Who Are You Calling a Slime Mold?

by Jennifer Frazer on August 14, 2009

One of my three science heroes: Carolus Linnaeus

The father of taxonomy, one of my three science heroes, and the inventor of the index card: Carolus Linnaeus. In his buttonhole is his favorite flower, the twinflower, subsequently named Linnea borealis in his honor. Note the powder on his coat from his wig. Painting by Alexander Roslin.

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, claimed Juliet, but could she say the same for a nameless rose? Perhaps not. In case you missed it this week, fellow Cornell alum and science writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon produced a lovely article in the New York Times adapted from her new book on the decline of taxonomy that is well worth your time.

Taxonomy — the science of naming and classifying organisms — and the study of obscure organisms have been dying long slow deaths, as any taxonomist can tell you. Funding for such projects has often been usurped for molecular, pharmaceutical, or biotechnical work. And of course, these projects are important.

But so is taxonomy, and Yoon argues that the discovery and naming of life is a deep-seated biological urge among humans. Cultures everywhere sort living things into the same basic categories and feel the same urge to give them two-part names. Briar rose, it seems, is even sweeter. This urge is apart from any value we might derive from discovering among new organisms new pharmaceuticals or modes of operating a cell that could inspire us medically or biotechnically (and believe me, the number of crazy ways you can operate a cell is mind-boggling. Click on any group here to get an idea).

More startlingly, she describes research showing it is possible for people to suffer brain injury that makes them unable to recognize anything living, while remaining perfectly capable of recognizing a toaster or stapler. In my conscious mind, I barely remember that something like a carrot is living at all, it’s so far removed from its natural setting. Consciously, I classify it more as food. But people with this disorder cannot look at a carrot and tell you what it is because it is living, regardless of whether you or I or they would consciously think of it that way when naming it. What an amazing finding! Regardless of our difficulty as scientists at deciding on the boundaries of life (see viruses), something deep and innate in human brains does so instantly and unconsciously, and uses it to classify and store new ideas in the index of our minds.

If taxonomy has been declining among scientists, it has virtually disappeared among the general public. Tomorrow I’ll share a small revelation I had in this regard when I stumbled a few weeks ago upon a 19th-century second grade reading primer.

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The Biology and Taxonomy of a Second Grade Primer, 1897
August 15, 2009 at 11:58 am

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Daniel Poth August 17, 2009 at 8:34 am

This is, without a doubt, one of your best posts yet.

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