Friday, June 24, 2011

In the beginning, there was taxonomy…


In the book Glut: Mastering Information Through The Ages there is the story told of anthropologist Brent Berlin walking through the Peruvian rainforest with a guide from the local Aguaruna tribe. Berlin listened as his guide pointed out the names of all the plants and animals they encountered. The tribe had developed an elaborate taxonomy of their own to classify and categorize the living things around them.

Berlin also discovered later that folk taxonomies are startlingly complex in order to organize their understanding of plants and animals. History credits Linnaeus and Aristotle with starting to catagorize living things, but it is suspected that the practice goes further back. It would be highly useful to learn very quickly what plants and animals were poisonous and harmful and which weren't.

When I read about this, I instantly thought of some verses I had recently read in the Pearl of Great Price:
19 And out of the ground I, the Lord God, formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and commanded that they should come unto Adam, to see what he would call them; and they were also living souls; for I, God, breathed into them the breath of life, and commanded that whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that should be the name thereof.
20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but as for Adam, there was not found an help meet for him. (Moses 3:19-20)
Here’s a really cute poem I found more than a year ago that seems to bring this event to life:
Adam’s Task, by John Hollander

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and
to the fowl of the air, and to every
beast of the field...GEN 2:20


Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou pliant-footed,
Implex; thou awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdle; thou, McFleery’s pomma;
Thou; thou; thou--three types of grawl;
Thou flishket; thou. kabasch; thou, comma-
Eared mashawk; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal, thou zant; thou, lily-eater.
Naming’s over. Day is done.

(from Selected Poetry (New York: Knopf, 1993)
I think it says something about God's love for us and desire for us to learn that He allows us to make our own names for things. He wants us to discover for ourselves. I think it is also neat that He uses our names for things when He communicates. In a certain sense, it is another example of the condescension of God.

Image: SchoolWorkHelper—St. Rosemary Educational Institution, http://schoolworkhelper.net/2010/07/scientific-taxonomy/