Liz Kariuki

Of Fish and Winden

So, you know how fish don’t exist?
Okay, let me start over.

The Nobel Prize winning biologist Stephen Jay Gould concluded after a lifetime’s studying of fish that there is no such thing as a fish. He reasoned that while there are many things that live in the sea, most of them are not related to each other. For example, a salmon is more closely related to a camel than to a hagfish. A similar argument is that there are lots of things that fly like bees, vultures and flying lizards, but they are not all insects, birds or reptiles.

‚Äč - QI, Series H, Episode 3 - Hoaxes

Simple science/common sense says that the creatures that live in the water are fish. With the exception of marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. These are set apart by the fact that they give birth as opposed to lay eggs. But this view is not technically correct. Lumping all aquatic vertabrates together is akin to lumping all terrestial vertabrates together and calling them ‘earthies’.

This is because the animals we refer to as ‘fish’ do not all have a common ancestor. They do have some similar characteristics such as they have a skull, are vertabrates, have gills and their limbs appear in the shape of fins. There are some interesting exceptions though, some sharks have warm-blooded adaptations, lungfish have lungs - and can breathe air and some fish e.g. Mudskippers live mostly on land. It is interesting how quickly a categorization as recognizable as ‘fish’ falls apart under scrutiny.

On the other end there are categorizations that seem different turn out to be one thing. I can’t really think of a scientific example of this at the moment, but I have an amazing example: Neflix’s Dark. The German show tells the story of 4 families through the years: The Dopplers, The Tiedemanns, The Kahnemans and The Nielsens. It is a complex, impossible tale about the paradoxes of time travel, a knot that is unravelled through different decades and three seasons. In the end it turns out they all have a common ancestor: Egon Tiedemann.

The point of all this is getting away from me, but this is what was going through my head as I read the classic Slate Star Codex post: The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man for the Categories. There are a lot of categories in the world: types of vertabrates, countries' borders, what is or isn’t a planet, whether or not there is such a thing as a ‘tree’ , and getting more relevant by the day: gender. I think it is important to keep in mind that categorizations are not set in stone and be more open to corrections.

An alternative categorization system is not an error, and borders are not objectively true or false.