A Taxonomic War.

Is it right to classify ‘taxonomy’ as the oldest profession practiced by people with their clothes on, as Quentin Wheeler does at the start of his review of Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s Naming Nature, to which the Aussie Anthropoid drew my attention.

First off, there are those who consider the oldest profession not to be that practiced by people with their clothes off but that practiced by people depriving other people of their lives, while that practiced by people with their clothes off being only the second oldest. Secondly if we restrict ourselves to professions practiced with clothes on but done so with the intention of categorising or extending or even starting our knowledge of our umwelt then this honour definitely goes to the categorisers of celestial bodies and not to those who categorise mere things that creep and crawl.

The gloves are off, I challenge those supporters of the namers of the mere living things to prove me wrong!


Filed under Odds and Ends

13 responses to “A Taxonomic War.

  1. Ummm … the oldest profession practiced with clothes on was clothes making.

  2. John Wilkins

    Nobody ever worried about being eaten by a constellation. Anyway, the earliest constellations we know of are from Mesopotamia, around 3000BCE, whereas I am totally sure that the painters of the Lascaux animals had names for them. Ergo, we win.

    • I am totally sure that the painters of the Lascaux animals had names for them.


      • A more serious question John, when does giving names to plants and animals actually become taxonomy?

      • John Wilkins

        From the start. We are native classifier systems (it’s a function of being neural networks). Humans even have, as a piece in the NYT from Kaesuk Yoon argues, a region in the brain that “recognises” living kinds.

    • There are also stars on walls of Lascaux! There are artifacts that are 30 000 years old that are supposed to be lunar calendars, an interpretation that is disputed and I must admit that I’m sceptical

    • Chris' Wills

      Why are you so sure they had names for them?

      Apart from the obvious; big/medium/small animal good to eat, possibly with additions such as safe and dangerous.

      They didn’t need to know much else did they.

      • John Wilkins

        Hunters need to know a lot about the animals they hunt. They need to know where they live, to be able to recognise them, to know how they’ll react, when they are around, and so on. When Mayr went to the Papuan tribes in the hills, he found that their hunters identified some 250 of the same species he did. The only dispute was also disputed under European taxonomy. Mayr thought this proved species were real. I don’t know about that, but it proves hunters need to be great taxonomists.

        When Ed Wilson tried the same thing with ants, he got “big ones, little red ones”, and so on for several hundred species. Nobody hunts ants, or paints them on cave walls.

      • thonyc

        Nobody hunts ants…

        Anteaters do 😉

      • John Wilkins

        What do they call them, then?

      • That, you’ll have to ask an anteater.

  3. Since hunter gathers live in intimate contact with the natural world, they surely began to taxonomize as soon as they had language or, rather, since the language and taxonomy are obviously closely related, the two doubtlessly emerged together. As the anthropologists have discovered, existing tribal peoples have a detailed knowledge of the animals and plants in their vicinity. These folk also kept track of the stars: the myths of South and North American refer to many constellations. There are a great many stories about the Pleiades, for example.

  4. But surely Adam was naked when he named every living creature!

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