Sunday, 4 August 2019

What is a species? The most important concept in all of biology is a complete mystery


JULY 17, 2019

by Henry Taylor, The Conversation
A koala bear isn't actually a bear, it's a marsupial. Whales aren't fish, they're mammals. Tomatoes aren't vegetables, they're fruit. Almost nothing is actually a nut. Peanuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, walnuts, pecans and almonds: none of them are really nuts (for the record, peanuts are legumes, Brazils and cashews are seeds, and the others are all droops). Hazelnuts and chestnuts are the exception: they are the elite, the "true" nuts.
We've all heard facts like this before. But they are more than just ammunition for pub conversation. They reflect an area of science known as biological taxonomy, the classification of organisms into different groups. At the core of this area lies the notion of the species. The basic idea is very simple: that certain groups of organisms have a special connection to each other. There is something that you and I have in common—we are both human beings. That is, we are members of the same species.
Biological taxonomy's core aim is to sort all of the organisms of the world into species. Of course, this job really matters, both inside biology and out. The task of evolutionary biology is to track the evolution and development (and eventual extinction) of species. Outside of biology, conservation programmes routinely put various species on "endangered" lists, and urge us to donate money to stop them dying out. In order for any of this to make sense, we need to know how many species there are, and what a species even is.

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