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Taxonomy

Published: Tuesday 17 Nov 2020 | Edited: Saturday 21 Nov 2020

My disclaimer about this is that I literally know almost nothing about it. Writing this sentence, I haven't read a single book, or even a Wikipedia article, about taxonomy.

I think taxonomy is the practice of grouping things together by their characteristics, especially like animals and plants and stuff. Like, I'm not even sure that's what it is. I don't know when I heard the word, or what.

And even though I really don't know about when scientists started doing this, or what the techniques are, or anything like that - I cannot stop thinking about this for some reason. This idea of listing the attributes of things, then grouping things together and making trees and connections is like a fever dream I'm experiencing in the moments between other thoughts. It's like a mosquito that's bugging me.

I have no idea what I'm going to write about this, but I think I'm gonna start reading about taxonomy and just, like, keep a daily log or something.

So here we go. Today is 16 November 2020. First entry: I announce my intention to start a journal as I learn more about taxonomy. Nyah.



17 November 2020

Today, I settled down into Wikipedia on taxonomy. Turns out, I was kinda right that it entails categorizing stuff, usually biological things. I figured I'd try to get a feel for when people started doing that categorization work.

The "father" of taxonomy is this Swedish Carl Linnaeus nerd. He came up with the genus/species thing, like, the primate Homo sapien, or the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex, or the bacteria Escherichia coli, as examples.

He standardized it. But, there were other nerds going around recording stuff, drawing stuff, writing shit down, probably way before him. I was thinking about getting into that history, like, "When did people start recording organismic information in earnest?"

But that turned out to be a little trickier than I thought. Because there's no clear line you can draw where it's like, "Okay, after this point, this is a scientific endeavor, and before this, it's just casual observation."

As I was wondering how far back in history this kind of behavior goes, I remembered a podcast I listened to a few years ago, right after it aired.

It was Joe Rogan's show, and the guest was Steven Rinella.

A picture of Steven Rinella, dressed in camo, a pack, and hunting gear, smiling
Image attribution

Rinella is an author and a TV producer, among other things. He's an outdoorsman. He touches a lot on anthropology.

I highly recommend the episode, that I'll link here. At a certain point, Rinella is recounting a trip he took up the Rewa River in Guyana, and his friend Rovan, who is a member of the Mikushi tribe (an indigenous group that is slowly transitioning from its ancestral traditions to experiencing more and more contact with the modern world).

I thought of this conversation, because Rinella does a good job recounting his experience with this guy and this indigenous group. And what we know about indigenous people is our closest glance at what conditions and life were like for our earliest human-like ancestors. And I think what he talks about has implication for this whole taxonomy thing.

Rinella: One of the things that's surpri... Like, one of the things that you get is uhm... You know, you're from... What state were you born in?

Rogan: New Jersey.

Rinella: Yeah, see, it's like, you've been all over the place, right?

Rogan: Yeah.

Rinella: Uh.. Imagine that... Imagine you hunted and fished and farmed and that's all you did. So you're always on the land. And you've done it all within a twenty-mile radius of your home. So, you're outside, hunting and fishing or farming or gathering in the jungle every day. And you're in your thirties or forties. And you've done it in a radius of twenty miles.

Rogan: Wow.

Rinella: To what level you understand your spot, and without the distractions of the digital shit, and without the distractions of an occupation.

Rogan: Oh, he [Rovan] doesn't work at all?

Rinella: I mean, now he guides a little bit every year.

Rogan: For the fish.

Rinella: He guides a little bit, but typically not. Like most days, he's not engaged in that activity. So, the spatial awareness is a thing that's most striking to me. And in spending time with these individuals is uhm... Everything... I'm interested in what they notice, and what they never miss. It's like, you realize that all the bits of information you're able to contain in your head, that allow you to function and carry on, right? You're like, a comedian, and you do shit with MMA, and you have a very successful podcast, and you have a family, and you're digitally very astute, and you have opinions about fuckin' coffee, right? All this shit. You're widely read. All right, that's, like, all... You sort of fill up your brain with as much as it can hold. But, for them it's like, it seems to be, from my perspective, it's like, all of that breadth of knowledge, but crammed into the natural world; to where every plant, every tree, "What are its uses?", "What are the other things?" And it's like, they know as much... Like, they know as much as we know, but it's just focused in a way that our breadth of knowledge — which would probably be astounding to them if they realized all the shit we knew about — but they're... all those bits of information are just supplied in a different way. Down to, like, a granular understanding of the jungle.

