Saturday, August 15, 2009

Taxonomy and Adoption

Disclosure: I am a secret science geek. Every week, I look forward to the arrival of Tuesday for the sole reason that that is the day of the week when the New York Times "Science Times" section is published. I read it from cover to cover, which sometimes takes all week, if I'm particularly busy, but I carry it around in my purse, reading bits of it every chance I get. Ok, that's enough disclosure about my dorky habits for now.

Here's an article from the Science Times on Tuesday, August 11, 2009 that struck me as particularly pertinent to both adoption and poetry (another of my passions). Entitled "Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the Living World," the article argues that taxonomy is a dying practice. I must admit, I can't understand how it could possibly be a dying practice, because from my biased perspective as an adoptee and a poet, naming the world is central to existence.

Yet the article's author, Carol Kaesuk Yoon says that "we are, all of us abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life. We are...losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world." Do you feel this is true? Please let me know what you think about her assertion.

But here's my thesis: naming the world leads to knowing the world, and knowing the world helps us know ourselves and our place in it. This is especially important for adoptees, who don't know their place in the world because of their displacement from one family into another, often at a very early, preverbal age. Naming is also important for the poetically inclined, because in my opinion, poetry is the act of renaming the world, and in naming it, we both renew it, and we come to understand it better as a shared, universal experience.

Carol Kesuk Yoon also mentions some recent scientific studies that have led "some researchers to hypothesize that there might be a specific part of the brain that is devoted to the doing of taxonomy." If this hypothesis is true, it would suggest that taxonomic tendencies are evolutionarily based, integral to our humanness. Conversely, she says, people whose brains are damaged in this taxonomic area are "completely at sea. Without the power to order and name life, a person simply does not know how to live in the world, howo to understand it..They are utterly lost, anchorless in a strange and confusing world. Because to order and name life is to have a sense of the world around, and as a result, what one's place is in it."

Sound familiar, adopted people? I would posit that this "anchorlessness" due to the inability to name the world is similar to the unmoored feelings some adoptees (including myself) have when they do not know their origins. What do you think?

I also think that this cellular need to know my origins, to understand my place in the world is what drove me to become a poet. It was a stopgap way to name the world, to name my life, until I could find my birth family.

As David Kirk, a social scientist who did research about losses in adoption, concluded the way we heal is understanding those losses. I believe that in order to understand those losses, we must first name them: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

Do any of you readers out there have a similar (or opposite) opinion or experience to share?
Give us a shout!


reluctantscorpio said...

Andrea, interesting blog. I was just reading about Gestalt therapy and how living creatures (not just human, but all of nature) seek wholeness. We are constantly restoring it, or trying to. There is a joke about a man who is sleeping at a hotel room and hears the person next door slam into his room, and the creek of his bed as he gets into it. Then he hears a shoe drop onto the floor. He waits 20 unbearable minutes and finally gets up to knock on the neighbor's door to ask: what happened to the other shoe?

It illustrates how unfinished unresolved events can haunt us. At the same time, naming can create overabundance of separateness, as naming often requires opposites (hot-cold, light-dark, family-friend)
I hear that the greek language has a concept of middle mode, blending separateness with connectedness in a way that feels more true to life, at least to me. Maybe that offers a way for us all to heal. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Suzanne

Brian said...

I have a middle response: naming something is both necessary and an obstacle.

As another amateur science geek, for quite a few birds and wildflowers I will know their names and virtually nothing else about them. Until you learn something's name, it's virtually impossible to learn anything more about them, but it's also too easy to think you're done when you've learned the name. You haven't even started to learn what it's really about if all you know is the name.

Andrea said...

Thanks, Suzanne and Brian for your comments.
Suzanne: seems like the Gestalt theory fits right in with what I'm writing about here--super interesting. Also, the idea of naming as a way of creating separation is interesting too--I'd love to know more about the Greek middle mode. Got any references I could check out.

Brian: I agree that it's tempting to quit one's inquiry when we learn the name of a bird or plant; however, I think that adoptees rarely feel satisfied by just knowing a name of a birth family member, so I'm not sure the metaphor works there.
Thanks, both!

Joseph said...

I manage a database of 2008 different species observations for one bay. I think about taxonomy all the time. We estimate there may be about 8,000 different organisms. Every now and then I add a new one to the list myself, simply because I happen to see it and happen to manage the database and look it up and add it. It feels like when I meet it and then learn its name, it goes from being a stranger to family and blurs a separateness to a joined. I do feel it become part of my cosmology and relationships adding it into my extended existence, and I feel connected to it. Then I think of the 1000 or so critters I've seen the name of and don't know (haven't encountered) and the possible 6,000 out there that are unknown and feel what Brian said about being on the threshold of starting.

Naming is definitely an act of separating, of distinguishing. Taxonomy is the science of that separating, but is also about joining it into families of relationships and lineages.

My favorite taxonomy is of place, where the fuzziness of where the threshold of its existence begins and ends, like a neighborhood, which is a good analogy of how one species begins and another ends, or how one ego does.