The Context

I have a group of genetically engineered people known as 'crows'. Their genome has been meddled with significantly enough that they are unable to successfully reproduce with humans, but are similar enough in physical appearance to humans for their ancestry to be apparent (think humans with fused keratin quills in place of hair, claws and various little internal changes).

Alongside these crows we have regular unedited humans.

The Question

How would our genetically modified crow-people be classified using Linneaen taxonomy?

Options I have identified:

  1. Homo sapiens corvus (subspecies of Homo sapiens)
  2. Homo corvus (separate species within the Homo genus)
  3. Anthropocorvus sapiens (separate genus within the Hominidae family)

Full disclosure, my regular humans are in the earlier days of Linneaen taxonomy, so the architecture is in place but a lot of people are still very woolly as to what the definitions mean. Furthermore, they're solidly bigoted towards the crows so will likely try to dehumanise them by placing them outside the genus Homo. However, starting from a basis of how we might classify genetically engineered species would help inform that.

Plus, it's an interesting question :)

  • $\begingroup$ Perfect, thanks :) this should be an answer as far as I'm concerned! As a bit of a broader question (which I deliberately avoided in the main question), I wonder how on earth modern taxonomy would cope with significantly genetically engineered species. I can't actually find how we classify genetically modified species that already exist! $\endgroup$ Apr 10, 2018 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ A little bit more about their anatomy will help, Do have hair in addition to feathers? do they give live birth or lay eggs, do they have a mammalian or avian breathing system and organ layout, do the females produce milk, do they have a solid orbit. any of these will move them around the tree of life a lot. the more one sided their traits the easier it is to place them. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 10, 2018 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ Honestly once we get into full-blown genetic engineering, we're probably going to have to drop the Linneaen taxonomy (which is optimized for describing a branching tree) and start using something else that supports the sort of weird mixing that can be achieved through gengineering. $\endgroup$
    – Tacroy
    Apr 10, 2018 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ @John I would say that anatomy-wise they resemble crows visually, rather than have any specifically corvid/avian features. More a humanoid that gives the impression of 'crow' than a crow-human hybrid. As for physical features, no hair, live young, milk, likely regular mammalian lung structure, although the capacity for little 'improvements' to have been made to them. Wholesale replacement of a respiratory system would likely have been out of the reach of their creators, but tweaking what already exists is fine. $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2018 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Tacroy I agree, unless we fudge it in the interim using the 'cultivar' structure used in cultivated plants (original bionomial name followed by a commercial name to designate the cultivar). For instance, the GMO crop Golden Rice is known as Oryza sativa 'Cocodrie'. Oryza sativa is the species of rice, and 'Cocodrie' is the genetically engineered cultivar. I suppose that would work well enough so long as your GMO species is similar enough to the original species to be recognisably descended from them. Not sure what will happen with wilder modification... $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2018 at 11:55

3 Answers 3


That they are genetically engineered is a red herring -- in the early days of Linnean taxonomy nobody has the faintest idea about genetics.

  1. H. sapiens corvus -- no way.

    "Cannot reproduce with humans" means that they would definitely not be put in the same species.

  2. H. corvus -- most likely not, not even today.

    Feathers / quills instead of hair and claws instead of nails would take them out of genus Homo. I would say that they would take them out of Simiiformes / Anthropoidea altogether.

    And that would arguably be true even today; taxonomists would quarrel for a very long time: expect tons of flames on the dedicated mailing lists and in the journals. Modern cladistic taxonomy is not really prepared to deal with such mixed-up species.

  3. Anthropocorvus sapiens -- maybe.

    In the early days of Linnean classification gentlemen had a solid classical education. Anthropocorvus is a Latin-Greek hybrid: such hybrids (tele-vision, meta-data, chiro-practor) were shunned in those days; I would suggest Anthropocorax (same meaning, corax is Greek for "raven").

