Sunday 15 December 2013

Q&A 2013

These are not koalas
This time last year, I took a number of questions typed into Google that had brought people to this blog, and did my best to answer them. Obviously, it's not helping the people that actually asked the questions, most of whom had done so months before, but they may not be alone, and besides, it's a fun change of pace. So I'm going to do it again this year, before taking my customary end-of-year break.

A lot of the questions that showed up in the blogger interface were the same this year as last. With "is a rabbit a rodent?" topping the poll, as ever. I'll skip on the repetition, though, and look at some of the new ones. Whether or not that will leave enough new questions for next year is anyone's guess, but at least there's enough for now. So here goes.

Sunday 8 December 2013

The Beautiful Haired Monkeys

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a monkey as "a small to medium-sized primate typically having a long tail and living in tropical countries." While perfectly good for everyday speech, that's not a viable scientific definition, for two reasons. For a start, you can't just say "typically" - you have to define exactly what you're talking about.

The other problem, though, is more subtle, and relates to how we define groups of animals. As I've mentioned many times before, a natural group of animals is one that includes a single common ancestor and all of its descendants. Apes are descended from monkeys, so, scientifically speaking, either apes are a special kind of monkey, or there is no such thing as a "monkey". You can take your pick, but scientists more commonly use the former option. A gorilla, therefore, is a kind of monkey, and it manifestly doesn't fit the definition given above.