For instance, Rick at News You Can Bruise has recently visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He posts his annoyance over the ‘marine biology cartel now wants you to say “jellies” (or, I suppose “sea jellies”) instead of “jellyfish”, because those things are amazingly not fish.’
Boy would he be annoyed to hang out with me. I’m down with the whole precise labeling of natural creatures thing: sea stars, not star fish, dolphin fish for the fish, dolphin for the mammal. For cuttlefish I don’t say anything at all, but now that Rick has pointed it out, I’ll be saying cuttle if I need to refer to them.
Since he was at the aquarium, Rick was focused on sea creatures, but let’s not forget the insects. I say lady beetle not lady bug, lightening beetle, not lightening bug or firefly.
Rick asks, “How long has this been going on? Did people used to refer to cucumberfish, anenomefish, and urchinfish until someone rewrote the aquarium displays to encourage the biologically correct usage?”
The answers, forever and yes.
The categorization of plants and animals is an important part of human history, if only because it was important to distinguish food from non-food, medicinal plants from poisons, and prohibited foods from the foods all could eat. The earliest written encouragement of biologically correct usage was probably Aristotle pointed out that the whale was a mammal and not a fish. Linnaeus made a career in the classification of plants and animals, an in the process laid the foundation for the understanding of evolution. Understanding of evolution made the understanding of genetics possible, and understanding of genetics, in concert with molecular biology, has allowed the most precise understanding of the relationships of plants and animals.
Are these distinctions important for non-scientists in the modern world? Meat comes in packages with labels, so there is no need to distinguish between fish and beef. Produce comes prewashed. Why bother?
For me it is worth making the distinctions. It is such a little thing, calling things by their right names, but the understanding of the relationships of animals in the natural world is a very powerful tool for understanding the natural world and humans place in it. It is the foundation for all of biology. There is no area of biology that you can begin to understand without trying to understanding the evolutionary relationships involved.
Beyond that, this classification is a way of knowing. The history of our understanding of the relationships between different organisms is a pattern that can be extended to understanding of other phenomena and a standard by which other similar attempts can be measured.