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January, 2008


by Valerie

I enjoy studying various sciences, including entomology, typography, astronomy, anatomy, and osteology. One of the less familiar of these happens to be a favorite of mine: taxonomy. Often, people think I mean taxidermy, but, while that subject is also of interest, I really am speaking of something totally different. Taxonomy is the science of classification. It usually refers to plants and animals, but many other things can be classified, too. In fact, one of the main ways we manage to grasp the myriad elements in our complex world is through assigning them to groups and therefore reducing the number of categories for any particular single item or detail.

The fun, or perhaps the frustration, of classification is that there are nearly unlimited ways in which to do it. Some methods are reasonably standardized, such as the Linnaean system in which we systematize all living organisms, from kingdom down to individual species, or the use of the Periodic Table for elements. On the other hand, there are numerous ways to classify art, music, and architecture, such as using a linear timeline, cultural or ideological movements, location, or function. Trying to classify type fonts is almost an exercise in futility, as the past millennium has provided countless forms of writing and letters, and the proliferation rate has increased with the introduction of moveable type, mechanized printing, and digital technologies. Such terms as serif, script, glyphic, stencil, swash, and black letter may help a little, but there are so many overlaps in styles that many fonts end up under the heading of "decorative" or "other."

Without even thinking about it, just about everyone makes use of taxonomy. We all have to organize our lives in some way, whether it is sorting the papers in our desks (hopefully keeping the various categories separated), the books on our shelves, the mail as it is delivered, or the clothes in our closets. Classification often occurs mentally, not just in physically moving things around. We receive thousands of bits of information each day and not all of it is particularly vital or even marginally important. Certain items get marked within our brains as "must remember" or "go ahead and forget," although the system isn't foolproof and it's easy to forget a name or address or date when we were aware that it was VERY important to retain that knowledge. Most people know to go to a hardware store to buy nails, a grocery store to buy food, and drugstore to buy medicine. Things are, however, made even simpler in our society, so that even somebody who didn't know that hammers are tools, cookies are food, or aspirin is a drug could find what they need with little trouble. They could just go to Wal-Mart and ask the greeter where each is located.

So, if taxonomy is so ubiquitous to our lives, what is there to study? I enjoy the exercise as applied to various areas that interest me, like typography, art, music, and, most of all, living organisms. We have come a long way from the time when anything could be classified as plant, mineral, or animal. In spite of our advances, though, the classification system for animals is far from concrete. Specialists who work in the field are always discovering new evidence that changes the relationships of different groups, and therefore the assigned categories and their corresponding names. This bit of flux makes the taxonomy of animals, especially of large and understudied groups such as insects, more intriguing in a way. Too much indetermination, though, would make it confusing, so I am grateful that a lot of prior research has made it possible for me to learn to recognize the majority of the species that I will encounter here in central Texas. Each creature I see gives me the chance to play the game of recognition. I can almost always tell if an insect is a fly, bee, beetle, or true bug. Those are the large, easy categories that are the first step. If I find a species I've never seen before, I compare its features to similar ones I do know. It is almost always a process of narrowing down the possibilities and finally arriving at the end result. I might not get down to species, but I'm often satisfied to know the genus of an insect that I've never before noticed.

Every collector classifies their objects. Reference librarians make superb use of taxonomy to keep a handle on the many areas of knowledge they must be able to recall on demand. Considering the huge volume of letters and packages, postal workers are able to sort the mail with surprisingly accurate results. How useful would the World Wide Web be without the capabilities of Google? In our multifaceted and detail-rich lives, the science of taxonomy is a welcome source of organization that helps us cope, understand, relax, and enjoy.

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