Linnaeus' Lost Art

9202a8c04000641f8000000004d4fb5b.jpeg

I wonder how many people could identify Linnaeus, the father of our taxonomic system for classifying all the species on Earth. I even wonder how many would know the meaning of taxonomy. Are these questions merely examples of esoterica that mean little to daily life. Carol Kaesuk Yoon, writing in the NYTimes says no. Bemoaning the loss of interest in taxonomy, she writes:

Despite the field’s now blatant modernity, with practitioners using DNA sequences, sophisticated evolutionary theory and supercomputers to order and name all of life, jobs for taxonomists continue to be in steady decline. The natural history collections crucial to the work are closeted or tossed.

Outside taxonomy, no one is much up in arms about this, but perhaps we should be, because the ordering and naming of life is no esoteric science. The past few decades have seen a stream of studies that show that sorting and naming the natural world is a universal, deep-seated and fundamental human activity, one we cannot afford to lose because it is essential to understanding the living world, and our place in it.

More signs of our unconsciousness of our place in the world from the most unlikely places—the dusty cupboards of natural history collections. This is one of the three critical domains that suffer from the dominance of modern cultural beliefs and norms. The other two are lost consciousness of what it is to be human (our individual existence) and of other humans (our social existence). I argue in Sustainability by Design, that this loss is a fundamental cause of unsustainability. Simplifying my argument, if we have forgotten to care for the world, ourselves, and others, and left our responsibilities to the market and technocratic government, it is no surprise that the world is in such a sad state.

Using the example of “J.B.R.” a brain injured man who lost the ability to recognize living things, but could name inanimate objects, Yoon argues for the importance of being able to classify objects out there in the world.

How to tell the carrot from the cat — which to grate and which to pet? They are utterly lost, anchorless in a strange and confusing world. Because to order and name life is to have a sense of the world around, and, as a result, what one’s place is in it… We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life. We are willfully becoming poor J.B.R., losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world… Even when scads of insistent wildlife appear with a flourish right in front of us, and there is such life always — hawks migrating over the parking lot, great colorful moths banging up against the window at night — we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening.

Her answer to this dangerous trend is quite simple. Just take time to pay attention to the world around you, giving names to what you see. “Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.” Can we unplug the earbuds, stop our thumbs, and glance away from the now omnipresent hand-held screen for just a moment? We better learn how quickly.

|