New York Times recalcitrant on OkapiGate

November 10, 2011 • 4:48 am

Yes, I pick nits too, and the other day I criticized a New York Times science piece by Douglas Quenqua on okapis because it claimed that “Okapis are the only known relative of the giraffe, but with the silhouette of an antelope.”  What he meant was that okapis are the closest living relative of the giraffe, but of course okapis have many “known relatives,” including, say, every other species on Earth.

As a total pedant, I asked one of my friends who works at the NYT to convey this to Quenqua. I assumed he’d admit the sloppiness and correct his piece. No dice: while he responded to me by email, he’s digging in his heels.  From his email:

I see from your blog post that you already know that okapi and giraffes are the only two species in the mammal family Giraffidae. It was in that respect that we classified the okapi as the only living relative of the giraffe.

“In that respect”?  Thers’s no respect in which it’s okay to make an inaccurate statement about evolutionary relatedness.

I’ll be watching Quenqua for recidivism.

45 thoughts on “New York Times recalcitrant on OkapiGate

  1. In the sense that the conventional English-language use of the term “relative” means “close enough relative to care”, rather than “everyone on Earth”, let alone “every single living creature” – that the broader meaning is (I’d hope!) assumed. The idea that the question “is Bob a relative of yours?” is even possible to answer “no” when you’re both humans, or one of you is an okapi and one of you isn’t.

    1. That’s a fair point, but it doesn’t excuse the recalcitrance.

      Mr. Quenqua’s proper response would be to ask Jerry to pen a succinct letter to the editor. He should then hand-deliver Jerry’s letter to the editors accompanied by a response of his own that reads, “Dr. Coyne is, of course, absolutely correct. ‘Relation’ in this context was intended in the informal, personal sense in which, although your co-worker may in fact be your thirteenth cousin seven times removed, you normally wouldn’t say you’re related. I apologize for any confusion which might have stemmed from my informality.”



      1. And I think some sloppy thinking is always lurking behind the sloppy writing. I can’t tell you how many times an early hominin (e.g., Ardipithecus) has been hyped by science writers as “the oldest human ancestor.” Even some of the professional anthropologists making these discoveries use this phrase, which of course is nonsensical but makes their discovery seem more important than it is (wow, THE oldest human ancestor!).

    2. I think when you’re speaking of a different species, you can no longer claim the informal use of “relative”. Since “Bob” and I are the same species, we can assume the informal. But if “Bob” was a chimpanzee and you asked this question, I’d be forced to assume “relative” in the broader biological and ultimately evolutionary sense, to avoid being insulted or at the very least feeling compelled to have my chest waxed.

      1. Mmm … I still think it may be applicable for closely-related species rather than just individuals within a species. Although “cousin” for close species is more common (and also not very well defined).

  2. Jerry’s nit was that in his original NY Times piece, Douglas Quenqua said that “Okapis are the only known relative of the giraffe.” As Jerry said in his original complaint: “What Quenqua meant, of course, is that okapis are the closest living relative of the giraffe, a statement that’s accurate.” In his response to Jerry, Douglas Quenqua said “we classified the okapi as the only living relative of the giraffe.” Well no, that exactly what you didn’t do. If you had, Jerry wouldn’t have had a nit to pick.

    1. Oy vey!

      Of course scientists makes mistakes that science journalists catch quite often. But a priori, and especially seeing the nitpick was in the other direction, it isn’t the likeliest outcome.

    1. Fun fact while waiting for Caturday: “bara min” translates to “just mine” in swedish.

      So I can’t help but reading “bara min-ology” as creationists pushing their own idiosyncratic ideas; which of course they are. =D

  3. I used to look forward to the Science Times every Tuesday, but now I just glance at what appears in the margins over at ScienceBlogs.

    I remember when John Tierney started writing for them. I read a few of his articles and each time was left with a strange feeling – it felt as though the science was being spun to serve an ideological agenda. He had written for another section of the paper, I learned, and I wasn’t too surprised to find that he had written from a libertarian perspective. Please don’t spin my science!

