In the Arkansas Ozarks where I grew up – was reared sounds too intentional – those little fish that some call sunfish and others call bream are called perch. They aren’t. Perch are another family of fish.
In English we call that, usually red fruit that is the basis of so many sauces and salsas, a tomato. Sure some say təˈmātō and others təˈmätō, but in Rome they say pomodoro and in Prague, rajče.
It was that problem with common names that produced scientific nomenclature. At the heart of biology is classification. Starting with the first division we split living things into kingdoms.
At the time I studied biology; a time when we had just learned about DNA, there were two kingdoms: plant and animal. Now there are three: plants, animals, and fungi. Study of DNA led biologists to understand that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. The study of those living things is termed botany, zoology and mycology.
Within each of those kingdoms there are further divisions that occur arising from some difference until we get to the most specific group termed a species. The group just larger is the genus. Scientific names like Homo sapiens consist of Homo (man) the genus, and sapiens the species. Sapiens is from sapient which is defined as wise or attempting to appear wise. Wise infers some level of understanding above mere knowledge. Alas, there seem to be more humans who desire to appear wise than actually are.
The Ascent of Man
The Descent of Man
Why do we do all of this splitting? I imagine that it originated as a survival technique. We needed to know which mushrooms made the stew taste better, which ones were edible but bitter and would give you a stomach ache, and which ones could kill you.
Death Cap (Amanita phalloides)
The Deathcap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, is the cause of the majority of deaths from mushroom poisoning worldwide, and it is for several reasons. A. phalloides is widespread through the world, and it resembles several edible mushrooms such as the Caesar mushroom. Additionally, the toxins in Amanita species are resistant to heat, so they aren’t destroyed by cooking, and it is estimated that the consumption of half a mushroom is enough to be lethal.
Amanita phalloides may have been responsible for the deaths of Roman emperor, Claudius, and for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI. (Wikipedia)
There are a lot of mushrooms. Some like the morel are not easily confused with anything else and are delectable. Others like Amanita can be confused with several other mushrooms and simple tests like color, whether it turns color on cooking etc. are unreliable. You have to know the anatomy of mushrooms to tell the difference.
Turning back to tomatoes, tomatoes are a member of the Deadly Nightshade family. That family, solonaceae, contains not only the nightshades, but peppers and eggplants. It was not until Columbus crew returned from the New World and reported that tomatoes were not poisonous; the natives had been seen eating them, that tomatoes became part of Italian cuisine. Imagine Italian without them.
The problem with scientific splitters is that they want to split everything. Great arguments and hurt feelings can result.
My college instructor in plant taxonomy was an amazing man. His memory was prodigious, his physical endurance phenomenal, and his humility a model for others. Once, on a field trip in the Arkansas Ozarks one of our class found a small trillium. She spent several minutes trying to key the plant out and, frustrated, told Dr. Moore that she couldn’t find it. His response was, “That’s because I just recently named it.” We asked if he had named it after himself and he said that would be a little too braggadocio. He had named it, Trillium ozarkanum.
Ozark Wake Robin (Trillium pusillum var. ozarkanum
In later years lumpers got into the conversation and the plant is now considered to be a dwarf variant of a trillium growing farther east commonly called the Wake Robin trillium. The current name is the Little Ozark Wake Robin or the Dwarf Wake Robin with the scientific name, Trillium pusillum, var. ozarkanum
Splitters get academic recognition for describing and naming new species.
Lumpers don’t. However, they are valuable to the process. We don’t need any more division than is necessary.
How much is necessary or desirable? Necessary and desirable are not the same things. We need to classify mushrooms that don’t kill us so that we can identify the ones that can.
At one time the definition of a species had to do with the ability to interbreed and produce fertile offspring That separated species. Now that has been revised.
Dogs are descended from the gray wolf. That has been pretty much decided. However, there is controversy over which gray wolf. It appears that it is from a Eurasian gray wolf that doesn’t exist anymore. But, wolves and dogs can and do interbreed and produce fertile offspring. They are both members of the genus Canis, with wolves being Canis lupus and dogs Canis lupus domesticus or Canis domesticus.
So, coyotes, members of the species, latrans, should not be able to interbreed with dogs and wolves to produce fertile offspring, but they clearly do.
There are now thought to be 18 subspecies of coyotes, and the coyotes that now live in the Eastern U.S. and Canada have varying amounts of DNA in common with wolves and dogs. Additionally, gray wolves contain some coyote DNA.
So, why separate coyotes from wolves and dogs?
Coyote in Yosemite National Park
Coyotes are different.
They are more solitary and smaller, and they undergo estrus at a different time of year than wolves. Because male coyotes only produce sperm during the period of female coyotes’ estrus they rarely sire pups from dogs or wolves. Most coy dogs and wolf mixes were the result of a female coyote and a male wolf or dog.
In Native American myth Coyote was seen as the sly trickster. They are clever and sneaky and I have seen them vanish in front of my eyes.
From a conservation standpoint coyotes are listed as a species of “least concern”. They are doing just fine, thank you. Wolves outside of Canada and Alaska in North America have had to be introduced into areas where they are wanted. The introduction of wolves into Yellowstone did a great deal to restore the ecosystem that had been completely upset by well-meaning people who prevented forest fires and wanted to protect the elk and bison from predation. Here's that story.
Splitters want to divide Homo sapiens into further divisions called races.
Lumpers realize that we are all one species.
That’s a topic for another discussion.