For Charles Darwin, “species” was an undefinable term, “one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other.” That hasn’t stopped scientists in the 150 years since then from trying, however. When scientists today sit down to study a new form of life, they apply any number of more than 70 definitions of what constitutes a species—and each helps get at a different aspect of what makes organisms distinct.
In a way, this plethora of definitions helps prove Darwin’s point: The idea of a species is ultimately a human construct. With advancing DNA technology, scientists are now able to draw finer and finer lines between what they consider species by looking at the genetic code that defines them. How scientists choose to draw that line depends on whether their subject is an animal or plant; the tools available; and the scientist’s own preference and expertise.
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