How Beavers Became Fish


If it swims, I guess it’s a fish: How the Catholic Church declared beavers to be fish.

Taxonomy (the technique of classification is a science, but in practice, it becomes a lot trickier. Recall only a couple years ago when Congress notoriously chose to classify pizza in school lunches as a vegetable item. This was a convenient classification because pizza provided a grain serving and was smeared with tomato sauce—tomatoes being a vegetable as well. Or are they? In a case that reached the Supreme Court, despite clear definitional evidence that tomatoes are indeed fruit (they grow from the seed of a flowering plant), decided that the tomato was a vegetable, and therefore that the tomato would be treated under vegetable tariffs. All this because even back in 1893 (the case was called Nix v. Hedden, by the way), the tomato was used in cuisine as more vegetable than fruit. Practicality trumped orthodoxy, and it became, legally, a vegetable.

For religions, taxonomy can not only be a matter of tariffs and health standards, but of sin. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy contain dietary guidelines for that many Jewish faiths follow. More specifically, the Bible forbids consumption of certain foods made from grains like wheat, barley, and oats on Passover. When Jewish communities, through trade, encountered new grain-like foods such as rice and corn, they decided that those two applied under the Biblical laws, even though they were not outlawed.

The ultimate example, though, comes courtesy of the Catholic Church in the 17th century. With missionaries spreading across the New World and discovering all sorts of new foods (like—hey!—corn and tomatoes). These new foods also included, particularly for French-Catholic trappers in Canada, beavers. Though hunted primarily for their pelts, beaver meat was also a part of both Native and European pioneer’s cuisine.

But when it came to Lenten season for Catholic practioners, they were barred from eating meat, ostensibly including beaver. With lobbying from the Quebecois Church, Catholics applied this deft analysis: since beavers occupied the rivers and streams of North America, they fall under the category of fish, and therefore could be consumed during Lent. And thus, mammalian swimmers (including, for South American Catholics, the capybara) became fish.

Huzzah! Yet another theological problem solved by the deft thinkers of 17th century Rome. Anyway, they seem to be pretty cute animals, check out a couple baby beavers below.


Attribution

“When the Catholic Church decided beavers were fish,” Jason G. Goldman, Salon via Scientific American


Commentary Ticker

  • Google Glass Lets You Take Photos With Your Brain
    July 12, 2014 | 4:02 pm

    If you haven’t heard, electroencephalograms (EEGs) have been getting better. Way better. Artificial limbs and even video game controllers are utilizing the non-invasive brain-wave monitoring method to guide computers by thought. Now English startup This Place has developed a way to bring the technology to Google Glass, allowing Google’s wearable to read your mind. Well, […]

  • Android Art: The Accidental Selfies of Google Art Project
    July 5, 2014 | 11:11 am

    Within the cultural centers of the world lurks a mechanical beast draped in silver spinning madly and capturing everything, sometimes even itself. In 2011 Google created the Art Project, an initiative to bring their Street View technology inside the cultural epicenters of the world. Google enlisted 17 world-class museums in short time. Institutions such as […]

  • Purple Mountunes Majesty: The Most Patriotic Playlist
    July 4, 2014 | 12:13 pm

    A while ago, Paul Lamere of The Echo Nest, a music-analysis company, took to finding each state’s most distinctive, yet popular, artist in a viral article. Spotify took note, purchasing Echo Nest for their analytical talent. Together, they’ve released a blog post documenting each state’s most distinctively American song creating a patriotic playlist for the […]

  • Emojinealogy: Where the Heck Emojis Come From
    July 2, 2014 | 3:10 pm

    On June 16th, the Unicode Consortium announced that 250 new emoji would be added to the list of symbols available to people’s cellphones and computer devices. The list of the new symbols can be found on Emojipedia. And no, the list doesn’t include the much needed minority representation, but it does include your favorite (?) […]

  • The Decline and Fall of the American Mall
    June 24, 2014 | 9:07 pm

    For ages, the shopping mall was as essential to the architecture of suburbia as Levittowns and freeways. But in an era of online shopping, these epicenters of brick and mortar yesteryear are quietly being abandoned across the country. While the U.S. currently has around 1,500, the number may soon shrink, and rapidly, leading to abandoned […]

  • RSSArchive for Commentary Ticker »

Join our mailing list!



Trending on The Airspace