Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Of monkeys, planets, and tomatoes

Just to flesh out something I started a few days ago, and oddly enough came up again in another e-mail. For some reason I mentioned that I don't like being told that there's a difference between apes and monkeys. I understand that there is a convention determined by some academic group or another, who determines which piles of animals we call monkeys, which we call apes, and which we call neither. And I'm sure that since I was a young kid, I was not in accordance with their categories. In my mind, Chimpanzees are monkeys. They are the definitive monkeys. Lance Link, secret chimp? Monkey. Tarzan's cheetah? Monkey. Kurt Russel's "Barefoot Executive"? Monkey. Gorillas and Orangutan? Big monkeys. Rhesus, Gibbon, and Colobus? Small monkeys.

OK, I get it. I can't go using my own definition for words when there are scores of people in corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows working hard to make these definitions. That's my own problem and I'll have to deal with it.

But what does irk me is when people say "It's a scientific fact that monkeys are not apes." It's right up there with the scientific fact that tomatoes are fruits and not vegetables. Or that Pluto is not a planet.

One of my biggest pet peeves in this world is the unscientific nature of science in the classroom. Again, I get it... not everybody wants to be a scientist. We have to teach everybody SOME science, but don't need to teach everybody how to be a scientist. So we turn science class into a vocabulary class and too often we refer to the art of classification as if it were science. I'm sure classification is essential to science, but it isn't science. I see it more as bookkeeping which needs to be done before we can do science. For thousands of years people have been naming animals. God literally gave that job to Adam in the first book of The Bible. More recently we have been grouping animals into categories like vertebrates, mollusks, crustaceans, arachnids, birds, mammals, etc. I think in general, this was usually done by looking at the creatures and seeing which ones looked alike. Clams, mussels, and scallops... close enough, you're a group. Spiders and ants... nope, two many legs... three part body... two different groups for you. I'm sure there was a lot of interesting and lengthy observations made, including dissecting and using microscopes and whatnot. And that observation is, I admit, a big part of the scientific process.

But applying names to the various groups, I assert, is NOT science. It's bookkeeping. Science really deals with the unknown. It is the act of making a hypothesis, testing this hypothesis, and either rejecting it or letting it stand unfalsified until further testing. After sufficient tests have been taken, repeated in various locations independently, and the results are consistently reproduced we can finally reject the hypothesis or we can claim that it is supported by the evidence and thus it is a theory. So you can say "mollusks appeared on the earth before arachnids" or "birds evolved from reptiles", and then begin testing this hypothesis. And of course, these hypotheses could not have been made if we didn't have the groups such as mollusks and arachnids already defined. Thus the categorization is important to science... perhaps necessary to science. But that is not itself science.

The categorization process, as I see it, does not require hypothesis or testing. For example, the convention is that monkeys have tails and apes don't. So do we need a hypothesis to state "This creature I'm looking at swinging in the tree has a tail."... and then do we apply an experiment (i.e. look at it's tail as he is dangling off a branch of a tree w/ said tail)? Do we now replicate this experiment in various locations? That might be difficult since the creature I'm observing is really only in one location... right in front of ME. No, it seems to me that we just arbitrarily pick a set of criteria, and look for creatures with said criteria, and apply the name to all who fit the bill. At least that is how it's been done for hundreds, nay thousands of years. Has backbone... heats his own body... makes milk... has thumbs... has no tail... he's an ape. Oh HAS tail... OK, monkey. Tusks above the trunk? Mammoth. Bellow the trunk? Elephant.

Not really any hypothesis testing going on there. Just bookkeeping. It's not a "scientific fact" that monkeys have tails. It's a definition that monkeys have tails, then we go ahead and label the tail waggers as monkeys. Nothing was discovered, no hypothesis was confirmed or rejected. No secrets of the Universe were revealed.

Today we have a whole new dimension to the process. We see things in light of genetics and evolution. So the categorization process is a lot more dependent on hypothesis testing. You don't just look for a tail, you need to extract certain gene markers from a strand of DNA. Certainly a lot of science going on there. We see which creatures were descended from which, which couldn't possibly be related any time lately. I remember there's a creature that looks like a rabbit, with big floppy ears, but is classified as a Rodent. Now I don't know why a Rabbit is different from a Rodent... though I think it has something to do with the front teeth. But in any case, if you were classifying these buggers 200 years ago, you would probably say that they belong in the same group. But with the help of DNA we can say that the two had different evolutionary paths to similar outward appearance, and thus belong in different categories. THIS decision making process seems to be real science to me. There's a similar debate going on now about the Panda bear. Is it really a bear, or is it more like a big raccoon?

