I am proud. My 5-year-old son set about classifying the natural world last night or, as he put it, “making families” with his soft toys. But would he put the panda with the bears?
It was bed time but he wasn’t tired. Actually, he was but as “sleep is boring” he’s found lots of ways of putting off the moment when his brain has to settle down for the night. “Making families” is a new one and he came up with it himself. It basically involved gathering all his dog toys in a pile and all his bear toys in another. I was in the kitchen when my wife informed me of his latest wheeze and my mind leapt immediately on his two toy pandas. This is the sorry consequence of reading and writing almost exclusively about these extraordinary creatures since September.
My son has two pandas, presents from me of course. One came from the gift-shop at the Natural History Museum in London so is called Chi-Chi. The other came from the gift-shop at Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna so is called Fu Long. The question of where pandas sit in the tree of life has occupied scientists for more than 100 years and whilst I have foisted a lot of the panda baggage I am carrying onto my inquisitive son, I have spared him the furore surrounding the species’ taxonomy. To surmise, up until 1985 there were two main schools of thought: either the panda was most closely related to bears or to raccoons. Molecular data has now as good as settled the debate in favour of the bears.
So what would my sleepy son choose? I decided I would give him half an hour to complete his classification and fall asleep. Then I would sneak into his bedroom and assess his handiwork. When I got there, everything was in a bit of a jumble but I could make out a vaguely doggy zone and a heap of bears. Chi-Chi and Fu Long did not seem to be in the picture. I straightened his duvet and resolved to follow the matter up in the morning.
When, over a bowl of cereal, I nonchalantly enquired about the “making families” game and observed that he did not seem to have placed the pandas with the bears, he looked at me like I was dumb. “Pandas are pandas,” he said. It was a glorious moment for my son is in good company. In The Last Panda, eminent field zoologist George Schaller found the question of the panda’s closest-living relative rather missed the point. The panda has similarities to both bears and raccoons but its remarkable differences set it apart from either group. “A panda is a panda,” was his poetic conclusion.