From Andrew Jenner at Atlantic:
In July 2008, an American ornithologist named Bret Whitney was researching antbirds in the Brazilian Amazon when he heard a curious bird song. The sound, to his expert ear, clearly belonged a Striolated Puffbird––a big, streaky creature that looks like an owl crossed with a kingfisher. But it also had a smoother quality that struck him as “off-the-charts different” from the slightly warblier songs he knew from elsewhere in the region.
He divided the Puffbird into an additional three new species, based on this information but in the ensuing dispute the American Ornithological Society was willing to recognize only one new species:
Failing to see the logic behind this decision, Whitney regards it as “just nuts.” But it’s not unusual for things to get messy in the world of avian taxonomy, which addresses a fundamentally impossible task: the scientific imperative to label and sort amid the ever-evolving reality of life on Earth. An ostrich is definitely not a bald eagle, nor is a Canada goose a mallard. But the closer you zoom, the fuzzier things get. Are the Striolated Puffbirds of the western Amazon who stutter at the start of their songs different enough from other Striolated Puffbirds to merit full species status? What is a species, exactly, and where do the lines between one and another lie?
Sure, it’s messy. But there’s more going on here. Many fields are inherently messy.
I could tell you the word count that supposedly differentiates a novella from a novel.* But would you be surprised if a well-known novella were routinely classed as a novel? And who cares if it is? Nothing is at stake unless one is quoting on a rush job over the phone in the publishing industry. 😉
But speciation is the Holy Grail of Darwinian evolution. To find an example in action is to find something spectacular. Yet, as the little tiff above shows, the concept is way too vague to meet the standards of science. And no one dares address that problem directly. Not yet anyhow. But it’s coming.
See also: Nothing says “Darwin snob” like indifference to the mess that the entire concept of speciation is in
Darwin’s finches not a good example of Darwinian evolution
* Short fiction: under 7,500 words. Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words. Novella: 17,500-40,000 words. Novel: 40,000 words and up. Break these “rules” at your own risk.
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