The natural world doesn't come with names attached.
Look up at the full moon. Do you see a label on it, "moon"? (Leaving aside the question of what language that word would be written in.)
Both religion and science make the mistake of confusing human thoughts about what is real with reality itself. Religions make the most egregious errors, of course, since they intellectualize about entities -- God, heaven, angels, and such -- that can't be shown to even exist.
Scientists, though, can also forget that nature is flowingly continuous, not discretely categorized.
This morning I read the "Missing Persons? Missing No Longer" chapter in Richard Dawkins' marvelous book about why evolution is true, The Greatest Show on Earth. It contains lessons for both the churchless and churched.
Namely, that when we divide things into categories (such as good/bad) we shouldn't forget that the divisions fade away the closer we look at details.
We humans are members of the species Homo sapiens. "Homo" is a genus; "sapiens" a species within the genus. Neanderthals, says Dawkins, sometimes are called Homo neanderthalsis (a different species within the genus "Homo") and sometimes Homo sapiens neanderthalsis (a subspecies of us).
Whatever, Neanderthals are what they are -- or were: part of a continuous process of evolution where small, barely noticeable changes accumulate over time. Dawkins says:
I wish we really did have a complete and unbroken trail of fossils, a cinematic record of all evolutionary change as it happened. I wish it, not least because I'd love to see the egg all over the faces of those zoologists and anthropologists who engage in lifelong feuds with each other over whether such and such a fossil belongs to this species or that, this genus or that. Gentlemen -- I wonder why it never seems to be ladies -- you are arguing about words, not reality.
The reason is that if we could see each of our ancestors, if I could follow my family tree far back into prehistory and beyond, there never would be a time when I could point to a particular animal (yes, we humans are animals) and confidently categorize it as the first member of a certain species.
As we trace the history of modern Homo sapiens backwards, there must come a time when the difference from living people is sufficiently great to deserve a specific name, say Homo ergaster. Yet, every step of the way, individuals were presumably sufficiently similar to their parents and their children to be placed in the same species.
Beautiful! A scientific koan: how can things that are always the same be so different?
Think about the first specimen of Homo habilis to be born. Her parents were Australopithecus. She belonged to a different genus from her parents? That's just dopey! Yes, it certainly is. But it is not reality that's at fault, it's our human insistence on shoving everything into a named category.
In reality, there was no first specimen of any species or any genus or any order of any class or any phylum. Every creature that has ever been born would have been classified -- had there been a zoologist around to do the classifying -- as belonging to exactly the same species as its parents and its children.
Yet, with the hindsight of modernity, and with the benefits -- yes, in this one paradoxical sense benefit -- of the fact that most of the links are missing, classifications into distinct species, genera, families, orders, classes and phyla becomes possible.
Interesting. Think about it.
Dawkins is reminding us that if we could see the entire course of evolution, every detail, it would be impossible to cleanly divide the history of life on Earth into familiar categories. Plants and animals. Reptiles and mammals. People and apes. Whatever.
Because we'd realize that there never were any clear distinctions between any entities lying next to each other on an evolutionary path.
Run the movie of evolution backward along any series of branches on the tree of life and you'd be watching slow, silky-smooth transitions, not rapid, jerky poppings into existence. No Hey, look! I just saw a giraffe!
I found this chapter of Dawkins' book inspiring. And moving. I love to ponder my connections with everything alive. He says:
Relatively recently, perhaps less than 100,000 years ago, roving bands of Homo sapiens looking pretty much like us left Africa and diversified into all the races that we see around the world today: Inuit, native Americans, native Australians, Chinese, and so on.
Yet we forget that we're related to every human on Earth, and indeed every creature -- bacteria included -- living today. There are no genuine divisions in nature, only in our categorizing minds.