On the Origin of Twats @AdamRutherford #bbcinsidescience

In the words of Adam Rutherford, Linnaeus was a twat.

Well I’ve got news for Adam; Rutherford is a twat. The standard of BBC science journalism and broadcasting has come to this. Adam previewed and then followed-up after his broadcast of BBC R4 Inside Science with smart-arse quips about no such thing as a species and “Chimps are monkeys, so suck on that.” And a few people picked up on the new “factoid”. Mercifully few so far. 

This is just so much politically motivated bollocks. Science is everything so we can say what we like and you can’t touch us. We don’t really care about the consequences, evolution will take care of things, we’re all dead, ultimately extinct, in the long run. Oh, how we laughed, not.

It’s not news that biological species are not what they appear. Scientifically speaking it’s about choosing your definition(s) and there are plenty to choose from. And, more and more genetic indicators give us more possible definitions, not fewer. And that blurring is compounded by the fact that the genes we are using as indicators are less and less objectively defined the closer we look too. More information equals less definition. Get used to it.

Moreover, choosing definitions is a political act. Always driven by your purpose, and how useful a given definition is to your purpose. This is Modelling 101. Taxonomy 101. Science is no different. Science’s models of life are just that. Models, not real life.

Biological species? Whether you look at inherited aspects at the DNA patterning or expressed physical properties and appearances level, most useful working definitions of species involve gene transfer processes – schoolboy tittering, you know – “shagging”. Jeez, gimme a break BBC.

Reproduction. If two individuals are able to successfully reproduce fertile offspring they must be the same species is how the common definition goes. But there are statistics and time and geographical population movements involved in that success. How many pairs of individuals in the population(s) and how far diverged from common ancestry are those individuals and the population averages, in both time and space. It’s easy to say “if they are able to reproduce”, but much harder to model that success meaningfully, and there are many variations in how that is done too (eg so-called circle species). ie not only are there other bases of definition besides reproductive capability, but even that definition has many variations in how it might be interpreted.

Common shared genes, or genetic content, is all the rage of course – but how much is just a number, the significance of which is chosen with statistical relevance to other numbers. And a common shared-ancestor gives a basis on which to make relative comparisons on shared genetics.

You could say (Taxonomy 101): “we are all members of the class (clade) we share in having a common hierarchical parent” – a common heritage. Using that heritage as the basis for membership of the class (set). In fact every two living things shares a common ancestry with at least one other earlier living thing. It’s as meaningful to say Humans are the same species as Neanderthal as it is meaningless to say Chimps are Monkeys. Oh, you’re 5% Neanderthal, well I’m only 2%. That may tell us something about our different lineages since the ancestor we share with Neanderthals, and thence about evolutionary genetic similarities and differences – ie useful science for explaining and understanding the processes involved.

In the programme, when Adam actually says “Chimps are monkeys” he does briefly qualify it with “kinda, but not really”. This is choosing the species definition in terms of sharing a common parent. And as the expert  @PaoloViscardi points out picking the (remote) common parent as your definition isn’t right, you should always talk just one-level down as the class, or in general taxonomy a more significant “Ur-Class” or “archetype” class. It’s just not useful, outside philosophical ontology, to say everything is a thing – even though it is trivially true in real life too.

All this is lost in the takeaway one-liners. Ultimately every two living individuals – however diverse their current species – share a common parent, a representative of a third extinct species, and one that’s pretty hard to pinpoint in most cases. A useless means of classifying individuals now.

Of course, these problems with the apparent meaningless of species are as nothing compared to narrower human concepts like race, and one reason why we ultimately learn that even with ethnic classifications, it’s about self-identity with groups that matter to us as individuals, not about immediate objective definitions of groups with well-defined boundaries. That’s a fools errand.

We are all monkeys? Yeah, and in the long run we’re all dead.


[Post Note:

Sadly, turning Adam’s “mocking twat” accusation back on himself elicited only the denial and blocking response. Public scientist, in public broadcasting, publishing his opinions and conversations on public social media, in order to promote his media output, can dish it out but not take it apparently.

A couple of ironic tweeted responses to Adam’s reaction. “Capitalist conspiracy theory” particularly hilarious and wide of the mark. Do I not like conspiracy theories. No just the root issue here – the careless “arrogance” of scientific received wisdom.]  

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