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I have removed this - "but most are probably invalid" - from the bit about aardvark subspecies. What does it mean? As I understand it, subspecies are defined according to the whim of whoever is doing the classification at the time. If anyone knows of an objective criterion for classifying animals into subspecies, I would be interested to hear it... Oliver P. 21:53 May 10, 2003 (UTC)

It is indeed a difficult area, Oliver. But I am not in the habit of making this sort of thing up. There are plenty of references if you want me to cite them. Sing out if you do. Tannin
Oh, I wasn't accusing you of making it up. It's just that according to everything that I've read about classifications of animals (and that's not as much as you have, I'm sure), divisions into subspecies are arbitrary conventions. If I am wrong, please enlighten me. What does it mean for a classification to be "valid" or "invalid"? I understand that it is common to define a species as a group for which the individuals can interbreed with each other, but not with individuals outside the group (although this definition is problematic). But I've never heard such a definition for a subspecies, and I'm curious to know what one might be. -- Oliver P. 05:04 May 11, 2003 (UTC)

Capital Letter And More Classification[edit]

And another thing - do we really need the capital letter on "Aardvark"? It's not as if we have to differentiate between the Brown Aardvark and the Lesser Spotted Aardvark, which I gather was the argument for bird species. If there is only one species of aardvark, then I don't see the need. -- Oliver P. 22:00 May 10, 2003 (UTC)

Consistency and accuracy. Tannin
Consistency, yes, I understand why that is a good thing. But are you proposing changing "dog" to "Dog", and "cat" to "Cat" everywhere, too? If not, then we'll never have consistency, so that argument disappears. And as for accuracy, names are arbitrary labels; none is more "accurate" than any other. (Here we go again...) -- Oliver P. 05:04 May 11, 2003 (UTC)

Well, technically, that is exactly what we should do: Canis familiaris IS correctly written as "Dog". Most of my textbooks do exactly this. I know that it's the way you are supposed to write it, but I confess to thinking it looks funny, and I doubt I'd write it that way myself most of the time.

"Dog" is something of a special case, though. Yes, it's a particular exact species in the strict "letter of the law", but for practical purposes we can almost regard dogs as a genus or family - in very few other creatures do we have so many well-recognised variations. In this sense, "dog" almost becomes a "quasi-family", a grouping of related creatures, if you like - which is normally written in lower case. At least that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it. :)

With "cat", it's easier. The species is properly written as Domestic Cat or House Cat, while just "cat" on its own can mean anything from a tuddy tabby asleep on the hearth to a Siberian Tiger.

Now, let's deal with your suggestion that as for accuracy, names are arbitrary labels; none is more "accurate" than any other. Do you have a source for this? In what context was it stated? (Rhetorical questions, largely in jest: do not trouble to answer them unless you feel like it!) It is most certainly not true within at least some of the fields to do with fauna and flora. For convenience of discussion I'll split them up into three or four categories:

  1. Scientific names: These are precise names with exact meanings, and well-established procedures to follow when a dispute or ambiguity arises. No two species ever have the same scientific name, except by accident (in which case the problem is swiftly corrected), and a single species never has two names, again except by accident, or where it is discovered that the original name is, for some reason or another, incorrect.
  2. Formal common names Much the same as scientific names. In general, these are equally unique and map on a 1 to 1 basis to scientific names. They are exact synonyms and (in general) no two are duplicated. The implementation of this varies from one area of specialty to another. In birds, it is near enough to 100% implemented on a worldwide basis (not without some pain along the way when the peak birding authorities in one or another region felt obliged to change a popular and well-known common name becaue it conflicted with that of another species in some far awy part of the world). In mammals it seems to be complete also, or almost complete. I know that the top American body responsible for fish is moving in the same direction, and assume that their counterparts in other regions are doing (or possibly already have done) the same. For plants, I'm not sure: most, possibly all, of the Australian species now comply with this, I don't know about other parts of the world.
  3. Informal common names: These ARE "arbitary labels", just as you said. Their utility varies: I can call the bird outside my window a "blue wren" and anyone living in Victoria or South Australia will know what I mean. But if I want everyone to know exactly which bird I mean, then I must call it a "Splendid Fairy-wren". If I lived 1500 miles or so further north, I'd still have a "blue wren" outside my window, but it would be a Varigated Fairy-wren, Malurus lamberti, not M. splendens. There are no rules with this class of name. If you and I and a few million others decide to call blue wrens "green fish" from now on, then green fish they are. But if we want to change the name of the Splendid Fairy-wren, then we must persuade the RAOU of the merits of our case and take it through the proper channels.