  4. ” . . . the only two species in the mammal family Giraffidae. . . .”

    Assuming what I memorized in h.s. Biology I is not outdated:


    Are the Okapi and Giraffe in the same genus?

  5. This is really just an argument about the definition of the word “related”. All life is “related” of course, but the NYT’s use of the word is sloppy. They should have said “in the same genus” (although isn’t “genus” just a sloppy way of grouping life anyway? I’m a non-biologist, but doesn’t using words like “family”, “genus”, “species” imply a compartmentalisation that doesn’t really exist in nature?)

    1. Many biologists I know hate taxonomy. The epic battles between taxonomists in categorizing a nearly infinite gradient of life generates a lot of discontent when a species is named something completely different this year than it was last year or even the year before that. Imagine the confusion if Pluto’s astronomical classification were changed constantly. “And this year, astronomers have classified Pluto as a planet… again.”

      1. At least its confusing for laymen. I guess I would deem the history of biology (nomenclature invented before understanding theory) would make a revision necessary.

        PhyloCode seems to separate between nomenclature and theory (phylogeny) revision as best possible, so this layman would opt for that I guess.

  6. Checking Wiki, Okapi is family “Giraffidae”, genus “Okapia”. Giraffe are of Genus “Giraffa”.

    So it’s the same family, not the same genus

  7. Fools rush in to tell a pedant to give up their hobby horse, but Quenqua is in the right, as a the Okapi’s taxonomic network shows.

    JC, if you’re doing something more than making the trivial point that all life is related, would you please make this a teachable moment and make your case in terms of well-defined taxonomic network structure? How many vertices must we go back before declaring that species are “unrelated”? How does this compare with commonplace kin definitions of these terms?

    1. We are all related. If creationists didn’t exist in large numbers, it might be ok to let slide as an informal usage, but, creationists do exist so it behooves science writers to be accurate on that point.

      BTW the 13th cousin 7 times removed mentioned earlier is unlikely though possible between two living humans since removed is generational differences. 13th cousin or less is very likely between two co-workers of the same ethnic background (it means more or less have at least 1 common ancestor living in about the 16th century [and you could have over 16,000 ancestors at that time [some duplications are likely so the full 2^14 distinct ancestors is unlikely]]).

      1. Thanks for the clarification on the forms of cousins. I can never keep that stuff straight. I’m sure it’s obvious that I pulled those numbers out of my…hat.

        Say…if you have nothing better to do…what type of cousin would my cat, Baihu, be to me? (The time tree has some information, but not that.)



      1. Yes, and it shows fewer, interesting topological details than the graph I linked to, and the details of the topology are what is relevant to this story, which is why the reporter used the language he did.

        If a person dies without any family or heirs, we don’t expect her obituary to read that she is survived by the saprotrophs consuming her corpse.

        1. However we do expect obituaries to mention spouses, unmarried partners, adopted children, and so on, because obituaries aren’t about genetic relatedness; they’re about familial bonds and grief.

          Quenqua’s statement, on the other hand, is clearly a statement about taxonomy, and therefore ought to use taxonomic and not social concepts of relatedness.

          At the very least, it would have cost Quenqua nothing, and avoided any possible confusion, to write “the only known close relative” instead of just “the only known relative”. Even now, admitting that error would win him considerable goodwill, which he won’t get by being stubborn.

  8. You are correct, of course, and have done a good job educating the journalist and any one else not knowing that evolution fact. He got the message. Thanks

  9. Please biologists clarify or correct what I am about to say!
    There is also the problem of describing ancient ancestral species. I mean for example, the Family of Hominidae is about 14 million years ago. Suppose we have a fossil of a species from just before that date – to what Family does it belong? The hierarchy seems to work for the present as far as I can see, but breaks down when you go back into the past. Does this make sense?

