Friday, November 11, 2011

"Behold the Tyrannosaurus and his rival, the Triceratops!" Scientific Grammar for the 21st Century

A gorilla is a type of primate. The gorilla is a primate. Gorilla is a primate. Gorilla gorilla is a primate. Hominidae is a group of primates. We use such oddly varying ways of talking about taxa. Image by Pierre Fidenci, licensed.

Recently, an illustration of an Allosaurus was selected as an upcoming picture of the day at Wikipedia. Before going live, the POTD folks asked the article editors to suggest improvements to the caption they had written (based on the text already in the Allosaurus article, which is a featured article at Wikipedia and thus thoroughly checked for errors). Here is the original caption written by the POTD editors:

"An artist's rendition of the gape of an Allosaurus species of dinosaur, based on the research of paleontologist Robert T. Bakker. Allosaurus was an active predator of large animals, and had the ability to open its jaws extremely wide. Studies suggest that it used its skull like a hatchet against prey, attacking open-mouthed, slashing flesh with its teeth, and tearing it away without splintering bones."

The obvious error there is that it describes Allosaurus as a "species of dinosaur" when it is in fact a genus. So, just change the first sentence to "An artist's rendition of the dinosaur genus Allosaurus" and it's fixed, right? Pretty much any science writer or paleontologist you talk to would say yes. The following was proposed as a correction:

"An artist's rendition of the dinosaur genus, Allosaurus, with it's jaws open fully, based on the research of paleontologist Robert T. Bakker. Allosaurus was an active predator of large animals, and probably had the ability to open its jaws extremely wide. Studies suggest that it used its skull like a hatchet against prey, attacking open-mouthed, slashing flesh with its teeth, and tearing it away without splintering bones."

But isn't there a problem with referring to a genus in the singular that way? Though many dinosaur genera are monotypic, a "genus" is still technically a group of animals, no different from a "family" or an "order." Let's re-write the same caption, but replace Allosaurus with Allosauridae:


"An artist's rendition of the dinosaur family, Allosauridae, with it's jaws open fully, based on the research of paleontologist Robert T. Bakker. Allosauridae was an active predator of large animals, and probably had the ability to open its jaws extremely wide. Studies suggest that it used its skull like a hatchet against prey, attacking open-mouthed, slashing flesh with its teeth, and tearing it away without splintering bones."

This caption obviously makes little grammatical sense, because we  intuitively recognize that the family Allosauridae is collective (despite the fact that, like the genus Allosaurus, it is usually thought to contain only one species). But the genus Allosaurus is also collective, and for that matter, the species Allosaurus fragillis is a collection of populations and individuals.

But these strange constructions are nearly universal in science writing, including (especially) formal science writing. In a way, this is a bit of an archaism. Think of the archaic-sounding phrasing in some old children's books, like "Tyrannosaurus: he was the king of the dinosaurs! His mortal enemy was Triceratops." Referring to an entire genus as a "he" ties into the anthropomorphic "roles" we assign dinosaurs ("Tyrannosaurus: he's a bad guy. Triceratops: he's a good guy). Mark Witton has previously written about this effect here. Similarly, referring to genera or even species in the singular places them in the same league as Godzilla: single, towering, fantastical monsters, rather than categories of normal animals.

Referring to an animal as "the this" or "the that" is a another archaism."The Tyrannosaurus was the dominant predator of his time." "The gorilla is the largest living primate." This is more correct than some of the other examples, but also strikes me as stodgy and archaic. Here's a quote from a 1985 paper: "The gorilla is more closely related to man than the chimpanzee is". Wouldn't "gorillas are more closely related to humans than chimpanzees are" seem more suited to the 21st (or even 20th) Century?

But Tyrannosaurus is not that animals' name. It's the name of that animals' genus, the group which contains it.That animal is "a" Tyrannosaurus, it is not the genus Tyrannosaurus itself. Alternately, it is "a tyrannosaur", but it is not simply "tyrannosaur." Using lowercase "common names" is one easy solution, but one that can create a different kind of confusion. Is a "tyrannosaur" a Tyrannosaurus or any tyrannosaurid? Is Daspletosaurus a genus of tyrannosaur? This isn't a perfect example because there's no group named "Tyrannosauria", at least not yet. But think of how we use "dinosaur" instead of "dinosaurian", when it could just as easily be referring to the genus Dinosaurus. One solution would be to use such common names the way we do for living animals: common name followed by clarification. "This is a picture of a tyrannosaur (Tyrannosaurus rex)." "That is a picture of a tyrannosaur (Daspletosaurus torosus)."

Here's my take on the example caption, using a more precise way of conveying the same ideas:

"An artist's rendition of an Allosaurus fragilis with it's jaws open fully, based on the research of paleontologist Robert T. Bakker. Allosaurus were active predators of large animals, and probably had the ability to open their jaws extremely wide. Studies suggest that they used their skulls like hatchets against prey, attacking open-mouthed, slashing flesh with their teeth, and tearing it away without splintering bones."

"An" Allosaurus fragilis: it is an image depicting a member of that species, not an image of the "species" itself. Allosaurus "were" active predators, pleural, because Allosaurus is a grouping of dinosaurs. In my opinion, these slight changes in phrasing give a much more naturalistic feel to the description. It's clear that we're talking about a type of animal in the real world, not enumerating the abilities of an individual Pokemon character.

Isn't it time we put some more thought into how we write about taxa? I think we should be trying to frame dinosaurs as parts of nature, not exceptions to it. Would it be helpful to change the way we talk about taxa, or is the existing method too entrenched and well-understood by those who will obviously know what you're talking about to bother?

4 comments:

  1. Héctor Gómez de SilvaNovember 11, 2011 at 7:28 PM

    Other problems with the caption, though far less interesting, are that "it´s" in the first sentence should be replaced with "its" (no apostrophe), and maybe that "wide" should be replaced with "widely" (not sure about that one).
    Saludos
    Héctor Gómez de Silva

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  2. There is considerable irony that a (presumably) non-native speaker of English has to yet again teach Americans how to speak "real proper". This is not about regional differences, it is simply incorrect to use an adjective in place of an adverb.

    It should definitely be "widely" as it is an adverb (describes a verb, in this case the manner in which the mouth is opened). "Wide" is an adjective which is used to describe a noun such as if Allosaurus fragillis possessed a wide mouth.

    The issues that Matt raises are not restricted to extinct animals. It is still common to read/hear things like "The lion is king of his domain", "The peregrine falcon is the fastest bird", or "The elephant is the largest animal" (which is three species in two genera).

    It also bugs me to still read things such as "Diplodocus was 87½ feet long." So someone has run a tape measure over one composite skeleton of one species of Diplodocus and that is now the length of all members of that genus, down to the last six inches.

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  3. Damn, Héctor Gómez de Silva got there first regarding 'it's' and 'its'... ;)

    There is a huge problem, as you say, with people confusing genera and species, especially as most nonavian dinosaur genera are monotypic - and therefore the assumption tends to be made that they all are, which of course isn't the case. As Mark Robinson said, Diplodocus contains multiple species of varying sizes, so declaring every member of the genus to be a certain size is simply inaccurate.

    It might be a bit clunky, but maybe "an Allosaurus fragilis individual", or something along those lines, would be suitable to avoid confusion?

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  4. Great post, Matt. I try my best to avoid these problems when writing about taxa, clades, etc., but know I still stumble all the time. I'll certainly be more careful now that I know you're watching...

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