Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bird or Mammal?

Bird or Mammal?

Here is a link to a very interesting NYT article on the nature of TAXONOMY, which is the naming and categorization of life. The article was adapted from the book Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon.

There appears to be such profound unconscious agreement that people will even concur on which exact words make the best names for particular organisms. Brent Berlin, an ethnobiologist at the University of Georgia, discovered this when he read 50 pairs of names, each consisting of one bird and one fish name, to a group of 100 undergraduates, and asked them to identify which was which. The names had been randomly chosen from the language of Peru’s Huambisa people, to which the students had had no previous exposure. With such a large sample size — there were 5,000 choices being made — the students should have scored 50 percent or very close to it if they were blindly guessing. Instead, they identified the bird and fish names correctly 58 percent of the time, significantly more often than expected for random guessing. Somehow they were often able to intuit the names’ birdiness or fishiness.
It is certain that we are losing touch not only with nature and what it is to be a part of ecological systems, but with the part of our minds designed to process, understand, and label the components of our environments. Will we soon be more proficient at naming technological processes?

No wonder so few of us can really see what is out there. 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. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism, small, large, gaudy, subtle — anywhere, and they are everywhere — and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound.

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