Modern taxonomy is strongly biased towards recognizing evolutionary relationships; as such, it is taken by surprise by horizontal gene transfer, resulting from genetic engineering or not. I don't think that there is an easy way to tell where this Anthropomimus coracoides would fit.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Drat. I knew 'Anthropocorvus' sounded wrong. Thanks for the correction, and the high quality answer in general! As an aside, I love the name 'Anthropomimus coracoides'. Human-mimic raven-descendant. Perfect :) $\endgroup$ Apr 10, 2018 at 12:54
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ As a point of further discussion, I've looked into the method for classifying cultivars of domesticated plants which might be a useful method for classification of genetically modified species. A cultivar is denoted with a non-italicised single-quoted capitalised name following a plant's binomial name. So another option could be Homo sapiens 'Anthropocorax'. This system might be more prevalent in a scenario where gen-mod species are a commercial enterprise. $\endgroup$ Apr 10, 2018 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ Relationship description is not as strong a part of naming convention as you make it out to be, and transgenic organisms have been dealt with an they are usually named after the species of origin of the bulk of the genes/traits. eukaryotes being a prime example. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 10, 2018 at 16:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @John: The question states that the name is supposed to be assigned (and used) at some time near the beginning of the use of Linnean classification. So there is no genetics and no cladistics; all classification is done phenotypically by impression. Without genetics and without any notion of cladististics and phylogeny, an animal which has feathers and claws will just not be put together with monkeys, apes and humans. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 10, 2018 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ humans certainly but they might group with apes, without genetics the very existence would put many assumptions about biology into question. if it clearly has both mammalian and avian characteristics it might well invalidate both groups. this is more than a 100 years before darwin after all, common origins were not an underlying assumption. having feathers might very well be treated like coloration, unimportant. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 10, 2018 at 18:38

Whatever the person who first describes them (likely the one that creates them) wants, there are very few rules about naming a new species. If you are the first to scientifically describe a new species you get to name it. The only rules are you can't use a name that already exists, and later you can't name it after yourself (Carnegie! {shakes fist}) and you can't use something vulgar.

If he wants to name it Pan aves, Homo angelus, or Cheedle popackski he can. Even if someone later argues for changing the Genus name the species name will stick. We have organsms named after famous people, ictional places and characters, and even just becasue they sound cool. We have Stygimoloch spinifer which means "horned devil dragon from the river of death".

In this case with humans being the original organsms they were created from putting them in Homo is almost certain prejudice be damned, remember in the early days there was an attempt to label the several extant human races as separate species but few argued they were not part of Homo.

given the setting the last two options are far more likely, if they have no other avian characteristics besides feathers ending up inside homo is possible but if they can't interbreed the last is more likely. keep in mind there were as many as five living Homo species in early works, based on continent of origin, so even the location of the crow people will matter. Often they were ranked by stereotypical characteristics so they would likely end up at the bottom of the barrel in Homo.

  • $\begingroup$ There are very few restrictions for the second part of a species' binomial name, as you mentioned. However, there are strict rules and a lot of arguments about anything genus and above (until stuff like phylum and kingdoms where there isn't so much variety to argue about). So, the species name is pretty free, but calling something Homo when it's got six legs will probably get you thrown out of the taxonomy conference... $\endgroup$ Apr 10, 2018 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ unless it has other obvious traits of homo, which this is described as having. As long as the original describer can put up an argument as to why it should be included in homo that will be its name, a later conference can change it's genus as I said but the original description will be be as Homo whatever. If it is in engineered species it is even more stable since they are usually based on the species of origin. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 10, 2018 at 16:12

As @AlexP notes, this is a new problem for which there is no standard solution, neither in traditional taxonomy nor in cladistics. All our systems of naming of multicelluar organisms assume that a new species is descended from a single older species. In case case like this, where the species in question has ancestry from multiple species, my guess is that whoever names one first will have a significant influence on how it's done thereafter.

If it happened today (which I think is your question) all three names would be possible. Many people would insist on Homo sapiens corvus to avoid a name which degrades them as non-human. (That's today -- obviously not in your world.) In fact, I'll bet that some would argue for just plain H. sapiens for the same reasons. The other two possibilities would be in play also.

In the long run, there'd be war among the taxonomists (with lots of opportunities to publish papers) and in time something like a consensus would emerge. I wouldn't bet on it being driven by scientific reasons, though.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Great answer, which touches on the political sensitivity of such an argument in the modern day. Likely it would be equally sensitive in my less enlightened fictional society, but in the opposite direction. The whole phrenologic 'analysis' of African populations to justify the slave trade springs to mind. As an aside, I'm quite looking forward to the pending taxonomic war as genetic engineering becomes more mainstream. I wonder how long until we start to see some early skirmishes... $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2018 at 12:49

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