turns out to be all over the place.

There are species named on characters observed in immature or atypical specimens. A zoological example I found in a web trawl was the Measled Cowrie, a spotted gastropod from the Caribbean. Its scientific name is Cypraea zebra, because it was described from an immature striped individual. Colour epithets are also often wrong due to albinos or odd variants being used as the 'Type' - i.e. the specimen on which the name is based.

And mention of the Type, raises another, small but important, problem that emerged in this story. Robyn Williams leads into Julian's passionate plea with a snippet from one of Steven Fry's QI programs (also part of the ABC family, via the BBC) where Fry explains there is no Type specimen for us, Homo sapiens sapiens.

Fry says Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the species, and he has been suggested as a good 'specimen' (although little remains of him I suspect). Also that an American offered up his body to benefit science in this way. Sadly, says Fry, the American's skeleton was riddled with syphilis which meant that he was not a 'perfect human', and by implication no good as a Type specimen.

Again this is a misunderstanding. The Type is not typical. It is simply one specimen of a taxonomic category. If you visualise a species (or subspecies or whatever) as a cloud of individuals with various attributes but all sharing some common features or ancestry, then your type must sit within this cloud. However it can be at the edge, the middle or anywhere in between.

A syphilitic American is just as representative of the human species as a Swedish scientist, or for that matter an Australian science journalist.

Image: Statue of Carl Linneaus in the botanic garden in Uppsala, Sweden, with the remains of a fruit of Malus domestica.

2 comments:

Bom said...

Must check out your links. It's all very interesting to me. Something to talk about with the children at dinner this evening, save for the syphilitic American, not that I'm a prude but I just don't think STD's and curry go well together.

Tim Entwisle said...

Indeed. Good luck with the dinner-time discussion. I should have added to my blog that I open myself up to people finding errors in my interpretation - but that's what science is all about!