by Possible Modernist

We recently discussed here how muskrats are fish, as are bees. More recently, the New York Times covered an article published in Current Biology, and asks, Are Gophers Farmers?

In some ways this article is just another example of the difficulty of determining membership in categories, since almost none of them have simple and unproblematic criteria for inclusion or exclusion. What makes this interesting as an example, however, is the different sorts of authority and groundings they reach for in trying to answer this question.

Their starting point is the familiar tactic of analogizing: what do you think of when you think of farmers? According to the NYT, it probably includes overalls, straw hats, tanned forearms; bails of hay, tractors, seeds”. By contrast, gophers likely bring to mind fur, whiskers and large front teeth”. Since these lists do not overlap, gophers are probably not farmers.

The scientific article covered by the times (which prompted this whole discussion) instead leans on behavior as the key criteria. In particular, it notes that gophers partly subsist on roots which grow into their tunnels (21% of daily caloric needs). It turns out that the particular type of gopher being studied here promotes root growth not only by aerating the soil (i.e., digging tunnels), but also by scattering their fecal wastes in the tunnels, which acts as a fertilizer. This is as close as we’re going to get to a scientific attempt at categorization in this piece.

Details aside, it seems pretty clear from the original article that the claim about gophers being farmers is just acting as a narrative hook — a way to make their data more interesting. The real purpose of this (short) scientific article is to report on the root cropping behavior of pocket gophers.

Indeed, their claims regarding farming are tentative and heavily hedged:

Unlike fungus-growing insects, gophers neither sow nor weed their crops. This may disqualify them as farmers, but if accepted, they would represent the first farming non-human mammal.”

Nevertheless, this suggestion was enough to prompt a line of inquiry by the Times.

First, the NYT reporter interviews the the general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida (perhaps playing the role that is closest to a religious authority in this context?), who suggests that any individual having control over their land and being able to decide what they want to grow” counts as a farmer. The article glosses this as free will”, which the NYT claims probably can’t be attributed to pocket gophers”, simultaneously making highly questionable use of the term free will”, and a seemingly unjustified (though classic) distinction between humans and other mammals.

More of-the-moment is the criteria given by the outreach director for New York FarmNet, (“an organization that consults with the state’s farmers”): If you identify as a farmer, we will work with you.” Thus, (at least for people), self-identification provides a highly flexible and seemingly inclusive criteria (though one that has also been known to lead to conflicts with other common membership criteria for certain categories), but not one that is open to languageless gophers.

Predictably, we also get a reference to the law, which, as with the California bees, provides what is often the most consequential authority. Even here, however, the interpretation feels a bit watered down. The NYT references the Florida Farm Bureau guide to agricultural laws, which states that ‘Agriculture’ means the science and art of production of plants and animals useful to humans” (which would seemingly exclude gophers), but this hardly seems like the last word. Can’t we at least get something from the relevant parts of the Federal tax code?

Finally, the article includes something of a consequentialist take: a biologist who specializes in gophers (and who discovered that pocket gophers glow under UV light) suggests that we could consider gophers to be farmers, but we’d have to think about what this would mean for how we describe all mammals, not just gophers. They don’t elaborate on this, but presumably we could find other mammals who aerate and fertilize the soil, thereby promoting the growth of the plants they consume, which would further expand the category of farmers.

Near the end of the NYT article, the author states that The authors of the paper argue that farmer’ is a somewhat artificial concept”. I’m not sure if this is a fair characterization of the views of those authors or not, but just to state the obvious, what exactly is it that makes a concept artificial”? Indeed, what is a concept that is not artificial, and how can we tell the difference? Moreover, is the distinction between artificial and its complement itself artificial or not? According to what authority?