by E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow Greg Walcher
As Appearing in The Daily Sentinel
For 50 years, Americans have spent untold resources worrying, arguing, regulating, and litigating, over “endangered species.” You might think by now we have a clear understanding of those two simple words. We do not.
Experts often disagree on whether something is “endangered,” as some plants and animals have always been rare. Even more perplexing, though, scientists have debated exactly what constitutes a “species” for two centuries. In 2016, Professor Frank Zachos wrote the superb textbook, “Species Concepts in Biology.” He identified at least 32 competing definitions of a “species.” That’s partly because new plants and animals are continuously created, and others go extinct. Cross-breeding is part of nature, and hybrids appear as a result. Are they separate new species?
Even Charles Darwin, the patron saint of evolution and father of modern biology, scoffed at the notion of a clear definition. Three years before publishing his “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin wrote, “It is really laughable to see what different ideas are prominent in various naturalists’ minds, when they speak of ‘species’… It all comes, I believe, from trying to define the undefinable.”