Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, January 02, 2006


It should have happened years ago, but I'm only now getting around to abandoning all hope of ever keeping abreast of the current biological taxonomy. I was just alerted (two years after the fact) that the genera Nyctea and Bubo have been conflated. Yes, the Snowy Owl, it seems, is just another species of horned owl—the only one without horns, unless someone's poured yet another genus into the container while my attention was elsewhere (when I looked in there for Nyctea, I also found the four Asian fish owls formerly known as Ketupa).

DNA data have been used for over thirty years to reassign biological nomenclature, and the technology, which I don't pretend to understand, keeps getting better. The past fifteen years have seen a taxonomic Renaissance, and genetic analysis has shed incredible light on how Earth's organisms are related.

I wonder, though, if DNA always gives us a perfect view of those relations. It seems to me that a true picture requires a bit more. As we argue about this genus and that family, it's easy to forget that species, orders and phyla are not real things, but abstract ideas invented by an anal-retentive Swedish intellectual. They're just tools to help us understand the world, and boy do they help. There's no right way to classify, but the best way is the one that shapes the most useful tools.

It could be that I'm just bitter that none of my taxonomic predictions have panned out. My favorite local owl, the aberrant little Flammulated Owl, is still universally lumped with the screech owls. If I ever pay up on all my bets that Rough-legged Hawks would prove to be big arctic kites, stocks in Utah microbreweries (yes, there are such things) will skyrocket. Still, what is gained by sticking the very peculiar Snowy Owl, and the discreet fraternity of Asian fish owls, into the eagle owl genus? We always knew all three groups were closely related. Is it more important to show that the African fishing owls are less close? I suspect that when the sorting's done and the smoke clears, DNA evidence will hold a bit less sway than it does right now, and that Nyctea and Ketupa will one day be restored. In fact, I'll bet you a sixer of Utah pale ale.
illustration: HUNGY EYES--GREAT HORNED OWLETS (2005) Acrylic 30" X 22"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob here again (great blog by the way)Lumpers and splitters Carel; It's like a dog chasing its tail.....wow, the more I think of it, the more that analogy stands up.

1:52 PM  
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