James Prosek: Is a Trout a Trout?

James Prosek, the famed author and artist, is asking provokative questions about species identification.

James Prosek, the famed author and artist, is asking provocative questions about species identification.

Is a rainbow trout really a trout? What do you call the offspring of a cutthroat and a rainbow? And when do you reinvent a system accepted the world-over, but also happens to be rife with inaccuracies?

James Prosek is beginning to ask such provocative questions. He asked them at a dinner hosted by The Boston Fly Caster’s a few weeks ago, and openly discusses them in this interesting, and beautiful, article in Wired magazine.

Upon hearing James ask these questions, I felt as I often have with James: that he asks questions so simple they mask their power. This is the case with James: he’s a disarmingly nice guy. And so when we asks a question whose answer may upend the entire Linnaean taxonomy, it seems only natural. Polite, even.

I grew up, like many if not all of us, learning about species identification: “This is a brown trout. This is a rainbow. And while related, they are entirely different,” I was told. The power of this system is its ability to impose order on an otherwise messy, and at times unknowable world.

“What I’d thought of as a kid as some kind of rigid system, I learned was a complete mess,” Prosek says in the Wired article. And right he is.

Linnean’s system does not reveal order, it imposes it. And while a useful short-hand, it often gives a false impression of clear species distinction, whereas the world of fish is more fluid, and more interrelated, than we care to allow. While Linnaean’s taxonomy of species allows for nested hierarchies, it doesn’t permit nestling in together. For an 18th century Swede from Uppsala, this is perhaps understandable. But what’s remarkable to me is that, as fishermen grow up, we largely continue to accept these¬†categorizations.

Prosek talks about the differences between himself and Aubudon (in part, the fish he’s painting are now disappearing) in this article, as well as conservation efforts. I suggest you read the piece, and enjoy James’s beautiful pictures¬†– the ones in this article happen to be some of my favorites of his. You can also find many of these in his book Ocean Fishes, which I highly recommend.

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