Friday 25 October 2013

You Say Panina, and I Say Panidae.

No, this is not about the squished hot sandwich craze that reinvigorated college dining halls from here to Tuscaloosa. This is about taxonomy. It's about the new ape taxonomic scheme erected over the past 20 or so years that, for one thing, names every single one of the non-gibbon-like apes 'Hominidae.' That gave rise to the need to call the group of little Great Apes 'Panina.' It also forced us to use the term Hominini. I'm sorry. I have trouble even saying the word out loud 'cause it sounds too much like 'weenie,' which, in vernacular American English, is not such a good thing to be.

But there's more! And it all demonstrates to me that some taxonomists have totally taxono-mist the point. The trouble with nomenclature began the day some bright person was organizing the speciose group of animals belonging to the Linnaean order (taxonomic rank) Primata. If you've done a class in biology lately you'll remember the little mnemonic King Phillip Came Over For a Glass of Scotch: which translates to Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. The trouble for taxonomists has always been how best to group different kinds of similar kinds of animal once you get past the O, Order.

It always seemed weird to me that the minit they got to Primata, naming all the lesser ranks became an exercise in conforming to a rigid nomenclatural template that [when they got to the tailless anthropoids] trapped the namers into jiggling ranks, seemingly for the sake of . . .  jiggling ranks.

So, the first unlucky nomen was the one given to the entire group, which was (and is) Superfamily Hominoidea. Couldn't somebody have come up with a better naming regime than the one that forced us to split hairs from the get-go? When they got past Order, the next major group was Family. They decided that they needed to choose from only the family-ish terms: Superfamily, Family, and Subfamily. That strikes me as a bit odd, since the folks who named cows and cow-like animals didn't use the nomen 'Superfamily' at all. In fact, Cow namers used a very different set of ranks when compared to the latest bipedal ape ranks. Have a look-see.

Now, back to the lesson. The taxonomy in this next slide is the way 'we' were classified for a long, long, time. As knowledge grew, it became less and less capable of capturing the evolutionary relationships among the Great Apes—the families Pongidae and Hominidae.

I'm not a big one on change for its own sake. And I'm also of the opinion that any change to a taxonomic tree should introduce as little nomenclatural change as possible to account for reality. So, as unlikely as using Superfamily seemed to me, I've been more than happy to continue its use. 

Unfortunately, some of us are way better at Latin than others of us. And the Latin-lovers got hold of our classification and introduced a bazillion terms that no-one had even imagined prior to the late twentieth century. 

We went from three families to two, and introduced two subfamilies, three tribes and two subtribes. That's seven more groups than we had before. And all with Latin endings that make my tongue do this. 

Why? Oh, why? When it would have been so easy to go from three Families to six, collected into two inclusive Epifamilies? All would be right with the world. Instead, I'm running a grassroots campaign of one aimed at righting this top-heavy, to me ludicrous classification.

By now you're probably thinking that I should have long since uncorked a bottle of the best, rested my fingertips, and left the taxonomizing to more capable hands. I disagree. I think my hands are pretty darned capable.

Feel free to share at will. TTFN

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