Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cross-post: Adventures in Taxonomy!

One of the unwritten problems with Tabula Rasa was that I kept wanting to interject little bits of the supernatural, but the whole blessed point was that the world was completely mundane.  So I sloughed them off to another story I had been thinking of which was legitimately about the supernatural.  Eventually, I had so many fragments and ideas shoved over there, it started becoming a story in its own right.  I know a story's good when characters I give placeholder names get names of their own - I'm famously bad at naming things, you see - and now I've got so much that I can't not write it.

First, though, I have a bit to write about silk for 101 Interesting Things.  And before that, I've got this humorous little bit that I pulled off from my Playskool blog.  The bit about the Wheel of Death waxes fantastical, but the rest of this is a real conversation that I really had in real life.  No joke, it's almost literally word-for-word, because I wrote it all down right after it happened (and, when I went wiki-walking, even jotted down notes on the story so far).  Anyway, enjoy!

"There are only three things in the sea:  fish, amphibians, and mammals.  OK, maybe a couple plants."

I stood up and looked around.  Somebody in the call center was wrong!  I recognized the voice - Harrison, the thirty-something recovering WoW addict who didn't have a car, and not by choice like me.  In the name of science, education, and good old-fashioned argumentation, I simply could not let this mistake go uncorrected.

Harrison walked off toward the break room.  I tailed him, staying just out of his sight.  I caught up to him by the Wheel of Death, just as the wretched machinery was grinding into motion.

"Harrison," I called out, slowing my approach.  "What's that you said about the sea?"

"Oh, hey D."  Harrison was nonchalant, entranced by the Wheel's infernal contents.  "Yeah, you heard that?"

"You're damn right, I did.  What about molluscs?"

"What the Hell's a mollusc?"  I could tell I had my work cut out for me.

"Clams, mussels, octopi - these are all molluscs."

"They're fish," he said, drawing out each syllable in dismissal as he leaned back in his stance.  "They come from the sea and I eat them."

"Seafood, yes, but not fish.  They're different.  Also, what about crabs?"

"Also fish," he said, putting money into the machine.  I had to act fast.

"No way," I said, "They're totally arthropods!  They're more like spiders than they are like fish."

"Yeah, except they're spiders of the sea.  And since they're 'of the sea,' that makes 'em fish."  He looked back to the Wheel.  I was running out of time.

"Seriously, dude, they're classified differently for a reason, and that reason is because in a lot of significant ways, they're different from fish and more like other things.  Not.  Fish."  He looked back at me.  I was buying time.  "For one thing, fish are vertebrates - they have backbones.  Crabs, clams, they don't have any bones at all."

"What are you talking about?  How about a clam's shell?"  Harrison folded his arms across his chest.  I was gaining ground.

"That's not a bone, and moreover, it doesn't constitute an internal skeleton, which is what makes vertebrates vertebrates."

"Well, a crab's got bones."

"No, it doesn't!"

"Sure it does!  I have eaten crab, and I came up with hard parts.  What do you call that?"

"That's an exoskeleton, it's like a shell and not an internal bone.  Crabs don't have internal bones."

"Doesn't matter, it's still a fish."

"I'm telling you, all fish are vertebrates.  Since clams and crabs are not vertebrates, they can't be fish.  This is how our taxonomy works."

"OK, so what are they, like, at the top, then?"  I was taken aback.  Harrison, in my moment of hesitation, turned back to gaze at his doom through a plastic window.

"What do you mean, 'at the top'?"

"Y'know, you got your species, your classes, your kingdoms - what are they at the top?"  His eyes stayed fixed upon the cold light from inside the Wheel.

"I don't see what that has to do with anything."  I was confused, unsure how to proceed.  Where was he going with this?

"I just wanna know, OK?  I'm curious.  I want to learn, it has to do with - " his voice was drowned out as the machine opened.  All was overwhelming brightness and deafening screams.  I had failed.  All I could do now was try to salvage what I could from the wreckage.  "Tell you what," Harrison said, jabbing a frozen burrito into my clavicle, "You go get on your internets, and you find out where fish, clams, and crabs all fall into the greater scheme of things from the top down, and then we'll have us a proper conversation."

Eyes narrowed, I watched him walk toward the microwave.  I could do no more for him at this time.  I had to be patient - I had to prepare.

I returned to my desk.  Solitude.  Isolation.  Wikipedia.  I had work to do.  Fingers tapping wildly, eyes scanning entire lines at once, screen flickering in the dim fluorescence, I found what I sought.  Quickly, I began to scribble my findings on a Post-It.

"Hey, Stabbage, can you come look at this?"

Curses!  I had been interrupted.  But my space pirate sister had called to me by my Old Name, and I could do nothing but accede to her request.  Harrison and his pseudo-pfood would have to wait, for I had duties to honor and yadda yadda yadda.

OK, where was I?  Right!  I finished my preparations and brought with me the two Post-It notes upon which my very life would soon depend.

"Harrison," I called out, nearing his desk, my heart racing.

"Oh, hey D.  You get that sorted out?"

