Is a zebra black with white stripes, or white with black stripes?

on the consequences of seemingly arbitrary distinctions

A Philosopher Walks into a Zoo

On a recent trip to the zoo, we spent a while admiring the zebras. Inevitably we fell into the age-old question: Are zebras white with black stripes, or black with white stripes?

(The two-year-old didn’t have much to say on this. Her wisdom is subverbal.)

Anyway, it feels silly. A language game. Makes no difference, right?

Not so. The scientific truth: zebras are black with white stripes. We can say this for two reasons. First, beneath their hair, their skin is black (not white). Second, when developing in utero, the black comes first, followed by the white.

If you just want to gaze at these mesmerizing test-pattern beasts, then the distinction is meaningless. But if you want to understand them – their structure, their origins, their kinship with NFL referees – then you’ve got to care about a question that you might previously have dismissed as a dumb game for philosophers.

Philosophers 1, Normies 0.

And if you don’t like that ruling, you can appeal to the referees with the flowing black manes.

A Philosopher Drives a Car

Commenting on my post on alternatives to daylight savings time, Douglas Magowan points out the strange fact that “standard” time occupies less than half of the year, and “daylight savings time” more than half.

Doesn’t that change our sense of what “standard” is?

In this case, of course, “standard” is about what came first. Daylight savings time may be more prevalent, but it’s newer, and hence “nonstandard.”

Another case like this: “standard” vs. “automatic” transmission. With the vast majority of cars on U.S. roads now automatic, there’s nothing “standard” about manual transmission… except the fact that it was once the standard, and managed to hold on to the name.

Picture a zebra whose hair is 90% white and 10% black. Gazing upon the hornless newsprint unicorn, you might call it a “white horse, with a few black stripes.” But from another perspective, it’s a black horse, whose body just happens to be covered in white stripes.

A Philosopher Learns German

Here’s another example that always stuck with me. Steven Pinker – back when he was a psychologist studying language, rather than an at-large academic studying how many humanities departments he can alienate – noted that only something like 3% of German words are “regular.” The other 97% are irregular. In fact, some of the irregular conjugations are more common than the regular conjugation.

So in what sense is the “regular” conjugation actually regular?

Well, if you coin a new verb, then German speakers will spontaneously and naturally conjugate it according to the “regular” pattern.

In that sense, it really is the default setting, even if 97% of cases are exceptions to it.

In “standard time” and “standard transmission,” the word “standard” is about the past. The old thing remain “standard” even as the new thing grows more prevalent. But in German, a “regular verb” is about the future. The “standard” is whatever a new verb wandering into the language decides to do. This kind of “standard” is not about history, but potential.

A Philosopher Gets a COVID Vaccine

I’ll be fully vaccinated by the end of May, and I’m eager for life to resume something like normality. My wife is eager, too, but more cautious. She knows it’ll make many activities safer, but she doesn’t really see it as a return to normalcy.

Which is it?

On the normal hand, we’ll invite our friends inside. We’ll poke around bookstores. We’ll travel to visit family. We’ll get haircuts. We’ll grocery shop with gleeful abandon, like Soviets glimpsing supermarkets for the first time.

But on the abnormal hand, we’ll avoid big crowds. We’ll be hesitant to eat in restaurants or work in coffee shops. We’ll still wear masks in public buildings. We’ll still be deluged with insipid social media arguments about whether we need to wear masks in public buildings.

So am I right, or is she? Will we be returning to normal life, with a few caveats and exceptions? Or will life remain fundamentally abnormal, with a few blessed interjections of normality? And when it’s time to evaluate a new activity – to conjugate a new verb, so to speak – will it be allowed by default, or disallowed by default? Is the regular conjugation defined by the pre-pandemic baseline, or the more recent pandemic pattern?

I’ve never wanted so badly to know whether the zebra is black with white stripes, or white with black.

11 thoughts on “Is a zebra black with white stripes, or white with black stripes?

  1. This made me think about polar bears. They have black skin and they have…one very prominent white stripe (although if we are being technical they would have a stripe of non-pigmented hollow hair).

      1. I have seen this claim:
        “TIL Polar bears actually have black skin and clear hollow fur. The clear and hollow fur enables the sun rays to get to the black skin that keeps the polar bears warm in the cold climate.”

    1. Good questions! Answering them, unfortunately, would require knowledge about the world, which is a kind of knowledge that I tend to lack

  2. You overlooked a very important question that needs to be addressed … is it math with bad drawings or bad drawings with math sprinkled in???

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