    Also I see that there are other levels now, so humans are –
    Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Primates Suborder: Haplorrhini Infraorder: Simiiformes Parvorder: Catarrhini Superfamily: Hominoidea Family: Hominidae Genus: Homo Species:sapiens

    1. Real biologists (nod to xkcd programmer cartoon…) don’t use all those labels anymore. ‘Species’ is a useful generalisation of currently existing discrete populations (and there are hundreds of distinct definitions or ‘species concepts’), but increasingly difficult to apply coherently as ancestor-descendant lineages are sampled more continuously through time.
      Real taxonomy and phylogenetics is concerned with discovering the boundaries and ancestral branching pattern of organisms; attaching names to twigs and branches of the tree makes it possible and convenient to talk about hypothetically-real entities, i.e. clades. Clades are real, but our concepts of them are hypothetical and provisional like everything in science; Giraffidae is usefully defined as something like ‘all descendants of the last common ancestor of giraffe and okapi’, and we can be rather highly confident, but not 100% certain, that there are no other living giraffids, or that any particular fossil is ‘in’ or ‘out’ by that definition.
      Species are potentially countable objects, but all the other levels are arbitrary. Attaching an extra layer of labels called ‘genus’, ‘family’, ‘order’, ‘class’ etc. (on top of the actual names) is still in part a valuable mnemonic device for anyone trying to hold a lot of information on biological diversity in their head, but has no real biological content or significance: nothing about an ‘order’ of mammals is especially comparable to an ‘order’ of insects, for example.
      So my advice as a biologist (in vertebrate taxonomy, palaeontology and phylogenetics) is not to get hung up on that extra layer, any more than it matters whether your home address is on a ‘street’, ‘avenue’, ‘lane’ or ‘highway’. It’s just a convenience of cartography and the postal service.

  10. Sure is sloppy, but if you go on about genus’ and species and whatnot, how many NYT readers are going to know what you are even talking about – they do not want to alienate their readership.

    I mean, if you are going to the NYT for rigorous scientific writing, then you have bigger problems.

  11. I can see where the NYT is coming from on this. Using the word “relative” or “related” in the sense preferred by Jerry makes it meaningless, as there are no living things *not* related to other living things, so far as we know.

    For the word to be meaningful, it needs to mean “closely” linked by ancestry (or marriage, I guess, depending on whether you consider in-laws to be relatives). There is then the issue of what “closely” means. That will vary by context, but I can see why they went for “related = family”.

    1. It expresses relation, and life didn’t need to be that way.

      The equivalent from physics could be “fermion matter”, as all matter builds on fermions (half-integer spin).

      But matter is fermionic,* forces are bosonic, and it didn’t have to be that way.

      * Or, more often, “baryonic”, i.e. atom nucleus from quark fermions.

      One hypothesis for dark matter is that it bosonic superpartners to fermions.

  12. Quenqua needs to read a very good book written by some obscure professor at the University of Chicago: “The Ancestor’s Tale”.

    Perhaps someone has a spare copy they can send to Quenqua?

    1. Erm…’twas an Oxford professor who wrote The Ancestor’s Tale. The gentleman from the University of Chicago wrote a different, yet also excellent, book: Why Evolution Is True.



      1. Damn! You are absolutely right. Can I plead “brain fart due to age”?

        Somebody send a copy of Dawkins’ excellent book to Quenqua, and follow it up with Jerry’s own magnificent screed.

  13. The informal use of the terms “relative”, “related”, etc., is extremely common in science writing for a lay audience. I’m sure many actual biologists and zoologists use it informally in their blogs and everyday conversation, even among each other, as well as journalists and writers for Animal Planet or Discovery channels. Is there even a technical, scentific definition of “relative” or “related”? I would not be surprised if the informal use of these words appears in peer reviewed articles.

    It may be worthwhile, as a consciousness-raising exercise, to begin insisting on more careful use of the term.

    But it is unfair to Quenqua to single him out for criticism.

  14. It’s the New York Times. The only way they will issue a correction is if Dick Cheney calls the publisher and tells them to.

  15. I feel much better now about my own insufferable pedantry. I’m sure my friends and relatives (narrowly construed) will, too.

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