For Once, the Atheists at Peaceful Science Don’t Sound Fishy to Me

I am second to none as an admirer of Jon’s recent columns on COVID, European and world politics, and the role of the Christians in challenging the direction in which the world is heading. And I hope to eventually write some columns on these grave topics myself. But I think that every now and then, to balance out such gravity, we need some levity, and I’m offering this mainly in that spirit — though there will be a serious point as well.

Over on Peaceful Science, from which Jon has lately (and wisely) largely absented himself, but which I have (unwisely) recently visited again, a debate has been raging over what counts as “fish.” Yes, that’s right, fish. “What?” you say? “How could anyone find ‘fish’ difficult to understand? Haddock, cod, sole, tuna, sturgeon, mackerel — don’t we all know what fish are?”

The question is sensible, but at Peaceful Science, where hair-splitting reigns supreme, scientific pedantry can sustain a quarrel over a common-sense matter for a seemingly infinite number of posts. This quarrel began when John Harshman, responding to the conventional assertion that a whale is not a fish, replied with:

“They’re a type of fish because they belong to Sarcopterygii, Osteichthyes, and Craniata.” (post #33)

That’s quite a mouthful. But it can be simplified, for our purposes here: the key term is Osteichthyes. Now, that word is from Greek roots meaning “bony fish(es)”. In the older classification system, Osteichthyes referred to one of seven classes of Vertebrata (vertebrates), those classes being Mammalia, the mammals, Reptilia, the reptiles, Aves, the birds, Amphibia, the amphibians, Osteichthyes (the bony fish), Chondrichthyes (the cartilaginous fish: sharks, rays, etc.), and Agnatha (the jawless fish: hagfish, lampreys and such). In that system, it was obviously dead wrong to say that whales were fish of any kind; whales were mammals, and that was that.

But John Harshman has a Ph.D. in Phylogenetics, and he’s not stupid, so what he could he have meant by his apparent error? It turns out that in order to know what he meant, you have to understand the newer, “cladistic” classification system, which didn’t become de rigueur until after I had finished my science education, which is why I didn’t clue in right away. In the new system, which is arranged in accord with putative evolutionary relationships, Osteichthyes is no longer a class; it’s a “clade”, and the “clade” comprises not only the bony fish, but all lines believed to be descended from them, including all the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals (the last including us).

So when Harshman said that whales were “fish”, he was appealing to the fact that they belong to the clade Osteichthyes; and since that term for the top group in the clade originally referred to the “bony fish”, one might say that whales, as the distant descendants of the top group, are “fish.”

But this is seriously misleading, because, whatever the etymological origin of Osteichthyes, in the cladistic reckoning it no longer refers only to “fish” as that word was previously understood by both scientists and laymen alike. In cladistic thinking, it refers to a large group that includes five of the seven distinct classes of vertebrates, and of those five classes, only one was ever said to consist of “fish”.

By the logic employed by Harshman, one would have to say that not only whales but other mammals are fish, for example, a giraffe would be a fish. And a rabbit. For that matter, reptiles, amphibians and birds would all be fish, too.

It would only bore readers here if I were to go through the details of the storm of hostile responses I received from Harshman and from the usual (mostly atheist) hunting hounds at PS, led by Faizal Ali, over several days now, as a result of pointing out the problem of an overly broad new meaning for “fish”. There was of course all the usual ad hominem stuff (e.g., you’re not a biologist like Harshman, so how can you dare to disagree with him?), but in addition to that, there emerged a consensus answer to my protest, and it was yes, whales are fish, and humans are fish, and so are all those other animals, because they are all Osteichthyes. The implied syllogism runs:

Premise 1: All Osteichthyes are fish.

Premise 2: All whales are Osteichthyes.

Conclusion: All whales are fish.

But of course, Premise 1 was never established. And of course, it’s false. All Osteichthyes are not fish, not in any normal understanding of that word in usual English discourse.

If all Osteichthyes are fish, then the term “fish” would lose all usefulness. How would one translate the creations of the fifth day in Genesis? That God created the fish to swarm in the seas, and the fish to fly across the face of the heavens? And what would happen to our expression “neither fish nor fowl” if all fowl are fish? How useful would “neither fish nor fish” be as an expression? And if one ordered a Big Mac and fries, given that the beef in a Big Mac is from cattle, which are mammals, which are now to be called fish, would one then be ordering “fish ‘n chips”? (They’d have to start wrapping Big Macs in newspaper, I guess.)

There is no need to belabor the reader with more examples. It’s obvious that saying “birds are fish” or “whales are fish” or “people are fish” would play havoc with the English language, and that as a practical proposal, the usage is a non-starter.

Though all this might seem to be a mere complaint about lack of clarity in language, there’s an important metaphysical issue associated with the linguistic murkiness. When you say that human beings are fish, rather than that their bodies are descended from the bodies of fish, you tend to create the impression that human beings are “nothing but” souped-up fish; the higher is interpreted in terms of the lower, and loses its character as higher. The willingness of the atheists at Peaceful Science to blur the distinction between ontology and history, between the “whatness” of a thing and its origin, is therefore significant. Partly it indicates the lack of philosophical training and interest on the part of the participants, but it also fits very much in with the anti-theistic motivation of the PS atheists: no creature has any long-lasting or stable nature or purpose (as, say, a Thomist would understand those notions), because there are no stable essences; there is only endless transition between things that never solidify into reliable essences, but remain in an unceasing process of becoming. And that becoming has no aim and never stabilizes into a created world, i.e., an ordered whole produced by a divine Author.

But to come back to the practical point about the mangling of everyday language, I can foresee the day when even children’s books will adopt the view upheld at Peaceful Science. If that day ever comes, I imagine that the books will look something like this:

Avatar photo

About Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson (Eddie) started his university career on a science scholarship, but ended up as a philosopher/theologian researching the relationship between religion and natural science. He has published several books and articles on religion/science topics in both mainstream academic outlets and denominational and popular periodicals. He has also taught courses in various departments in several universities.
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2 Responses to For Once, the Atheists at Peaceful Science Don’t Sound Fishy to Me

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Of course whales are fish! Doesn’t the old song (written by whalers, who should know), speak about “Baffin Bay where the whalefish blow”?

    But as everybody knows, echinoderms are fish too (“Come all you starry starfish” – Donovan), and molluscs (“Let it happen on it’s own like a shellfish in the sea…” – Gordon Lightfoot, a Canadian, and they know a thing or two), and insects (remember the humble silverfish).

    Looks like most of the animal kingdom were fish centuries before cladistics were even thought of.

  2. Peter Hickman says:

    Great news! I can now legitimately self-identify as a fish.
    Perhaps not. I don’t want to become the victim of salt and battery, or an ate crime.

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