Excerpt from Birdwatching with Bubba
Bubba on Subspecies
While passing a quiet afternoon in my hammock with Bubba fishing from the dock, the low roar of the reef was all the sound to be heard. I thought I would entertain myself by asking him something about the birds. Just to start a conversation, I asked, “Why do you spend so much time studying the birds?” He responded with “It helps me understand humans!”
“Maybe I should restate my question. Why do people study birds?”
He replied, “It helps them understand themselves.”
“Well I guess I can see how behaviors can be similar and parallels can be drawn but all that classification stuff seems unrelated.
“No, you’re wrong! All that classification ‘stuff’ as you call it has more value in understanding ourselves than behavior parallels. I’ll give you a profound example. From what I’ve learned from taxonomy I have an understanding of what’s happening in Kosovo between the Serbs and Albanians, and how that could never happen to us in Belize.”
“I’m going to call you to task on that one Bubba; that’s a little farfetched for me to believe!”
“I’ll show you, but first let me explain taxonomy and how classification began. The word is derived from Greek, taxis(‘arrangement’) and nomos(‘law’). In the 1800’s a Swedish taxonomist, Carolus Linnaeus, invented a system of classifying living things into divisions. The first division was plant or animal; he called it the ‘Kingdom’. Then there was a ‘Class’ dividing creatures such as reptiles and mammals from birds. Then came ‘Orders’ separating, heron from sparrows, and finally ‘genus',then ‘species’. The species was to be the smallest division; example: people are Homo sapiens and sugar maple trees are Acer saccharum and Dogs like me are Canis familiaris, etc. A subdivision of species was called a race or ‘Subspecies’. Remember in 1737 Darwin’s theory of evolution was still a long time away. Did you know that Darwin was pressured to quickly release his famous book ‘The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ because of concerns he might be scooped by one of his colleagues and originally had it titled, ‘The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’?
Linnaeus was only attempting a convenient way of categorizing the elements of the natural world. He defined race as, ‘an interbreeding, usually geographically isolated population of organisms differing from other populations of the same species in the frequency of hereditary traits. A race that has been given formal taxonomic recognition is known as a subspecies.’ A good example would be the Great Blue Heron and the Great White Heron. The famous birder, Rodger Troy Peterson described the Great White Heron as the white race of the Great Blue Heron. Linnaeus published his theories and his standard of divisions under which for centuries the world used and believed. The demise of his theories validly came with assumptions he made about race behavior. He declared that humanity fell into just four races and described characteristics of each that are considered humorous in today’s societies, or most of today’s societies I should say, at least controversial in both technical and nontechnical usage, and in some cases they may well be considered offensive. Within Homo sapiens he proposed four taxa of a lower rank (subspecies). These categories where, Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus. They were based on place of origin at first, and later skin color. Linnaeus wrote each Human race had certain characteristics that were endemic to individuals belonging to it. Native Americans were reddish, stubborn, and angered easily. Africans were black, relaxed and negligent. Asians were sallow, avaricious, and easily distracted. Europeans were white, gentle, and inventive. Linnaeus's races were clearly skewed in favor of Europeans. Over time, this classification led to a racial hierarchy, The term ‘Racist’ was born right here and Europeans were at the top. Members of many European countries used the classification scheme to validate their conquering or subjugation of members of the other races. In particular the invented concept of race was used to enforce the inhumane institution of slavery, particularly in the new world European colonies.
Our conversation seemed to be going just one way and getting a little dry so I asked, “Bubba how does a race get started in a species?”
“Ironically the most classic explanation uses birds as an example. Darwins theory goes like this. There is a swamp where a species of birds live, eating crustaceans from the bottom of the water. Something in nature causes the water to get a little deeper and those birds with a little shorter legs are forced to move elsewhere to survive. This effectively removes them from the gene pool leaving only those longer legged birds, reinforcing even longer legs. In time the water rises again and again the shorties of the long legged group have to leave, strengthening the long legged gene even further, eventually resulting in a distinctly different bird of the same species.”
“Bubba, are you saying this is true with humans also?”
“Brother Elbert, I’m saying it’s as obvious to me as the nose on your face! Have you ever wondered why it’s so long and skinny? Your ancestors more than likely evolved in a cold dry climate where having a long skinny nose moistened and warmed the air before you breathed it in giving you a respiratory health advantage to survive lots of colds and pneumonias over a broader shorter one used in moist warm climates. This would evoke The Darwinian Imperative that I’ve been describing to you.”
“What about skin color?”
“That’s easy. It’s simply a protective reaction from harsh sun or no reaction from little sun.”
Bubba pulled in his line and replaced the sardine something had stolen from the hook. A Brown Pelican standing on the dock cocked his yellow head to eye him closely hoping Bubba might get sloppy with the bait.
“OK Bubba, that all sounds very logical but I haven’t forgotten you said you could explain the war in Europe and how Belize couldn’t have those kinds of problems from what you know about birds.”
“Well, let’s go back to those short legged birds that had to move from the swamp. Let’s say for the sake of example, the new shallower swamp they moved to contained shrimp. The birds eat shrimp which can make astaxanthin from the simpler carotenoids contained in the algae on which they feed. In bottom feeding birds these pigments dissolve in fats and are deposited in the growing feathers making them pink. Imagine then, that some act of nature causes the two swamps to become one big swamp mixing the two, now very distinctly different flocks of the same species in a common feeding ground, one with extra long legs and gray, the other short with pink feathers. They might not recognize one another as the same species and fight to defend their feeding ground, mistakenly from their own kind.”
“Bubba you do amaze me! But what about Belize and how it could never happen here?”
“Well, in Belize we have Spanish, Mestizos, Creoles, Garifuna, Mayan, Mennonites, Arabs, East Indian, British, Mopan, Gringos, Ketchi and Yucatec all living in a 6000 square mile area. And for hundreds of years we have been mixing like a box of crayons in the Caribbean sun, creating no majority and no minority. Who’s going to throw a stone at whom?”
Suddenly Bubba’s fishing pole bent violently with a strike. After a short fight he reeled a large fish onto the dock.
“What’s that Bubba?”
He replied, “Epinephelus, Mycteroperca of the superclass Pisces, in the family of Sea Bass, commonly known as a Black Grouper.”
I said, “Bubba, your taking this classification stuff all too serious, let’s clean him and eat!”