If it looks like a beaver…

That oracle Stephen Fry never fails to inform and amuse. The ‘B’ series of QI is currently being re-run, and last Friday, one of the subjects was the beaver. And, it turns out – get this, if you’re as unaware as I was – that, in order to circumvent dietary restrictions imposed during Lent, the Catholic Church conferred piscine designation on that marvellous, dam-building mammal, thus permitting its Friday consumption – as fish!

This created a tension in me: on the one hand, it seemed Catholically plausible; on the other, I thought, ‘Was this originally broadcast on April 1st?’ So I’ve checked it out, via a little bit of on-line research (always risky, granted, but one has to start somewhere, and I’m too busy to give serious attention to something seemingly so, er, frivolous). And, incredibly, it seems to be true, under a seventeenth century ruling applied also to other aquatic animals.

It’s easy to scoff at what seems ridiculous now, although it was likely instigated for reasons that seemed perfectly rational a century before Linnaeus; perhaps an abundance of beaver coincided with a strike by some fishermen’s union. What I haven’t ascertained – and this is the thing that bothers me – is whether or not it has since been repudiated. Or, are there people out there who still sprinkle salt and vinegar on battered beaver and chips (probably washed down with ‘wine’ from the kitchen tap)?

Evolution is a sensitive issue for Catholicism, but it seems transmutation by decree is fine. And just think, in a couple of centuries from now, our descendants will probably look back and revile the Vatican’s condemnation of the use of condoms as a protectant against HIV in the developing world. Eh?!

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

9 responses to “If it looks like a beaver…

  1. Although I’m quite willing to be down on Roman Catholic church, being of Reformed theology, I think you are quite unfair in your mocking. The reason behind classifying ‘beaver’ (and ‘capybara’ in the Amazon basin) as ‘fish’ has little to do with biological classification, and a lot to do with grace (and bugger all to do with evolution).
    Although periods of fasting and denial (Fridays, Lent) are important in the RC church, periods of not dying through blind legalism are even more so.
    As an aside, the RC church does maintain what I consider an untenable position on condoms. But this is not because they want people to die of AIDS, but because of their teaching on contraception (with which I disagree). However, strictly speaking they are correct (if a little unrealistic): if you don’t want children, or to contract HIV, then don’t have sex.

  2. Cath – I don’t know what you mean…..
    Richard – Although I find the beaver thing funny, I did allude to the likelihood that there were – at the time – very likely pragmatic reasons for its re-‘classification’, which, was, I think, based on a biological system of sorts, which (then) considered habitat (water). My ‘mocking’ here applies to the ‘now’, if (and this I don’t know) it still happens to be official, in which case it is ridiculous.
    And I never suggested evolution had anything to do with it. (Perhaps my last paragraph should have commenced ‘These days,…’). I just find it an interesting juxtaposition: how the church has resisted the notion of species evolving from other species, but has in the past re-assigned to serve its own purpose, because it was more convenient than altering the rules governing diet during Lent; the Church doesn’t like to change, because it suggests it got it wrong… which perhaps explains its stance on condoms – that would necessitate a big doctrinal shift. But we won’t need to look back later to mock this one – it’s devoid of grace and mockable now! And mock it we should. If ‘strictly speaking they are correct’, then so is the George Bush-endorsed abstinence ring thing. Utterly derisory. One might get away with calling a beaver a fish, but humans aren’t pandas.

  3. They are not saying the beaver is a fish. They are saying it can be classed as a fish for these purposes. There is a subtle but important difference.
    It is easier to reclassify something in this sense than to change the rules for a specific instance — for example, my little 100 ml pot of EtOH should be kept in a flame cupboard, but that’s bloody inconvenient. So I’ve labelled it “DNA Precipitation Buffer” and it lives on my shelf. I haven’t changed the rules, or the nature of the substance; I’ve just called it something different.

  4. Lee,
    Why stop at the beaver ‘fish’. A little research will uncover the 17C Church’s practice of dunking suspected witches.

  5. I’m with Richard here when he says “They are not saying the beaver is a fish. They are saying it can be classed as a fish for these purposes. There is a subtle but important difference.” No difference from the EU classifying carrots as fruit so that Carrot Jam (popular in Portugal) can fulfil the terms of the European Jam Directive. And what’s wrong with that?
    And now a joke, incorporating religion and the perils of classification. To understand this it helps a lot of you are Jewish. If you aren’t, then you can bugger off.
    Moishe, a Jewish actor, is so down and out he’s ready to take any acting gig that he can find. Finally he gets a lead, a classified ad that reads “Actor needed to play an ape.”
    “I could do that,” says Moishe. To his surprise, the employer turns out to be the Zoo. Owing to mismanagement, the zoo has spent so much money renovating the grounds and improving the habitat, that they can no longer afford to import the ape they needed to replace their recently deceased one. So until they can, they’ll put an actor in an ape suit. Out of desperation, Moishe takes the offer.
    At first, his conscience keeps nagging him, that he is being dishonest by fooling the zoo-goers. And Moishe feels undignified in the ape-suit, stared at by crowds who watch his every move. But after a few days on the job, he begins to enjoy all the attention, and starts to put on a show for the zoo-goers: hanging upside-down from the branches by his legs, swinging about on the vines, climbing up the cage walls, and roaring with all his might whilst beating his chest. Soon, he’s drawing a sizable crowd.
    One day, when Moishe is swinging on the vines to show off to a group of school kids, his hand slips, and he goes flying over the fence into the neighboring cage, the lion’s den. Terrified, Moishe backs up as far from the approaching lion as he can, covers his eyes with his paws, and prays at the top of his lungs: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elokeinu Adonai Echad!
    The lion opens its powerful jaws and roars the response – Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed.
    From a nearby cage, a panda yells,“Shut up, you schmucks. You’ll get us all fired!!!”

  6. Henry – Glad I’ve provided stimulation sufficient to distract you from your book.
    I see no misalignment between Richard’s and my positions.
    Unlike John Goodman in The Big Lebowski, I’m happy to bowl on Shabbos. However, as this is my blog, I won’t be buggering off. And all comments are welcome, from any faith or none.

  7. which pope, or significant figure at the vatican, actually declared the beaver a fish?

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