Problems with the Scientific Pigeonhole Principle

Learn the importance of a scientific name and its origins for classifying different species of animals for easier studying and interbreeding.

| August 2018

  • Geese are among the few domesticated animals that have not just one but two wild ancestors.
    Photo by Getty/Denja1
  • No, purebred geese that derived from two totally separate species — the Swan goose, Anser cygnoides, from Central Asia and the Greylag goose, Anser anser, from Central Europe — hybridize readily and regularly.
    Photo by Getty/passion4nature
  • book cover
    “Unnatural Selection” by Katrina Grouw is a guide, complete with illustrations, for readers interested in learning about selective breeding and the ongoing transformation of animals at the hands of man.
    Cover courtesy Princeton University Press
  • “Unnatural Selection” by Katrina Grouw is a guide, complete with illustrations, for readers interested in learning about selective breeding and the ongoing transformation of animals at the hands of man.
    Cover Courtesy Princeton University Press

  • book cover

Unnatural Selection (Princeton University Press, 2018), by Katrina van Grouw teaches readers about selective breeding, which happens to both captive and domestic animals.  However, the distinction is drawn between selective breeding and domestication because they are not the same.  Domestication is the first step towards selective breeding and it begins with the transition of wild animals into self-sustaining and tame populations.  After this is achieved selective breeding begins with more new and continuous changes that occur within the now tame populations.  These changes lead to a more productive, efficient, successful, beautiful, and different version from the original population.  Readers can also learn the method behind the naming of different species while gaining access to knowledge about interspecies breeding that results in completely new species, such as the many species of geese.

Names are important. they’re a sort of code — an abbreviation, allowing us to communicate without ambiguity or the need for lengthy descriptions. Like any code, the only way a name can be useful is if it’s understood by everyone using it. In a small community, it makes no difference if everyone calls a Song thrush a Mavis or a Surf scoter a Skunk duck — one name is as good as another as long as the whole population can relate to it. However, a visiting alien or other explorer hearing the words “Bog bull,” “Butterbump,” “Mire drum,” or “under pumper” could be forgiven for assuming they belonged to four separate types of animal when in fact they’re all names for a single species: the American bittern. We all know that the single word “Robin” refers to two very different birds on either side of the Atlantic. A Butterfische in German is a Rock gunnel fish in English, while a Butter fish in English is a Medusenfische in German.

There’s nothing actually wrong with any of these names. They’ve simply been taken out of their geographical confines to realms where their meaning has been lost or changed. When the community in question is the international scientific community, misinterpretation is only avoided by the use of the most rigidly strict rules — rules to prevent duplication of names, rules to prevent the same name being used for more than one thing, and rules to dictate the form a name must take.

There’s only one problem with this: when rules are so inflexible, they can’t adapt to changes in understanding. They may make provision for advances in knowledge, but that’s another thing entirely.



Our system of zoological nomenclature belongs to a pre-Darwinian era. It was developed by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1758 in the celebrated tenth edition of his Systema Naturae, though, as with most great achievements, Linnaeus was building on foundations laid by others before him, perfecting a system that was already in place. The same principles are still in use, upheld by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), often referred to simply as “the Code.”

Living as we do, in the third century AD (Anno Darwin, that is), we’ve had a long time to come to grips with the idea of evolution and to be conditioned to expect classifications of living things to reflect actual relationships between and within species. It’s almost impossible for most of us to imagine the concept of living things not being related to one another. Linnaeus’s intention, however, was to group similar things together simply as a means of classification. Similar species were grouped into genera, similar genera into orders, orders into classes, and classes into kingdoms. Only species and genera were considered by him to reflect affinities in nature, which he described as “God-given”; the other levels he thought of as merely artificial groupings for the sake of convenience. Indeed, he adopted as his own personal motto “Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit” (God created, Linnaeus, organized). In pre-Darwinian thinking, classification was purely an attempt to organize God’s creations into groups, and the groups into ever larger groups of diminishing similarity. Classification, in its purest form, is an entirely separate discipline from phylogenetics — the organization of living things according to their evolutionary relationships. There’s actually no logical reason why it shouldn’t be simply an effort to make sense of the organic world and to categorize every animal and plant according to its usefulness or harmfulness, habits or habitat. And that’s precisely how it had been for the better part of history — no different from keeping pearl buttons, black buttons, and brown buttons in different compartments of a sewing box. It’s pure serendipity, then, that Linnaean classification, drawn in diagrammatic form, results in a familiar treelike structure with tiny branches sprouting from larger branches and so on, ultimately springing from a single trunk. It provided a ready-made framework on which biologists could eventually hang taxa according to their rightful place in evolutionary history — a phylogenetic tree of life.

Kristi
9/3/2018 9:33:29 AM

Most interesting! I see a lot of debate in the herp hobby about these themes, whether creatures like snakes and geckos can ever be considered domesticated, and the fact species of snake from different genera can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Their experience of the animals shows them the problems with pigeonholing and man made definitions.


Kristi
9/3/2018 9:08:56 AM

Most interesting! I see a lot of debate in the herp hobby about these themes, whether creatures like snakes and geckos can ever be considered domesticated, and the fact species of snake from different genera can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Their experience of the animals shows them the problems with pigeonholing and man made definitions.


Henrik Petersson
8/28/2018 11:01:38 AM

Fantasticly well-written, my eyes were glued to the screen. I can't wait until the whole book arrives in the mailbox. Fowl keeping is a hobby of mine, so facts related to those are of special interest to me. I have myself owned chickens and muscovy ducks for many years, and looked into various geese breeds on many an occasion, and while I'd understood that "normal geese" and "those other geese with lumps on their faces" interbred, I had no idea just how complicated and interesting their relationship was.