But in the end, the Panda is what a Panda is. It doesn't matter what label we put on it. It's an arbitrary grouping. A label based on arbitrary criteria. The fact that you know that a Kangaroo is a marsupial does NOT imply that you know your science. Any English major or political historian can memorize names and lists of criteria. This does not imply that they know how to apply the scientific method... that they are equipped to begin the task of explaining the unknown... that they know science. It only implies that they can memorize names and lists of criteria. This is NOT science.

This can be extrapolated to any of the sciences. Apparently Pluto is not a planet. Was it ever? Were the scientists of 20 years ago WRONG? What is the list of criteria necessary for a body to be called a planet? As far as I knew, it was a night time traveler, something in the sky that moved at a different speed than the rest of the stars. As such, I suspect we really have only three or four planets... unless we allow telescopes into the definition. Then it becomes ANYTHING that revolves around the sun? Anything of a certain size and heft that revolves around the sun? Anything that does not have a tail that revolves around the sun? (Yes, apparently that was one criticism about Pluto... he DOES have a tail... or he would if he were close to the sun). So again, I conclude WHO CARES ?!? This classification is NOT science. The science occurs while we explore the details... does Pluto have a tail? Would Pluto have a tail if it were closer to the sun? What is the size and heft of Pluto? THOSE are the kinds of questions that are asked by scientists, and answered by science. Once those things are all asked and answered (independently and consistently), then we can turn it over to the bookkeepers to drop these things into their buckets and slap a label on them. Then some smart alack kid can claim to "know" science and tell us that Pluto is or isn't a planet even if he knows nothing about the questions and methods used to derive the answers which were used to make the categorization.

OK, finally I come to tomatoes. Are they a fruit or a vegetable? First of all, can't you be both? What the heck is a vegetable? In my mind, it's all vegetation. The whole of the Plant Kingdom. Apples? Vegetables. Peaches? Vegetables. Green Pepper? Vegetable. Lettuce, Onions, Celery? Vegetable. Corn? Vegetables. Sunflower seeds? Vegetables. OK, so what's a fruit? Oh, those are the bloated part of a flower after the flower becomes pregnant. They swell up with water content, are usually surrounded by some sort of plant skin, and they bear seeds. Apples? Fruit. Peaches? Fruit. Green Peppers? Most certainly a fruit, as are cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and eggplant. Corn? By the ear... fruit. By the kernel... probably not. Sunflower seeds? probably not. Lettuce, onions, celery? Not so much.

Tomatoes? Unequivocally BOTH.

But here's the worst part of the fruit vs vegetable controversy. Who decides? It is NOT the scientists. It's not the white coats or even the corduroy jackets making this call, it's the dark suits with mirrored sunglasses. It is government law enforcement organizations such as the FDA who classify some vegetation as "vegetables" and some as "fruits". What criteria do THEY use? Generally orders from the president, or decrees from congress. And how on EARTH are they equipped to make these decisions? THEY control tax policy and tariffs. They determine that a can of crushed tomatoes from Italy is a vegetable but a can of whole tomatoes from Italy is a fruit. Thus crushed are tariff free while whole are subject to a tariff.

So in conclusion, I will keep in mind that categorization can be important for effective communication if you keep in mind that knowledge of categories is NOT knowledge of science.


Matt said...

