Hybrids: On this BBC In Our time podcast episode called “Hybrids”

I was drawn to write about this episode because it magnificently demonstrates the fluidity of Nature and our perennial attempts to ‘carve at her joints.’ Starting with the Swedish botanist and modern taxonomist, Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778), we have a system for separating and naming Eden. From the Onto-Theological view that Christianity confers on the Western mind, Creation is of course derived from the Creator and is hierarchically organized beneath God’s pre-eminent creature. Inherent in classification therefore, is an aesthetic and ethical impulse to order and rank. What Linnaeus did for non-human species, he also attempted for humankind thus begetting the scientific enterprise for the validation of biological races. The problem? Nature does not bend at the lines we draw between our concepts of races, species, and hybrids.

Everywhere you try to categorically hammer out definitions, problems arise. Species have a diversity of looks and traits, may breed with other species (i.e., hybridization), change over time, and exhibit tremendous genetic diversity. And the problems get worse as the lines that hold are subject to scrutiny and logic. For example, would diabetic humans be a different species or subspecies? Those with cerebral palsy or who share a highly heritable condition like hemophilia? When is a species granted its own status as such versus being a genetic cast-off? Science may answer here that this occurs when ‘parental’ interbreeding no longer occurs—but again, what is the appropriate ratio or length of time for making this determination? Were pre-colonial island nations populated by different species of people? Was their speciation revoked? Even the genotypes by which modern biology attempts to understand species tends to run afoul, especially when we consider the genes shared between domestic species of dogs and horses with their wild counterparts. As we should now know, the biological theories of race have been thoroughly discredited. The desire to label, classify and order have undergirded and justified many oppressive regimes ranging from genocide to slavery to fascism to eugenics.

Perhaps like semiotics and signs, there is a somewhat associative but fairly arbitrary and fluid relation. As one of the guest speakers on the podcast notes, nature may be a ‘lumpy carpet’ where we bunch together those that we decide share a status by virtues of time, place or politics. This is where the concept of species or race blurs further into the nebulous territories of ethnicities and cultures.

That is not to say that the speciation enterprise is not without its virtues. It has led to breakthroughs in genetic understanding, research and production. As another guest noted, we are able to feed our world only through the deliberate hybridization and preservation of ‘special’ lines. Conservationists depend on the language of ‘species’ to advance public and governmental interest in protective environmental efforts.

And yet, there is perhaps still one other gravely darker undertone. If we cannot justify a species in its own self-contained, conceptual terms—how can we justify its existence (and the existence of its environment?)—especially when weighed against the projects of industrialization, agricultural development and resource extraction? On what moral grounds are we justified in defending the rights of ‘species’ that may not even be said to properly exist? Are the grounds they are standing on even morally or scientifically sound?

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