umwelt
June 16, 2021 1:39 PM   Subscribe

THE (UN)NATURAL ORDER OF THINGS "People around the world ordered the life around them in very similar, even stereotyped ways, regardless of where they lived, what language they spoke, or which animals and plants they were ordering. People, it turned out, unconsciously followed a strict set of rules, universally creating a hierarchical ordering of living things based on how living things appear, that is, on similarities and dissimilarities in how they look, smell, sound, and act—the same sort of taxonomy that professional scientific taxonomists have ever been after. The countless varieties of folk taxonomies were fundamentally variations on a single theme: that same basic and effortlessly perceived natural order that people everywhere see."
posted by dhruva (17 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
So maybe the Whale IS a fish after all?
posted by grokus at 1:47 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Do not start with me, Melville. Back to your shack.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:55 PM on June 16 [12 favorites]


Then the Platypus shows up.
posted by sammyo at 2:23 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


This is a really interesting essay, thanks for posting.

QFT:

Without even realizing it, we have traded a view of ourselves as living beings in a living world for a view of ourselves as consumers in a landscape of merchandise. We have unwittingly traded a facility with living things for a savant-like brand expertise that exchanges the language of the living world—the names of real plants and real animals—for a vocabulary of Tony the Tigers and Geico geckos. The world we live in, our simple reality, is the world of purchasable items. We have, without even trying, absolutely gotten what we’ve paid for. You might need a naturalist interpreter to help you make sense of things as you walk through the local forest, but you would never need such assistance when wandering through the mall.

posted by chavenet at 2:30 PM on June 16 [7 favorites]


I’ve discovered I’m a sucker for the arcana of taxonomy (currently, as applied to fungi), and it’s fascinating to run other ordering logics in parallel to the scientific binomial convention (eg. common name systemics, or molecular-based statistical reordering, etc.), in order to put Enlightenment Science in some welcome perspective. Seems to me the article got a little stuck in its analysis on a big German word, when what matters is who’s reconfiguring that Umwelt, those ecologies we find ourselves living in (and succumbing to). (More great, slightly more recent reads in this vein are Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing (previously) and Anna Tsing Lowenhaupt’s The Mushroom at the End of the World.)
posted by progosk at 2:31 PM on June 16 [6 favorites]


We have unwittingly traded a facility with living things for a savant-like brand expertise that exchanges the language of the living world—the names of real plants and real animals—for a vocabulary of Tony the Tigers and Geico geckos.

In The Great War And Modern Memory, I learned that English poets, as late as the Edwardian period, were practically all expert botanists, their knowledge of flowers and plants and their names was so abundant. I don't think you see this anymore, and, perhaps, it is a tradition that the war killed, sometimes literally. Now, if I met a person, and they said they wanted to read me a poem they had written, I'd guess that it is probably all about themselves, and would be set in a world only incidentally.
posted by thelonius at 2:46 PM on June 16 [5 favorites]


Today, we effortlessly perceive an order among the many different kinds of human-made, purchasable items. Instead of sorting living things by size, shape, color, smell, and sound, we sort merchandise this way, obsessed and immersed as we are in a world of products.

An interesting essay could be written about supermarket taxonomies. Does canned tuna belong with other things in cans, or with other kinds of fish? Do eggs belong with milk (because dairy), or meat (because poultry), or flour (because baking)? Cooking oils seem to occupy a liminal position between liquids and solids, which is why they live on a shelf apart from other goods. And when does a biscuit become a cake?
posted by verstegan at 2:56 PM on June 16 [3 favorites]


I think the argument here is that if people were more knowledgeable about the natural world, they'd be more motivated to protect it. Maybe I'm not enough of a hippie, but I think we should protect the environment because by not doing so we are screwing ourselves over; I don't need to tell the difference between 500 types of local wildflowers to know that.
posted by airmail at 2:59 PM on June 16 [7 favorites]


Good essay. As an amateur, it's interesting how DNA analysis has given Linnaeus a shake in classifying some plants and animals (and other life) in Wikipedia articles. I'd be curious to hear an expert opinion on this.
posted by ovvl at 4:11 PM on June 16


We have more in common than divides us. After a period of pandemic isolation (and counter-culturally) we need each other.
posted by k3ninho at 4:12 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


And when does a biscuit become a cake?

