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Re: Definition of 'fish', & GSP is displeased ;-)

>> What is wrong with people. When the topic changes change
>> the damn subject
>> heading!!!!!!!

Oh get a life. I strongly empathize with being particular about things
in life in general (see below!), but I've been on far less polite fora
than this, and I've seen it when thread derailment is an *actual*
problem. It's normal for posters to make small asides here and there
where they'd like to register an idea or opinion without wanting to
devote a whole thread to a detailed discussion of the subject. I
didn't feel the need to veer off into a full-scale talk of this sort,
so I kept it short, but Tim did - and he produced a new thread for it,
which is exactly what was appropriate given his intent. Both needs
were served and no one besides a large number of electrons was
seriously inconvenienced. The system works.


"I would be more flexible on this point, with a view to the history of
the word 'fish', and apply it to all non-tetrapod vertebrates.  Not
just actinopterygians (the ray-finned fishes), but also basal
sarcopterygians (lungfishes and coelacanths) and cartilaginous fishes
(sharks, rays, chimaeras).  Lampreys and hagfishes too.  This
corresponds to the historical usage of 'Pisces' ("fishes").  And after
all, things like hagfish and ratfish and lungfish lie outside the
Actinopterygii.  So the word 'fish' is pretty entrenched in the
English language for lots of non-actinopterygians."

Oh, I'm aware of the vernacular. Of course, in the vernacular, Pluto
is a planet, chimps are "monkeys," the hole in the ozone layer is
defined as "the thing which causes global warming," anything that
isn't petrified isn't a fossil, anything with four legs, scales, and a
long tail is a "lizard," gamma radiation is "poisonous," every
arthropod on Earth is an "insect," the sun isn't a "star" because it's
not a small twinkly bit, humans aren't animals, and birds are birds,
not dinosaurs. The vernacular leaves not just much, but huge gaps to
be desired. And it's often in places of considerable importance to
politics, education, and various social and environmental issues.

So I guess my point is, if - if - we want to encourage word usage that
suits the public's general needs while also approaching/attempting
scientific accuracy, then reserving "fish" for Actinopterygii seems
like the best compromise of the available options. True, paraphyletic
grades can have value both morphologically and (more so) ecologically,
but feeding public misconceptions about science is, well, not in the
best interest of science. We complain about science education in the
U.S. failing to prepare students for science careers, and as they say,
knowledge starts with knowing the proper names for things. I think we
have a responsibility to keep our language at least broadly accurate,
for the sake of not confusing the masses or perpetuating their

"In general, I think we can afford to be imprecise and sloppy with
vernacular terms, such as 'fish' and 'bird' and 'worm'.  That's why we
have scientific nomenclature: to ensure a rigorous and universal
system for the naming of animals (and all other life-forms)."

I agree to a point. In some cases, like "starfish," "shellfish,"
velvet worm," etc, the presence of such a term in the name isn't a big
deal, because people have the other descriptive portion there to sort
out what is actually meant. That seems pretty manageable. But
consider: first, although "bird" is vernacular, it does apply to a
monophyletic group, and that's what's important. "Fish" is
paraphyletic and "worm" is polyphyletic. Is the message we want to
send one of "cladistic groupings don't matter enough to be talked
about?" or "phylogeny is unimportant, so throw whatever you want
together in the same term?" That's the signal being broadcast to the

Carol Caesuk-Yoon in "Naming Nature" argues for calling an animal
whatever it looks like, which is no less arbitrary a system, and she
in all seriousness advocates calling whales "fish" *in contrast* to
land-bound animals, which are then most definitely not fish. So under
her equally scientific system, the public's simplistic intuition would
be appeased even more thoroughly, and anything with bones and fins
would be a fish: sharks, coelacanths, trout, ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs,
whales - all the same thing, right? That's basically the way it was
conceived of for millennia, so why change it to encapsulate history or
genetics or anything else that seems complicated to the average
turnip-farming peasant?

Sorry, I was sort of venting at her there, not you.

I mean, obviously, imprecision is a standard aspect of human language
(and psychology), and actually eradicating it is out of the question.
But changes for the better are plausible, and indeed, that forms the
conceptual foundation for science education in the first place. When
children learn in their kid's books and elementary-school science
texts that birds are highly modified reptiles, but still truly
reptiles, they will retain that knowledge throughout life and use it
to contextualize the living world around them. And it will be in the
context of evolution across deep time, instead of a context of
indifferent confusion as it is today. Steps certainly need to be taken
to ease down the wall of intimidation presented by the sheer amount of
information, but science can only truly flourish with a
science-literate public to support it, and language is the most
fundamental tool in that struggle.

Does that all make sense? I'm trying to keep a reasonably practical
perspective on this.