Taxonomy is a tricky subject. There are many ways to classify things, and all of them are valid in their own way. In the animal kingdom, organisms were historically classified by phenotype – how they look. This was fairly effective… it showed us that apes were related to each other more than they were related to monkeys, and they were related to monkeys more than bears, etc.
I was surprised to learn recently that pandas are actually bears again. Phenotypically, they look like bears, and some people still call them “panda bears.” When I studied them in high school in the 80’s, we were taught that this phenotypic classification was wrong, and that they’re actually more closely related to raccoons. However, more recent testing has shown that the original idea was actually correct! The panda didn’t change, but we learned more about them and discovered that they shared a lot more genes with the bear family than we suspected.
It would be easy to look at this and say, “Wow, science sure gets things wrong a lot.” And if you said that, you’d be right. And that’s a wonderful thing. Science IS wrong a lot. Science isn't a set of facts, it's a process, and that process self-corrects. New evidence or a better analysis of existing evidence will lead to better supported conclusions. And every time that happens, we've gained a bit more knowledge.
There was a recent case of “science being wrong” that’s a little trickier. Three deep-sea fish that few people ever see: the bignose fish, the whalefish, and the tapetails (including hairyfish) were studied. Fanciful names to be sure… names based on what the animals look like. Each was classified very differently and none was closely related to the other, which seems to make sense. Specimens have existed in museums and labs for years, and no one questioned their place in the taxonomical tree beause it seemed reasonable.
Actually, they’re all the same fish. A bignose fish is a male whalefish, and the tapetails and hairyfish are the larvae.
How could the scientists have missed this? Easily. These fish are rare, and very hard to observe in the wild. It would be very difficult to watch one of these fish complete its lifecycle. However, more studying revealed more information, and voila! We have a more complete picture. I know of no other “belief system” that offers as much.
There is a great article on Science News that explains more about the fish.
We’re the first people to ever understand that these three animals are actually the same species. It may not be much, but only science can give that to us.
We also have a new resource to help us figure out these mysteries. When Randi and I were at TED 2007, we (and about 100 others) had lunch with E. O. Wilson to discuss how he could set up a database of every living thing on the planet. Two years later, and the page is live, at www.eol.org. This is just the very begining – only a fraction of a percent of all living things are there – but imagine where this will be 100 years from now. Hopefully, we'll be correcting the mistakes we're making today.