Rogan: It would probably be very bizarre for them to see us, like, walk, like, out to this parking lot; there's these little patches of, like, plants. We don't have a fucking clue as to what they are.

Rinella: No.

Rogan: We pass through them like they... they're just peripheral.

Rinella: There is no, like, "Oh, I don't know what that is."

Rogan: Wow. They know everything.

Rinella: ...toxicity.

Rogan: How many thousands and thousands of different varieties of plants and animals?

Rinella: You know, at various times, there's 1500 species of birds. Listen, I, like... There was never a moment when I heard a bird call... I never said, "Hey what's that bird?" that everyone there didn't say what the bird was.

Rogan: Huh.

Rinella: Bird sounds.

Rogan: Wow.

Rinella: Just from sounds. It's like, you can't... Like... and the shit that, like... it's almost like, something you have to go see. It's, uhm... the ability to just like, move through the jungle and notice everything.

Taxonomy is obviously an advanced method for breaking it all down and allowing knowledge of the natural world to accumulate and circulate outside of just a village-sized group of people, but I wonder if the ancient drive to acquire and share wisdom isn't the magical part of it all. Remembering this conversation made me wonder if taxonomy is simply a formalism of that natural behavior.



20 November 2020

I just spent four hours writing about the technicalities of taxonomy. Then I started writing shit like, "Man, this taxonomy system is so fucked. It's worthless. It traps biologists in these distinctions made by 18th century dweebs."

But I deleted all of it. Because my desire to have a hot take on it was way, way, way beyond my knowledge. Like, I went from not really knowing what it was last week to wanting to make a high-level commentary on it today.

I even got into a fight about it with my wife. Like, she studied this shit in college, and I read three paragraphs about it and wanted to explain to her how wrong she was, and how she was so "bought in" to this culture of authority in biology.

I think I'm ending this series. Partially because I realized there's a mountain of information I'd need to go through to really understand it; and mostly because I realized it's a topic that draws out my inner bastard. Like, every time I laugh at an antivaxxer or a Trump supporter or someone I view as ignorant, I can only do it by blinding myself to the ways that I'm exactly the fuckin same. It hit me hard today as I was writing, and I want to stop thinking about it for a while.

I will just link some really mind blowing stuff I've been skimming over the last few days:
  1. The Open Tree of Life Project: gives a visual idea for how many organisms are mapped and how detailed human understanding of their relationships is
  2. Cladistics: a vision for the tree of life that organizes everything in terms of who shat out whom, evolutionarily. Once I read that this model of organization is much more active among biologists today, I realized I had no idea what I was talking about
  3. This paper on the growth of classified taxa from the 1750s to the 1950s

    Distribution curves showing the accumulation of each taxon below kingdom from 1750 to 1950
    The researchers estimate we have classified about 8.7 million species of eukaryotic organisms, and that's probably about 10% of what's out there undiscovered

I really can't keep going with this. I'm an asshole. I'm out of my depth. Next thing.



21 November 2020

Okay, I'm gonna say one more thing about this, and then I'll drop it for good maybe.

When I was reading a little about the history of taxonomy stemming from Linnaeus, it struck me that Charles Darwin, along with doing his own classification work, drew a lot on the knowledge of his contemporaries and his predecessors, and their work was accessible and available to him because the process of categorizing animals was formalized.

Darwin didn't develop the theory out of nowhere. He provided an explanation for questions that were in the air in his day. And the questions were things like, "Why do all these mammals have such similar organ systems?" and "Why do some sea creatures have gills and others lungs?" and shit like that.

Those questions were only coherent and possible after many hundreds or thousands of people did boring, administrative, but rigorous work behind cataloguing the animals they discovered.

And I think all the beef I was starting to build up around our system of taxonomy really kinda fades away when I realize that Darwin probably would have never formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection without it. If the work of Linnaeus and others hadn't been proposed and enforced for a hundred years prior, Darwin wouldn't have had the necessary ingredients at the table for his own work.

Warts and all, we owe our most important insights about the origins of life, in large part, to Linnaeus and his taxa.