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cultural taxonomy and dinosaurs



Ladies and Gents,
        Many are probably growing tired of the taxonomy messages.  As one
of those retentives who actually likes this stuff, let me add a few
thoughts to what Tom Holtz has been saying.

        Many of you seem to object to putting birds within Reptilia for
what amount to phenetic reasons:  they just don't look like reptiles.  Why
this is so fundamentally different from making birds members of Dinosauria
is not clear to me - they are logically the same operation, and there was
some fairly spirited opposition to it for a long time.

        Popular understanding of "Dinosauria" is probably worse than for
"Reptilia" - don't forget, y'all are a well-educated dinophile community
and don't reflect the actual level of understanding in the general public.
I'm sure we've all met people who think Dimetrodon, Mammuthus, Pteranodon,
and Elasmosaurus all belong within Dinosauria - after all, toy dinosaur
kits usually include one or some of them.  I've heard people point to
arthropods on display here and say "What a funny-looking dinosaur!"  (Yes,
it's labelled accurately - but people don't always read labels.)  Popular
and academic meanings may diverge widely, but since we need precise
meanings in science, it would be foolish for us to abandon
precisely-defined names.

        I am reminded of an essay Gould wrote many years ago, as well as
some other writings out there - species-level taxonomies tend to transfer
well between cultures, but not supraspecific taxonomies.  Western
scientists may go into the New Guinea rain forest with someone who lives
there, and they may agree on the same number of bird, lizard, snake, croc,
mammal, frog, and insect species they see, but they will most decidedly not
group these species in the same way.  That a group seems "intuitive" or
somehow obvious to us reflects our cultural baggage as much as anything
else.

        And don't take for granted that what's intuitive to you will be
intuitive for everyone.  I have personally encountered college
undergraduates in the United States who did not know bats are mammals until
I, or another academic, told them.  They fly, hence they are birds.  I have
also encountered people who would regard salamanders as fish because pet
stores keep them in the aquarium section.  (These people aren't stupid,
either - they just were never taught anything about taxonomy.)



chris

Christopher Brochu
Department of Geology
Field Museum of Natural History
Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605

312-922-9410 x469