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By Jim Lee 

Scientific names could be simplified


Guess what? I’m confused.

That’s no big surprise to anybody who has been reading this column awhile. What am I confused about this time? Well, I recently heard that humans and chimpanzees have been placed in the same genus. How in the world does anybody decide a thing like that? I’ve been accused of having some relatives oddly suited to swinging through trees, but this is going a bit far.

Every kind of life, animal or plant, has a scientific name, and that official name is actually two names: the genus and the species.

For some reason or other, the genus is capitalized while the species is not. That makes a human a Homo sapiens.

OK, most of us know that. But now it starts getting complicated.

Some scientist types say a human is a Homo sapiens sapiens because of also getting put in a subspecies. If we have to have a subspecies, why call it the same name as the species? Why do we have to say the word twice at a time? I’m no scientist, but it sure makes no sense to me.

Now let’s complicate things a little more, shall we?

Every plant and animal has only one scientific name, but I have seen three for the chimpanzee: Pan troglodytes, Anthropopithecus troglodytes, and Simia satyrus.

On top of that, the ape family is called pongidae, except the orangutan which is called a pongo.

Now pongo means anthropoid ape. Chimpanzees and gorillas are called anthropoid apes, but pongos are exclusively orangutans.

Who knows where gibbons fit into all this? Gibbons are apes, but are they pongos, bongos, or hoop-de-doos? Is pongo a flavor of pongidae?

As if this isn’t enough, what about this business of lumping chimps and people into the same genus? What are we supposed to call this category?

Our present genus, Homo, means man. I guess that makes sense. The genus of a chimp can be Pan (some ancient forest god), Anthropopithecus (man-ape) or Simia (ape).

What can we do with that? Should we start a new genus and call it Homopithecus? Pandowdy? Monkeyuncleus?

I guess things are just not complicated enough, in spite of all this classification confusion. Does somebody’s job depend on keeping people like me all mixed up?

Enough of making the world more complicated. Complexity happens on its own. It doesn’t need any help. Trying to get simple is where stuff gets difficult.

Maybe the president should create a new cabinet department and appoint a Secretary of Simplification — either that or a home for the hopelessly confused.

By the way, there’s another type of ape (called a bonobo) that is closer to humans than chimpanzees. What about that genus? Is there some place with a genus genius, or is everybody just a chimp chump?

I think I’ll go shoot the Easter Bunny.

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail:

[email protected]


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