Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Naming of Parts I: To Classify Nature Is Human, If Not Divine

Carol Kaesuk Yoon in Tuesday’s New York Times Science section gives us a little meditation on taxonomy, or the naming and classifying of plants and animals. It sounds dry and as stuffy as a store room of museum specimens, but she makes it fascinating.

People all over the world name and classify, and in many respects are remarkably consistent in how they do it, she writes. “Cecil Brown, an anthropologist at Northern Illinois University who has studied folk taxonomies in 188 languages, has found that people recognize the same basic categories repeatedly, including fish, birds, snakes, mammals, “wugs” (meaning worms and insects, or what we might call creepy-crawlies), trees, vines, herbs and bushes.”

The ability to do this seems hard-wired into our brains, Yoon says, citing a case where a young man with a brain injury could not identify inanimate objects, but could still remember the names of living ones.

To study and classify is a way to make contact with nature, she says. “We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction... entirely unaware that anything is happening.” But to meditate on an organism’s “ beetle-ness, its daffodility” and then name it is to change everything, including yourself because then “you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.”

Yes indeed. Makes you think of the second chapter of Genesis (verses 19 and 20):

“ And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

“ And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field...”

Old unbelievers like me will argue against divine inspiration, but sometimes we have to recognize a psychological truth.


The Garden Ms. S said...

I think it's harder to dismiss/treat poorly something once you know it's name.

I am in the process of learning the names of the wildflowers in the local woods and once I know them I look for them and feel connected to them.

I recall that my friend's mother always discouraged my friend's little sister from naming the animals on their small farm that were bound for the dinner table. My friend just called them "freezer pets". :)

Mary Soderstrom said...

Indeed it is harder to harm to someone whose name you know.

The poem in today's post is a briliant example of that, I thibk.

Good gardening