The “Species Problem”: How bureaucrats use undefined and ill-defined terms to expand their power

[Continuing Steven J. Allen’s series on deception in politics and public policy. An earlier piece about the Endangered Species Act and environmentalists’ focus on “cute” and iconic animals is posted here.]

The Endangered Species Act, soon to be 40 years old, is an example of legislation twisted by bureaucrats into a form its sponsors and original supporters could not recognize. Often, as with the ESA, such twisting is made possible by vague and undefined terms that, in a manner the Founders never intended, give power to unelected, anonymous bureaucrats.

Take the act’s title term “species.” No one knows what a species is. The common definition says a species is a group of living things that can produce fertile offspring with each other but not with members of other species. But lions and tigers and many other pairings of members of apparently different species can produce fertile offspring, and many plants and most microorganisms reproduce without breeding. Scientists have a number of definitions of species, but each has its own ambiguities and, as scientists say, fuzziness. This problem is so well recognized it even has a name: “the species problem.”

Because no accepted scientific definition of species exists, bureaucrats can classify any group of animals, plants, or other living things as a species. Should vertebrates—animals with backbones—be given priority over invertebrates? Yes, according to some Congressional directives, and no, according to other Congressional directives. Can a subspecies, or just a “segment” or “population” of plants or animals that clearly doesn’t meet the qualifications for a species, be a species anyway if the government calls it a species? Yes, nonsensically.

In a 2007 article in the UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, Ezequiel Lugo wrote, “The term ‘species’ is central to all of biology, yet it is ambiguous and has no universally accepted definition. A major difficulty with any definition of species is the tacit assumption that a species is a clearly-delineated group because species are really ‘fuzzy sets’ with unclear demarcations.” In other words, it’s not really possible to say with certainty where one species ends and another begins.

Among the different methods for classifying species, Lugo noted, are “the morphological species concept, which defines a species based on a set of shared physical characteristics,” “the phylogenetic species concept, which defines a species as a group of organisms sharing at least one unique characteristic and having a common pattern of ancestry and descent,” and “the biological species concept, which defines a species as a naturally interbreeding group of organisms.” There are other methods, too.

“Species,” like many scientific classifications, is among many categories created for the convenience of human beings. Nature does not put things into neat boxes. Is Pluto a planet, as we were told for most of the twentieth century, or not a planet, as we are told now? The answer boils down to: Pluto is a planet if we call it a planet.

Compounding the problem is that such characterizations as “endangered” and “threatened” also have definitions that are vague, that use weasel-words like “significantly” and “likely,” and that are, therefore, subject to bureaucratic whim.

Taxonomy is the science (or the art) of putting things into categories. Much of the force of government is rooted in taxonomy—the power to put things in categories and treat some categories differently from others. Very often, Congress delegates this awesome power to regulatory agencies and those agencies’ bureaucrats.

Categories of “race” and “ethnicity” often determine whether people get jobs, government contracts, and college admissions and student aid. These categories determine how political power is distributed through the redistricting process. Yet such categories do not exist in science and nature. They are the province of the bureaucrats, who can merge and create categories, as when the Census Bureau arbitrarily merged the defunct category of “Mexican” with Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and others to create the “Hispanic” category. How different the discussion of the 2012 election would have been if categories had been different—if, say, German-Americans, the country’s largest ethnic group, had been treated as a separate category, or if Appalachians had been so treated, or Italians, or if African-Americans with Caribbean ancestors had been separated from other African-Americans, or if Indian-Americans had stayed classified as “white” rather than Asian.

Similarly, bureaucrats decide arbitrarily where the poverty line is, thereby directing the flow of trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. (Poor people exist, of course, as do beautiful people and ugly people. But bureaucrats can no more determine the number of poor people objectively than they can determine objectively the numbers of people who are “beautiful” and “ugly.”)

“Carcinogen,” “renewable” sources of energy, “inflation” and “unemployment” rates, “assault weapons”—these are just a few of the ill-defined or undefined terms that, in the hands of the Washington bureaucracy, become things of wax to shape as they please. Therein lies much of the power of the bureaucracy, a branch of government the authors of the Constitution never envisioned and upon which they would look in horror.

Dr. Steven J. Allen (JD, PhD) is senior editor at the Capital Research Center and editor of Green Watch and Labor Watch.

Share this post!