Nature really is chaotic. The real myth is the one that the Natural History Museum promotes in its collections and in its family trees and genealogies. The real myth is the myth of order.
Interestingly enough, earlier this week one of our podcast listeners alerted us to a New York Times article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon that adds another perspective to the naming and ordering of nature. While Prosek’s words lament a loss of nature’s magic to the rigid confines of Linnaean classification (named after the “father of taxonomy” Carl Linnaeus), Yoon’s essay mourns the loss of popular interest in taxonomy:
In Linnaeus’s day, it was a matter of aristocratic pride to have a wonderful and wonderfully curated collection of wild organisms, both dead and alive. Darwin (who gained fame first as the world’s foremost barnacle taxonomist) might have expected any dinner-party conversation to turn taxonomic, after an afternoon of beetle-hunting or wildflower study. Most of us claim and enjoy no such expertise.
And, she relates this loss to a divestment from the natural world:
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.
I find it interesting that these two perspectives on taxonomy can seem completely at odds, while at the same time come from the same sense of wonder in the face of the nature. Perhaps these two viewpoints evoke a need for balance: without some system of naming we’re limited in our ability to understand the natural world, but pin everything down too neatly and we lose the life that makes nature so attractive and — as Prosek might say — mystical.
(image: A plate depicting the characters used in Linnaeus’ classification system, from Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes.)