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© Trustees of the Natural History Museum

The absurdity of natural history – or, why humans are ‘fish’

The human desire to classify is perhaps at its strongest when it comes to natural history. From our childhood years we are taught to put the animals we encounter in museums, living rooms and the natural environment into discrete categories. At school and on television we are taught the differences between groups like amphibians and fish.

But the way we organise information about the natural world – the separate exhibition rooms, the glass cases, the taxonomic categories – are arguably at odds with the blurred edges and continuous variation of real nature. These human ways of encountering, standardising and talking about nature are the subject of a new exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection. Rather than being an exhibition of natural history, Making Nature: How we see animals is an exhibition about natural history. It explores how we engage with and try to make sense of the natural world.

Adam naming the animals. © Wellcome Library, London

The world is an endless purveyor of wonders too numerable to memorise – to make sense of the 1.2m species so far described (and there may be 100m undescribed species), natural historians have to come up with a system for arranging them and information about them.

This proved tricky until 1735, when Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus proposed a system for putting species into hierarchical groups, and it stuck. In today’s terms, a rat can be a rat, a rodent, a mammal, a vertebrate and an animal all at once. Such taxonomic thinking is really important for how we understand the world and our place in it, as each of these terms come with implicit information about how they relate to other groups. It neatly puts the world into boxes.

Carl Linnaeus Systema Naturae, 1735. © Royal Society

Although it certainly wasn’t Linnaeus’ intention (he believed that studying nature would reveal the divine order of God’s creation), hierarchical taxonomies tell us a lot about an animal’s evolutionary history as by their nature they show what came from what. This information is real and truthful, but as is often said, a bee doesn’t care that it is a bee. Taxonomy is a rigid human construct that is forced on top of the cacophonous uncertainty of the real wild world.

One of the central tenets of modern taxonomy is that every group has to include, by definition, all of the groups that evolve from it. So rats did not stop being mammals when the rodent group branched off the evolutionary tree. Every branch on the tree of life is considered to be a member of all its parent branches.

This means, for example, there can be no definition of fish that does not include everything that evolved from fish. Following this logic you could argue that as amphibians evolved from fish, amphibians are fish. Mammals evolved from animals that evolved from amphibians, so mammals are fish. We are fish. While every biologist knows this conundrum, and that there is no biological definition for what most people consider “fish”, they decide not to worry about it because it’s helpful to think about living swimming “fish” as a group. Taxonomy is useful and makes a lot of sense, until it doesn’t.

Meet a relation. By permission of the Linnean Society of London

I manage the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London. As a collection founded to teach evolutionary principles in 1828 (31 years before Darwin published on the topic), the skeletons in the Grant Museum have always been arranged taxonomically. It’s an unnatural way of presenting them because although they belong to the same mammalian order, lions would never be seen with walruses outside of a museum.

In placing them together we focus on one aspect of the way we see them: through an evolutionary lens. But in so doing we strip these species of a lot of their essence of being. Yes, lions and walruses are both meat-eaters (one eats other mammals and one eats clams), and yes they have some shared anatomy resulting from their shared ancestry, but what does that really tell us about them? In the museum they stop being wild animals and become static artefacts arranged in our chosen human system. It is an exercise in both comprehension and control.

Dinosaur and other extinct animal models of varying accuracy. © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology

And it’s easy to picture animal specimens in a museum as truthful representatives of their species – skeletons are wired together and taxidermy is stretched into position by people, after all. Such constructions come full of the biases and misunderstandings, and sometimes political motivations, of the people that preserved and commissioned them. By putting a snarling expression on a taxidermy tiger or fox – as was a common Victorian trend – the museum presents the animal as a ferocious beast. Such decisions may be a poor representation of the animals’ temperament in life.

And “real” museum specimens with anatomical inaccuracies are common. The extent to which the famous Horniman walrus was overstuffed is a marvel in upholstery – the taxidermist didn’t realise walruses are wrinkly. In the Grant Museum we have a taxidermy echidna – a spiny relative of the platypus – with legs that have been twisted 180° until they ripped, because the taxidermist didn’t think it likely that animals could have feet that point backwards. In life, echidna feet are adapted to vertical digging, and point to the rear.

The wrong-footed echidna. © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology

Natural history museums are an essential route for many people to be inspired by the natural world. Most zoologists – myself included – would attribute at least some of their “calling” to time spent in museums. And museums are wonderful – often deliberately founded and constantly striving to engage people in the natural world. But sometimes it’s easy to forget that natural history is inherently unnatural.

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