When it travels from the US to the UK. ;)
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:24 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


Great essay, thank you for sharing. It nicely complements my reading of Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass (and I second the nod to Jenny Odell). Both Yoon and Kimmerer are calling for us to re-establish our relationship with the natural world, not because it will make us want to protect it, but because that relationship is the key to repairing it. The notion that we are somehow apart or superior to the environment is what has led us to where we are today.
posted by Rora at 5:12 PM on June 16 [4 favorites]


See this is out of date from 2009: nowadays if you need to know what a plant is your phone can send a picture to a neural net that knows what plants look like.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:06 PM on June 16


ovvl: DNA analysis has given Linnaeus a shake in classifying
In 1994, Dan Graur and Des Higgins published a then extraordinary paper mustering the molecular genetic evidence that first pointed at the relationship between camels and whales identified by Polonius and Hamlet 400 years earlier.
Genbank the DNA database was established in 1982 with less than 600 sequences. By late 1993, there were 150,000 sequences available for study . . . but even then very much under-analysed. Now there are 250 million sequences and we are drowning in data for which there aren't enough effectives on the planet to properly analyse. Dan and Des decided to gallop across the 1994 data-prairie whoopin' and hollerin' to gather themselves some sequences with which to answer an interesting evolutionary conundrum: where did whales come from? They downloaded the sequences of a number of proteins from a selection of whales and a selection of artiodactyls - the mammalian order that includes cows, sheep, deer, antelopes, pigs, camels and llamas.

When the sequences were aligned and a tree of relationships was constructed, they were gob-smacked and excited to see that whales were closer to cows and sheep than either of those species were to pigs. They put their arguments in good order with text, tables and figures and sent it off to Nature, Europe's premier general science journal. An editor at the journal looked at the title and sent it off to be refereed by a whale taxonomist. A scathing review came back. I paraphrase: "these authors have disappeared up their own backsides with their clever-clogs tinkering around with such irrelevancies as DNA sequences. A child of six knows that artiodactyls have cloven hooves and many of them pronk about in the Serengeti; on the other hand whales have fins and live in the ocean. Please don't waste my time like this ever again." D&D read this critique, realised that whale-mavens looked at the world through baleen blinkers and later that year the paper was published in MBE Molecular Biology and Evolution. It didn't quite sink without trace like a dead whale but it didn't make enormous waves either. Two years later, after more data from more species had accumulated, Peter Arctander + 3 showed that the nearest artiodactyl rellie of whales was hippopotamus . . . and the data all fell into place.
Oblig Moby Brit joke:
Q. How do you get two whales in ten minutes?
A. The Severn Bridge

posted by BobTheScientist at 12:57 AM on June 17 [10 favorites]


Excellent contextualisation, BobTheScientist!

Now there are 250 million sequences and we are drowning in data for which there aren't enough effectives on the planet to properly analyse.

What often gets lost in these conversations, in part due to the heady vertigo that phylogenetic reordering by DNA evidence rightly engenders, is: who has access to this ordering technology (and who is structurally excluded), and who will be put in charge of taming (i.e. algorithmically extracting value from) the data tsunami it has produced. The shift in taxonomical practice to post-human tools/paradigms makes the ideological importance of understanding what we’re heading towards that much more urgent….
posted by progosk at 3:40 AM on June 17


This essay nicely complements my recent read, Why Fish Don't Exist--A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life. The author, Lulu Miller, mentions reading Carol Kaesuk Yoon's "marvelous book, Naming Nature".
posted by winesong at 2:19 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


An interesting essay could be written about supermarket taxonomies. Does canned tuna belong with other things in cans, or with other kinds of fish? Do eggs belong with milk (because dairy), or meat (because poultry), or flour (because baking)? Cooking oils seem to occupy a liminal position between liquids and solids, which is why they live on a shelf apart from other goods. And when does a biscuit become a cake?

protip: Took LSD? Don't go in the supermarket. I was almost overwhelmed by these kinds of problems.
posted by thelonius at 4:04 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


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