(The subspecies question is very interesting indeed and deserves a seperate consideration. I could write something off the top of my head, but I'll recheck my facts first, possibly write it up in subspecies. I'll come to that a little later on today.) Tannin

Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Tannin. That's all very interesting stuff. My point about names being "arbitrary labels" was that if my brother and I decide between ourselves that we're going to call aardvarks "sploogleblonks" from now on, then we'll be able to communicate to each other perfectly well about aardvarks using that name, without any ambiguity or confusion. Of course we wouldn't be able to use that word in communication with other people about aardvarks, unless they used the same convention, but we'd still be able to use it to each other, and it would make no difference. Of course, there are agreed conventions on what to call things, and this is highly useful for being able to discuss things with lots of other people without misunderstanding, and therefore a Good Thing, but the names used in these conventions are still arbitrary. There may indeed be different conventions in different groups; members of these groups would be able to commicate with each other perfectly well within the group, but not with people in a different group. The official bodies could have decided to call the aardvark the "Sploogleblonk", and I'm sure all the zoologists would have been quite content using that name in publications, and they'd all be able to communicate with each other perfectly well using that term. The general public would probably still call it the "aardvark", and they too would be able to communicate with each other perfectly well using that term. That's all I meant by the names being arbitrary. Of course we want to follow conventions in the Wikipedia, so that people understand what we're talking about. But if there is more than one convention, which one do we use? It seems that the official bodies call it the "Aardvark", while the general English-speaking public call it the "aardvark". Well, since this is a publication for the use of the general English-speaking public, I think we should use whatever is the most common convention among the English-speaking public. (Assuming that it wouldn't lead to any ambiguity. In this case it wouldn't, because there is only one species of aardvark.) So that's... "aardvark", right? :)
Oh yes, and I've added the subspecies article to my watchlist, so I can see how it goes. -- Oliver P. 01:08 May 12, 2003 (UTC)

Another Classification Subject[edit]

I don't think that subspecies are completely arbitary. In many species, there are clearly defined populations which can be distinguished on a consistent and reliable basis. An obvious example is the populations of Yellow Wagtail which have different coloured heads (yellow in the UK, blue in western Europe grey in Scandinavia etc). The problem only arises when the differences are clinal, with no sharp demarcations, or through over-zealous application. The last was particularly prevalent in the Victorian era, when almost every bird species had a British race. jimfbleak 06:36 May 11, 2003 (UTC)

(later) A possibly better example is Pied Wagtail and White Wagtail. The British (and adjacent coastal France) subspecies is Pied, whereas most of mainland Europe is White. Each shows no variation within its own range, and is always distinguishable from the other form. Although they can intrbreed, they rarly do so because of the partial reproductive isolation. There is nothing arbitary here. There are exactly two subspecies of Motacilla alba in western Europe. jimfbleak 16:11 May 11, 2003 (UTC)
Thanks for that explanation. That is indeed interesting. I don't suppose you know about aardvarks as well, do you? I suppose that to say that a classification of the aadvark into 18 subspecies was "invalid" would mean that some of the 18 groups were not, in fact, distinguishable, even though the proponents of the classification thought they were. Sounds odd to me, but I think I'm a little out of my depth here, so I'll bow out of this one... -- Oliver P. 01:08 May 12, 2003 (UTC)
You have the gist of it, Oliver. I'm working on a much-too-ambitious project to re-write subspecies, species, family, and probably order at present. I'll pop a note on your talk page if/when I make some substantial progress on it. Tannin 01:14 May 12, 2003 (UTC)
Thanks. I look forward to reading it. -- Oliver P. 02:20 May 12, 2003 (UTC)