The Trouble with Taxonomy: Why knowing a species’ name is not knowledge of its nature.
Taxonomy is tricky. Born of order, it sorts the chaos of nature and allows us to digest the world around us, yet by focussing on individual species it can detract from the plurality of ecosystems. If we understand its language, taxonomy enables the efficient identification of the natural world, but without proper understanding it is the sole preserve of specialists. The use of taxonomic terms has facilitated inquiry in theoretical and practical fields alike, but so entrenched has its application become that it is hard to separate the nominal from the natural. Taxonomy can engender a blinkered perspective of the world that disengages us from our natural surroundings, creating a divide between knowledge and appreciation; our need to know can prevent our ability to be enthralled.
Official taxonomy is based on Linnaean binomial nomenclature, a Latinate naming system that categorises all living things by their genus and species. Developed in the 18th century by the scientist Carl Linneaus, this system standardised classification, enabling ongoing scientific inquiry to form a unified system of knowledge.
In contemporary sciences, taxonomy provides an indispensable service as a form of communication and interconnection. In his 2020 book Ecology: A Very Short Introduction, the ecologist Jaboury Ghazoul states that “names open up vistas of observation and enquiry” (ibid:3). Ghazoul discusses taxonomy from an ecological perspective, where classification enables understanding of complex environmental frameworks. Ecology is the science of relationships between organisms, and taxonomy academically complements its work, allowing ecologists to better understand ecosystems.
Generally speaking, those who are not ecologists, but are still partial to nature, will be less concerned with the minutiae of complex ecological frameworks and more interested in names and traits. This is where taxonomy can work inversely. By detracting from the whole and dividing into the many, taxonomy encourages selective interests that can overlook ecosystem plurality and prevent us from having a more unified perspective. Nature, contrary to human endeavour, does not respond well to compartmentalisation or singularity; we plant a garden with our chosen seeds and spend the rest of the year extracting the inevitable unwelcome neighbours. Nature craves plurality and diversity, but taxonomy, when outside of the academic sphere, can encourage singularity; focussing on the individual, it can overlook the ecosystem as a whole.
The introduction of the Linnaean naming system also aided the exploitation of indigenous wisdom. During European colonial expansions, the emergence of scientific botany enabled the exploitation and erasure of local knowledge in the quest to collect novel species from around the world. Dr. Ros Gray, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths University in London, discusses how the Linnaean taxonomic system enabled European imperial expansion. As they colonised new territories, these empires sent botanists and plant collectors out to source new species which were brought back to places like Kew Gardens and ‘privatised’ for use on colonial plantation systems elsewhere in the world: “often the local knowledge that there was about that plant would be extracted, and the source of that knowledge would be erased” (Gray, 2020: n/p). Official taxonomy is the hangover of the exploits of colonisation and facilitated a system of oppression that saw the global erasure of local knowledge and wisdom.
Taxonomy serves our need to know, allowing us to label and better interact with species. However, that all known species are classified means we are accustomed to interact with them through linguistic abstraction rather than directly, hindered by our need to name. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman noted that “names don't constitute knowledge,” but “knowing the names of things [is] useful if you want to talk to somebody else” (Take the World from Another Point of View, 1973). Feynman’s point is that knowledge of a species’ name doesn’t indicate a knowledge of a species' nature; functional yet sterile, scientific names have little use outside their academic applications, beyond which they exist as little more than often ignored oral relics. In The Cabaret of Plants (2016), naturalist Richard Mabey questions why names should matter: “the attachment of a precise name is irrelevant to the lives of plants themselves” (ibid:117). However anonymity begets disregard, and Mabey goes on to acknowledge that naming plants is also “a kind of befriending, a recognition, however temporary, of individuality and provenance” (ibid:118). By presenting these two opposing ways of seeing taxonomy, Mabey encourages his readers to challenge the preconceived notion of plant classification and, instead, question their own perceptions.
Walking through the streets of London, I often look out for the subtle ways in which plant life defies us. Breaking through pavements, growing out of walls, or taking root on roofs, a plethora of plants succeed at surviving in the most inhospitable environments. I frequently find myself wishing I knew these plants by name, both official and common. For me, knowing a species name is a source of great pride, but I find myself questioning whether this feeling is rooted in vanity or curiosity. On the one hand it makes me feel knowledgeable – in some respects a vain pursuit that serves to bolster my perceived intelligence. On the other hand, it feeds my curiosity about the species' nature, allowing me to find out more about it.
