Friday, July 29, 2005

A Rose By Any Other Name Does Not Smell As Sweet

Platonism, Essentialism, Performance, or Social Constructionism? Positivism, Realism, Pragmatism, or Relativism? Or better yet, what is a panda?


I read your article about pandas. I would like to just comment that pandas are not bears, they are marsupials; which is a different species. However, I still enjoyed reading it. I love pandas!

-- Moses Salmeron, San Francisco

FIRST OFF, let it be said that Moses Salmeron's love of pandas is shared by The Chronicle.

Also koalas and other warm, fuzzy animals with cute faces. In fact, one might reasonably think that their similarities to teddy bears could have perhaps confused us about the relations of bears and pandas -- this despite our best efforts to bring you the best-written and edited newspaper in the Bay Area.

Well, it turns out Chronicle editors were all over that front-page pronouncement of familial relations -- and the chorus was heard far and wide: ``Pandas AREN'T BEARS!''

But library researcher Johnny Miller met the onslaught of editors and stood his ground. ``Pandas ARE BEARS!''

Here's how it went:

The Oakland Zoo is in negotiations to obtain two giant pandas from China, and a Chronicle reporter was assigned to write a story about it. Librarian Miller was asked to write a ``fact box'' on giant pandas to run along with the story. A ``fact box'' is a small text box attached to a main story with key information about a subject.

It must be noted that librarians these days don't just sit at a desk, point out where to find a book and ``shush'' you into silence. Corporate librarians, researchers and information specialists -- they go by many names these days -- check facts, dig up background materials, crunch numbers, write reports and are experts at online as well as traditional research.

Miller researched pandas, wrote the fact box and turned in his work to an assistant city editor. She looked it over and cut it down a bit so it would fit on the page.

But later, a copy editor, one who gives the story a final edit, places the story on the page and writes the headline, challenged Miller's statement that ``pandas are bears.''

Researcher Miller pulled out the materials he had, defended his work and convinced the editor. But again, as he was leaving at 7 p.m., two more editors cornered him. And again he proved his point.

I'm sure you're getting the drift: There are a lot of people here concerned about getting things right.

The next morning, during our daily critique of the newspaper, the ``mistake'' was again brought up by yet another editor, and the question was asked whether we should run a correction.

When researcher Miller was approached about this, he chanted: ``PANDAS ARE BEARS . . . PANDAS ARE BEARS!''

As in the long discussion of the technical aspects of whaling in the book ``Moby Dick,'' you might want to skip this part, but Miller is right -- pandas are bears.
First, let me address the marsupial red herring, mentioned by Mr. Salmeron. The koala, native to Australia, is a member of the order Marsupialia, but not the giant panda. So koalas are not bears.

The giant panda is native to China and is in the order Carnivora. There are seven families in the order: dogs, bears, raccoons, weasels, mongooses, hyenas and cats. Several Chronicle editors claimed that the panda was related to the raccoon. True, the giant panda and raccoon are in the same order, but they are not in the same family.

There has been much debate about the evolutionary and genetic relationship between the giant panda, raccoons and bears.

A study of the molecular and genetic makeup of the giant panda shows that it is more closely related to bears than it is to raccoons.

The study further speculates that the bear and raccoon families diverged from a common ancestor 30 to 50 million years ago, with the giant panda being a later branch of the bear line.

Is that more than you wanted to know? For researcher Miller, the bottom line is that bears and the giant panda are listed together in zoological textbooks, together in the family Ursidae -- the bear family." (Richard Geiger, "A Bear of a Research Challenge," SFGate.Com (San Francisco Chronicle), Sunday, March 26, 2000).

Mathew Yglesias adds:

"It turns out, however, that giant pandas are bears after all. Red pandas, however, are raccoons and not bears. So the real moral of the story is that there's no such thing as a panda, per se, the two different varieties aren't closely related genetically and just look similar by coincidence." (Mathew Yglesias, TPMCafe Blog, Posted June 03, 2005).


Post a Comment

<< Home