"You're damn right, I did!"

"OK, lay it on me.  What kingdom are crabs in?"  I sat down and placed my Post-It notes on his desk.

"Animalia.  And so, for that matter, are fish, clams, humans, birds, and all other animals, too."

"You mean to tell me all the animals are in one kingdom?  OK, how many are there?"

"Six, I said, taking his anthropocentrism for granted, "Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaea, and Eubacteria."

"Fungi are plants," he exclaimed in disbelief.

"No, they're not," I corrected him in vain.

"I can put it on a pizza.  It's a plant."

"So cows, pigs, and chickens are plants now?"

"No," Brian said, stammering, "But they're animals.  Animals and plants go on pizza."

"So is cheese an animal or a plant, then?"  I crossed my arms and stared menacingly at him.  He withstood my gaze for several seconds before caving in.

"It's a processed animal product.  It comes from animals, just like tomato sauce comes from plants even though it's not a plant itself.  Also, you are really easy to sidetrack."

"Yeah, I know, but fungi are in a different kingdom from plants.  Anyway," I continued - but I was cut off.

"Fungi are plants.  End of story."

"Look, one thing at a time.  OK, so we've got these kingdoms."

"Wait, how are bacteria a kingdom?  They're hardly even life!"

"But they are alive."

"If it can't help tie down Gulliver, it's not alive."

"Dude, what the Hell?"  This was going downhill fast, but I had come too far to turn back.  Too far, by far.

"Bacteria can't help tie down Gulliver.  They're not alive."

"Seriously, your taxonomy is fundamentally fucked up."

"Au contraire, I think it's rather useful, myself."

"Yeah, well, every scientist everywhere disagrees with you, and taxonomy is a language game that depends upon intersubjective linguistic convention, so you're wrong."

"I don't know what half that meant, but this shit makes no sense, so they're wrong."

"I'm gonna fuckin' stab you.  Anyway," I continued, "All animals are in the kingdom Animalia, that's how it works."

"So there's no kingdom for fish?"


"I see.  All right, what's below kingdom, then?"

"Phylum is next, and there are several phyla and there are a bunch of ways to organize them all, but here are the important ones:  Arthropoda, Mollusca, and Chordata."  I was starting to gain ground again.

"All right, what's in Arthropoda?  You got spiders and crabs written down here.  What about insects?"

"Yes, they are also arthropods."

"Why didn't you write them down, then?"

"Because I'm not writing every fuckin' thing that's in there!  Phyla are huge, dude!"

"Fine, whatever.  And these are those molluscs you were talking about?"


"OK, and Chordata, gotcha.  All right, so where do fish go?"

"Fish are chordates, because all vertebrates go into the phylum of Chordata, and fish are vertebrates."

"So you're saying that everything with a spine goes into one phylum?  That seems kinda lopsided."

"First, yes.  Second, there are also several invertebrates that are under Chordata as well, and third, lots of things don't have spines."

"Are you counting bacteria again?"

"Even without bacteria," I said in exasperation.  "There are lots of spineless animals."

"Well, this is plainly wrong.  You've got octopi here under arthropods, but they're clearly fish, so there has to be some crossover."

"No, you're just not up on your biology.  Octopi, clams, and crabs are sea-dwelling life that aren't fish, now get with it."

"Who catches crabs?"



"No, fishermen catch crabs.  They're fish."

"That's not how it works!"

"If you fish for it, then it must be a fish.  Why else would they call them fishermen?"

"Because," I began matter-of-factly, "Our occupational terms and our scientific terms are not compiled for consistency.  But taxonomy belongs firmly in the realm of science, and does not depend on anyone's job description."

"Look, here's my science:  what do you breathe?  You breathe water?  You're a fish.  You, guy:  how about you?  Air, huh?  Weren't you just breathing water?  'Oh, I breathe that, too.'  OK, you're an amphibian.  And you, dolphin, what do you breathe?  'Well, I breathe air, and then I hold my breath really long.'  OK, you're a mammal."

"Your science sucks," I replied.  "I'm gonna kill your house and burn down your family."

"Your science sucks because it is confusing and, might I add, violent."

"I'm getting out of here, I can feel my IQ falling by the minute."

With that, I left the shrieking insanity behind me.  Harrison had already fallen to the microwave burrito - there was no saving him now, and I had to accept that.


Adam Lee said...

Hmm. I don't know if I get it: what was the Wheel of Death?

Anonymous said...

Unless I'm totally wrong, it's a refrigerated vending machine with a carousel that you can spin in either direction to see what "food" selections are avaiable. There is one at my work. I have never used it.

D said...

Orandat's got it. Google Image Search for "wheel of death vending machine" (no quotes, though):,mod%3D19&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=2ChVUKvWAsLurQH3uIHwCw&biw=1600&bih=795&sei=3ihVUPSHKsfJrQHrrYGoDw

That's what it looks like. The interior is a tower of wheels that spin around to present various food-like substances to the door.

Sometimes, they put fresh fruit in there, like bananas and oranges. That's the only time I've ever used it.