I can see your point to a certain extent, but I would disagree.
First-'God literally gave that job to Adam' Reallly? Ok, I'll leave that alone, but that does not belong in this discussion. There are so many things wrong with that sentance....
A huge part of 'science' is the discovery of something that was unknown. King Tut's tomb, that frog in the Amazon, chemical reactions that make things like plastic, chemicals that cause changes to the body (asprin/AIDS medicine) were unknown. Some were discovered by hypothesis, some by dumb luck, some by sheer stubborness-keep doing stuff until something happens.
It seems that what is bothering you is that people need to classify things and you seem to feel these classifications are somewhat arbitrary. Here's where I disagree. Without this nitpicking bit of science, many new hypotheses would not come about. Sure you could lump things together, but soon you find enough differences and your classification seems too broad and your theories don't fit all the subjects of your classification.
For example, differences between animal species. Men and apes are different, but not different enough.
Just lump them together.
But wait, why not lump canines and felines, ursine and rodent in there too. Why not? Because there are obvious differences, right? And then there are some less obvious difference, and then you see some more less obvious but definite differences.....
It seems to me that you are finding fault with a level of classification. You acknowledge the difference between plant and animal. You acknowledge the difference between birds and mammals. You acknowledge the difference between cats and whales.
You acknowledge the difference between cats and dogs. When does the difference become too small for you? You're arbitrarily picking a point and saying "Nope, I don't acknowledge THAT difference."
Yes, it's bookkeeping. Yes, it's a small difference, but it's an important difference. Gorillas are monkeys, right?
But did you know that because gorillas and humans are so closely related, most diseases can be transmitted from humans to gorillas and vice versa. Well, then, maybe we should classify gorillas as homo gorilla gorilla, then...but there are other things that make it pretty obvious that we do NOT belong lumped together.

Let's look at the problem you have with this part of science. So, this bookkeeping aspect isn't 'really' science? Then, what is? Astronomy? Isn't that just the same thing? Looking around, discovering something 'new' and noting the difference between all the other stuff out there?
How about medical science? Where do you draw the line there? If we took your stance, would we find all the cures we have now?
Without this bookeeping, we wouldn't have half the medicine around, because the diseases would all be lumped together.
We need to classify things. It's very important. That's what allows us to make all the amazing things we have, like this computer, cures for disease, the space shuttle etc.
And no. You cannot use your own definitions. You don't know the differences, so your definitions are incorrect. If we used your definitions, gorillas and spider monkeys would be the same thing, and it's pretty obvious they are not. Can't catch a disease from a spider monkey, but you could die from something you get from a gorilla. That's a pretty huge difference.

Anonymous said...

I think your problem is that you are confusing everyday definitions with specialized definitions used in biology.

Yes, tomatoes are vegetation, just like grass and trees. However, the basis for science is categorization, and to categorize a bunch of things that are all kind of the same you need to use rules, which are arbitrarily created.

For example, say we saw packs of cards living in the wild on an island. At first glance, they all basically look the same, rectangular, similar coloration on one side and varied coloration on the other. let say professor Wilkinson decides these cards will be his life's work, and decided to catch a few, describe them, and publish. He may say there are two species, some with pips and some with pictures. he may say there are two species, some with red markings or some with black. he may say there are 4 species, depending on the pips. It's all dependant on what he decides, and will be modified by what others decide with later observation of the species.

Someone decided (Maybe a swedish gent named Linneas) that fruits are things which hold seeds. Therefore, according to this rule, a tomatoe is a fruit and a potato is not. Vegitable is not a scientific definition (besides the rule that things with cholorfil = vegitation). If people use whatever definition they want things would be confusing.

Same thing with apes and monekys. there are physiological differences int he definition of what an ape is and what a mmonkey is. hw you been to the dinosaur section of the MNH lately? There is a whole order of dinosaurs based on them hving a little hole near where their ear would be. (An order is as different as a cat is to a dog). Seems much ado about nothing to me, but it makes all the evolutionary tree data fit btter int he lin form fish to dino, to mammel to us.
I have more to come on the scientific method


Anonymous said...

Part 2

OK, in regards to classification just being bookkeeping and not science, I have to disagree. I worked on scientific grants for 11 years, and still do research on member in my current position. And I can state categorically that most of science is collecting and grouping information.

First off, you cannot run an experiment unless you have done observations of what the true nature of what you want to experiment. You cannot have a variable unless you understand the control.

Secondly, is biology a science? In 90% iof biology all you do is classification, it's not like people are making hypotheses about what will happen if they place a new species on an island and then do it and observe the results. While there is some of that on a microscopic level, mostly what you hear about biology is only observational.

Is Physics a science? Much of physics are just theories and models, with very few real world applications from which experiments can be designed and hypotheses tested.

In my own experience, there was hypothesis testing done on medications, but even there it's not like there were difference was apparent to anyone, you had to have a sample of 500 or more to detect any kind of statistical difference between the experimental and control populations.

In the genetics lab all that was done was typing of people's blood to see if they were carriers of the gene in question. I contacted the families and did interviews with hundreds of people, and brought in hundreds of blood samples form people and drew up genetic maps of extended families, but it was strictly classification.