Is the Maple Leaf really a maple leaf?

Question: What kind of leaf appears on the Canadian flag? A silly question indeed! The leaf on the flag is from a maple tree, right? That's why it's called the “Maple Leaf.” Everybody knows what a maple tree looks like. Maple trees, with few exceptions, have lobed leaves and their seeds descend like miniature helicopters.

But wait a minute. An international symposium of botanists has decided that maple trees are really soapberries. Soapberries? What, pray tell, is a soapberry? Soapberries are mainly tropical plants. They don't look like maples. None occur in Canada. Does anyone want to sing “The Soapberry Leaf Forever”?

For as long as I can remember, maple trees – we have about a dozen species in Canada – formed a distinct, recognizable family called “maples.” But no more. The maple family (Aceraceae) has been merged with the soapberries  (Sapindaceae). Several other familiar plant families have changed status as well: Linden trees now belong with the Hollyhocks, and the Snapdragons have been splintered into at least five separate families.

I find these changes both unnerving and depressing. Why? As a boy growing up in Holland I learned to identify plants by using the Geillustreerde Flora van Nederland (Illustrated Flora of the Netherlands). The book – I still have it – introduced me to plant families: ferns, sedges, lilies, pigweeds, buttercups and many others. I loved the grasses, the trees and the wildflowers. I wanted to become a botanist, but had trouble with chemistry. So botany remained an absorbing hobby. Now that I am retired, I serve as a volunteer botanist in a wildlife refuge close to where we live in southern Illinois. In surveying the flora, I rely on technical manuals using the standard classification that I learned in Holland and have come to love.

By any other name
Until recently, the taxonomy of plants – their names and classification – has remained fairly stable. Plants have been identified and categorized on the basis of morphological features; that is, on the basis of characteristics that we can observe with nothing more than a magnifying glass. Roses, for example, share common features that allow us to classify every kind of rose as a rose.

During the past few years, botanists have focused their attention on molecular, phytochemical (the chemistry of plants) and phylogenetic (how plants have evolved) research.  

The results:  a new classification has been proposed, based not on what we can observe in the field, but on characteristics uncovered in the laboratory.

Not all professional botanists accept the changes. Mohlenbrock, who just published the definitive Flora of Illinois, argues for traditional morphology. He says: “It is gratifying to look at plants, to know what they are, and to give them their correct names. To me, each plant is to be approached more as a friend, with a set of features I recognize, not as a group of mysterious interacting molecules.” I find myself in complete agreement with this sentiment.

The new taxonomy comes with problems. First, for both plant lovers and professional field botanists, the proposals are not useful. We do not carry laboratory equipment with us into the woods. To identify an unknown plant, we observe it closely and look for family similarities, not DNA structures. 

Secondly, the debate between morphology and phylogenetic molecular research raises profound philosophical questions: What is really real, and what is mere appearance? Is phytochemistry objectively true and morphology nothing but subjective opinion? Is the new taxonomy “more true” than morphology?

Phylogenetic research indeed provides insight into plant relationships formerly unknown. And as long as it does not require us to actually call a maple a soapberry, we can live with it. But there is a risk: Phytochemists may insist that only what they find is real and, with a sneer, dismiss traditional morphology as mere appearance, outdated and mistaken, to be dumped into the botanical trash heap. Some of my botanist friends tend towards this arrogant attitude.

If molecular research trumps morphology, an alarming suggestion emerges: Truth is to be found in the results of scientific research, not in our everyday observed experience. I detect a spirit of “scientism” in this suggestion, a worldview – rightly criticized in the Reformational movement – that bamboozles us into believing that our experience is trustworthy only after scientific inquiry has established what's “really real.” It has no room for truths such as “I know that my Redeemer lives” or for the scientifically unprovable fact that my wife loves me. Scientism insinuates that the lovely maple tree in your backyard, with its brilliant fall colors, identifiable by its fluttering helicopter seeds and its distinctive leaf shape proudly displayed on the Canadian flag, is in reality a soapberry.

Scientism reduces the lilies of the field to nothing but molecular structures. The recognition that God clothes them and puts His thumbprint on them is fundamentally irrelevant, a mere unscientific, subjective addition void of measurable truth and validity. Their beauty and loveliness say nothing about their true nature.

Privileging the new taxonomy reveals a tenacious spirit of scientism, postmodernist talk about “truth is what you make of it” notwithstanding.

Plant lovers, beware!

  • John Van Dyk is a retired college professor, currently in his third career: after 20 years of classics and philosophy and 20 years of education, he’s finally a botanist (of sorts). He’s also a visiting professor at Edinburg Theological Seminary in Texas.

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