Colloquial naming practices are often seen as inferior to official taxonomy, but they can reveal much about the history and use of a species. The names of the Plantago family, for example, paint a colourful cultural history. Broadleaf plantain, P. major, is commonly referred to as fleawort. The suffix -wort, comes from the Old English -wyrt, which is in turn derived from the Proto-Indo-European word for root. This suffix was attached to names of plants that were believed to be medicinal; the prefix denoting their application. Narrowleaf plantain, P. lanceolata, is of the same family as P. major, and bears the common name ribwort for the same historical reason. P. major’s Anglo-Saxon moniker waybread, or waybroad, means ‘a broad-leafed plant growing by the wayside,’ alluding to its love of the compacted soil of well-trodden paths. More recently, when brought to the Americas by European colonists, it earned the Indigenous epithet of ‘white man’s footstep’ (Kimerer:2020) for its habit of growing in the disturbed soil around new colonial settlements. Folkloric and traditional names sit outside the official language of Linnaean binomial nomenclature, and though often discredited as inferior, they nonetheless serve to communicate characteristics of the species in question.
In my practical experience, colloquial names have often served me better than official taxonomy. On a recent walk I came across what I thought might be field or horse mushrooms, but before I picked them I bruised their caps to be sure they weren’t yellow stainers. When identifying brown gilled, white mushrooms that grow in fields and meadows, it helps to know whether they turn yellow when bruised. If so, poisonous; if not, then potentially edible. The name ‘yellow stainer' allows a forager with a modicum of knowledge to test a mushroom's edibility by simply bruising its cap and waiting a minute.
From a primal perspective, taxonomy is extremely practical. The origins of species identification might once have been about survival, and the need to name things could arguably be one reason language developed. To communicate what was, or wasn’t, edible might well have fuelled the evolution of an oral tradition that associated sounds with things, knowledge which could then be passed down through generations. When foraging, identifying one species from another can mean the difference between life and death. Making the unknown known, foraging is trusting your knowledge of what’s safe and unsafe for human consumption, principally by knowing the functional traits of a species, their visual characteristics, and behaviour. In early spring, I know that a large cream-coloured mushroom that grows in a ring formation in a field and smells of sawdust, is likely edible. Putting language to knowledge, taxonomy enables me to communicate that this is a St. George's mushroom, or Calocybe gambosa. My knowledge of the name and functional traits of this mushroom were passed on to me by my brother, an avid forager. His knowledge transfer ensures my safe foraging, and echoes our ancestors’ oral traditions.
Knowing something by name, though not essential, is extremely useful; a confusion of vaguely similar foliage can become an ordered ecosystem of plants, categorised by association, which helps confirm uses and/or dangers. In 2020, I wrote an article titled ‘Familiarity’ for Issue 5 of The Preserve Journal, which explored the importance of familiarity when foraging. Collaborating with designer Jaya Modi, we each explored our unique experiences with plants from the Apiaceae family, whose members include a roll call of the average kitchen pantry (carrot, fennel, coriander, parsley, cumin, etc.) as well as some of the most toxic plants in Britain (hemlock water dropwort and giant hogweed). My article was written to educate and inform about the members of this family, and illustrate just how important it is to know what you are foraging for. Then, as now, names have enabled the communication of my knowledge, and the sharing of information. Without taxonomy, foraging would be an isolated pursuit.
