by Justice William W. Bedsworth
SCIENTISTS DISCOVER 4 NEW LEGLESS LIZARD SPECIES.
That’s what it said in my newspaper.
In big letters. Very big letters. Letters that covered the entire front page of the second section. Letters whose size matched those of letters used elsewhere in the paper to announce the approval of a minimum wage for health-care workers and flood damage tallies1 from Colorado and problems with California’s educational testing programs.
Clearly, someone at my newspaper considered this important news. Somebody considered it a big freaking deal.
Me ... not so much.
In fact, I didn’t even know there were legless lizards. My knowledge of lizards is not exactly encyclopedic, but Little Orphan Annie taught me they can leap. “Leapin’ lizards” was an expression I grew up with. So if they can’t leap, how can they be lizards?
My first reaction was something along the lines of, “Legless lizard? That’s a snake.”
And certainly the picture that occupied even more space on the front page of the second section was—as near as I could see—a snake.
Granted, my taxonomical skills are minimal. A horse with stripes is a zebra. An anorexic leopard is a cheetah. A tortoise who swims is a turtle. That’s as far as it gets for me.
They spent a week in the third grade teaching me that African elephants have big ears and Indian elephants have small ears. I’ve been waiting almost sixty years for the chance to use that information in my daily life.2
I have an old high school friend who sometimes wears a t-shirt that says, “Another Day with No Plans to Use Calculus.” That’s pretty much how I feel about taxonomy. If you can distinguish a capuchin monkey from a capuchin monk, that’s about all you need.
My feelings in this regard were re-enforced by the sub-headline about the legless lizards: “Divided by DNA, they look like snakes, but they can blink and don’t have forked tongues.”
Honest. Now you know the difference between a snake and a legless lizard. Get out your MCLE forms and attach this column.
They can blink, and they don’t have forked tongues. Interestingly enough, the same things distinguish me from snakes. But why is this headline news?
Let’s go back to where we were talking about the fact someone at my newspaper thought it was important they had found new blinking, ordinary-tongued snakes. I know, I know ... the thought of reading my stuff is painful enough, much less re-reading it, but now that you’ve come this far, you pretty much have to play along or move on to the Lawyers’ Mutual ad.3
So back in the fourth paragraph I said someone at my newspaper thought this was important. Twenty column inches and three photos worth of important. We thought we only had one species of legless lizard and now it turns out we have five.
I hope some of them are bigger than the ones they showed in one of the three photographs accompanying the story.4 Because the one in the photograph is obviously a legless, blinking, mono-tongued earthworm.
Folks, you can run DNA tests until the cows come home and you’re not gonna convince me this is anything but an earthworm.
The danged thing can’t be much longer than my thumb. So help me, the reason these things have been unknown until now is that we’ve been using them to catch fish and it never occurred to us to look at their tongues or check them for eyelids.
I have shown the photo to sixteen people at my court. Many of them have graduate degrees. With the exception of Justice Thompson, who had seen the same article in the paper, they’ve all thought it was a worm.
So why do you care about this? Here’s why. The worm in the photo is identified in this way, “The temblor legless lizard, identifiable by its gray belly,5 is possibly found only in the extreme western parts of the central and southern San Joaquin Valley.”
So we have found a teeny, tiny, legless lizard, distinguishable from an earthworm only by microscopic examination, that may only exist in small pockets found in one place on the planet. And it’s a place whose inhabitants use a lot of worms for fishing. What does that say to you?
It says “endangered” to me. I mean, if we discovered a new species of doughnut—indistinguishable from other species of doughnuts—that lived only in my kitchen, they’d go on the endangered species list immediately, right?
And sure enough, while, “the new species will not go from discovery straight to the endangered species list,” one of their discoverers says we need to “monitor the situation.”
You see those marks on the wall, folks? The funny, squiggly ones all laid out in lines? That’s handwriting. That there is writing on that wall. And it says “Teenie, tiny earthworm snake-lizards are going to be on some poor judge’s docket before your Little Leaguer gets his SAT results.”
And who is going to have to make decisions about whether these critters require us to re-route freeways and abandon housing developments and forego dams? Judges.
And who are these judges? Liberal arts majors, mostly. People like me who were able to dodge high school biology by playing on the baseball team and avoided physics by taking business law.
They’re people with degrees in American literature (me), English literature (Jo Staton), history (Eileen Moore and Dave Carter), business administration (David Thompson), psychology and sociology (Carol Corrigan), economics (Andy Guilford), political science (Rich Aronson and Rich Fybel), et cetera, et cetera, usque ad nauseam. Our whole system is set up so as to require generalists to deal with specialized information.6
If the case comes to me,7 the issue of what we need to do to protect these vector-sized vermin is going to be decided by someone who thinks “orangutan” is an adjective you use to describe something orange and tan.
What’s more, if it comes to me, it will be coming to someone who is apparently a specist. Much as I hate to admit it, that seems to be another of my character flaws.
Last month, when scientists announced the discovery of the “olinguito”—described by Yahoo! News as an “adorable new mammal species”—I was all excited.8
The fact there was absolutely no difference between the olinguito and the previously discovered olingo other than their size did not disturb me at all. I was so busy oohing and cooing over the pictures of the furry, little rascal that it never occurred to me that its very name asserted it was just like an olingo ... only smaller.
Forget tongue and eyelids, the olingo and the olinguito are distinguishable only by size and DNA. We’ve had one misnamed for years in a zoo run by the Smithsonian Institution. That’s how much difference there is between them.
And yet I welcomed this “new” mammal into the world without any of the disdain I’ve heaped on Mr. San Joaquin Worm Snake. Obviously, I am biased in favor of mammals and against reptiles. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
I don’t know. Is it too late to re-open the discussion of blue-ribbon juries—and jurists? We may have to encourage the governor to broaden his definition of judicial diversity to include biologists and physicists and the like.
‘Cause I’m not sure we have the right people lined up for legless lizard law.
(1) Whatever the hell those are.
(2) You can’t even use it to show off. Everybody else knows it and is insulted if you mention it. “What, do you think I’m a dummy? I knew that.”
(3) Shorter and more entertaining, but doesn’t give you the feeling of occupying the intellectual high ground that my column always does.
(4) One more photograph than the Angels merited that morning, but, then again, it’s been difficult to include the words “Angels” and “merit” in the same sentence this season.
(5) Identifiable as a worm!
(6) Yeah, I know Ray Ikola has degrees in electrical engineering and electrophysics. If the endangered earthworms turn out to be functioning on electric power, let me know. We’ll send the case right over to Ray.
(7) Fortunately for all involved, this is not likely to happen unless people with pitchforks and torches convince me to relocate to the Fifth District Court of Appeal.
(8) So, apparently, was Yahoo! News, judging from their use of the somewhat unscientific description “adorable.”
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.