Whether or not you remember anything from high school biology, the word “species” seems fairly self-explanatory: a kitten isn’t the same thing as a crab. Yet what distinguishes a particular species from its subspecies is a far trickier determination to make than “cat ? crustacean.” The act of taxonomic classification has befuddled biologists regardless of specialization or era. “I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience,” wrote Charles Darwin. In the May issue of Harper’s Magazine, Zach St. George tracks the saga of the California gnatcatcher, a gray bird that sits at the center of a dispute between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which decides which species merit Endangered Species Act protection, and the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian law firm arguing that the bird is functionally indistinct from any number of other gnatcatchers. Even if Pacific Legal’s motives are less than purely scientific, its case highlights legitimate criticisms—echoed by many biologists—about the imprecise way the Endangered Species Act codifies what counts as a species. St. George explains how this argument has led to further questions about the bill, such as how it might be changed to better suit an era in which the environment is deteriorating faster than ever.
In this episode of the podcast, Harper’s web editor Violet Lucca talks with St. George about the ESA, the philosophical and scientific questions prompted by the practice of taxonomy, and the more proactive ways we might approach the likely irreversible damage of climate change.