Many people find the idea of foraging an unusual, even exotic, pastime. Raised on supermarket produce and processed meals, knowledge of where food comes from has been abstracted to the point of disconnection. The idea of walking into nature and finding food is thrilling, yet unattainable for many. This is compounded by media portrayals of nature and wildlife. Viewing a blockbuster nature documentary from a sofa in suburbia, it is easy to assume that nature exists elsewhere – in the subtropical jungles of Asia or the broad savannahs of Africa – but not in the park, the woods or along the canal; nature has been exoticised. In The Stubborn Light of Things (2020), nature writer Melissa Harrison refers to this as an ‘erasure of failure’ (ibid:59). By only focussing on the moment of encounter, these portrayals of nature deny the reality of the hours of searching and waiting that are involved. Similarly, the instantaneous, categorical naming of a species that occurs in these shows hides the process of flicking through field guides, internet searching, and second-guessing which usually preludes the species’ identification. “Instead of learning patience in fieldcraft, it’s tempting for the rest of us to conclude that we just don’t have the skills, and leave wildlife-spotting to those who do” (ibid:59). Harrison’s views on taxonomy echo Mabey’s: that it is less about the science of categorisation, and more about the knowledge of separation: “while wildlife identification brings richness and particularity to the world, wonder happens with or without it. We should never let taxonomy be a barrier to engagement” (ibid:109).
The nature writer Richard Jefferies illustrated how wonder could be found in the English countryside, despite its minimal scale compared to the grandiosity of nature seen elsewhere in the world. In Nature Near London (1883), Jefferies recounts the effortless flight of a kestrel carrying its prey, noting how “it seems as great a feat in proportion as for an eagle to snatch a lamb” (ibid:24). His account shows how even in the 19th century, people were already blinkered by their preconceptions of what they thought nature should be, and overlooked the wonder of the natural world when viewed without expectation.
It is in part due to media portrayals of nature that the more nuanced benefits of going for a walk can easily be overlooked. When a walk in the wild is a means to an end – spotting this bird or foraging that mushroom – failure can easily result in disappointment. Our sensory experience becomes restricted by the absolute task of achieving tangible results and we can become blind to the incidental surprises nature has to offer. In The Way Through the Woods (2019), Long Litt Woon explores her experiences of coping with mourning through mushroom foraging. She talks of how, although finding the mushroom she seeks can be gratifying, “above all else, it pays just to ‘be,’ to focus on the moment. Do that and you will expand the definition of happiness” (ibid:132). When walking in the wild to simply be in the wild, awe can be found in the minutiae of nature that might otherwise be overlooked. By indulging in our surroundings, we indulge our senses. The paradox of taxonomy is that, although it was developed to assist in our engagement with nature, many feel unable to interact with the natural world without it.
The practice of naming is an entirely human construct that helps us navigate through life and communicate about our surroundings; without it we would be mute. On an academic level, the interconnected nature of the Linnaean naming system allows various scientific fields to better understand their practice, assisting their inquiry. However, on a more societal basis, taxonomy can be elitist and exclusionary. By using archaic language and specialist applications it bars the general public from using it. This can be prohibitive to someone interested in learning more about nature and can deny them the ability to wonder at the natural world. Similarly, official taxonomy disregards common names and their history, overlooking a wealth of folkloric, medicinal, and traditional knowledge and information. There are those who challenge the notion that taxonomy is a specialist field. The application iNaturalist provides a global platform where users can post their images of wildlife for peer identification. Other users can suggest what they believe the species to be. Opening up natural scientific inquiry to the curiosity of the general public, iNaturalist functions on the basis that knowledge is open source and communal, and dismantles the elitism that comes with Linnaean binomial nomenclature.
It is important that taxonomy not be allowed to dictate our appreciation for nature. Taxonomy is a tool that exists to allow engagement and understanding of the natural world, and greatly assists in different fields, from the science of ecology to the practice of foraging. It should not act as a barrier to engagement and should instead enable us. The next time you encounter a plant you do not know, fail to spot a bird you hoped to see, or come home without foraged foods, do not be disheartened. By opening up our field of vision to look beyond the need for categorisation, we can unite knowledge and appreciation and better enjoy nature for what it is, not what it has been labelled as. Our need to know should not hinder our ability to appreciate.
Feynman, R. (1973). Take the World from Another Point of View. [Video].
Ghazoul, J. (2020) Ecology: A Very Short Introduction.
Gray, R. & Sheikh, S. (2020). The Botanical Mind: The Coloniality of Planting. [Podcast.]
Harrison, M. (2020) The Stubborn Light of Things.
Jefferies, R. (2012) 2nd Edition. Nature Near London.(1st Edition: 1883).
Litt Woon, L. (2019) The Way Through the Woods.
Mabey, R. (2016) The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the imagination.
Wall Kimerer, R. (2020) Braiding Sweetgrass.