Exploring Taxonomy: A Thought-Provoking Talk by Alex Wright


 Posted in 2007
 Catagories: 💻 Computers, and 🔬 Science

Understanding the Universality of Taxonomies in Human Cultures

I recently heard Alex Wright speak at the Long Now Foundation via their podcast.  It made me think of a couple things.

The talk is worth listening to, as many of their seminars are.  Alex left me with a couple ideas I want to look into further.

As a child we all use to play the 20 questions game, and we are all very familiar with the first 3 questions.  Is it an Animal?  It is an Mineral?  Is it a Plant?  Then we would proceed to ask 20 questions, each time trying to further narrow down the selection until we were able to say what the person was thinking of.  This categorization if formalized is a taxonomy. 

The first idea surrounds taxonomy.  It turns out that when sociologists and anthropologists look at different societies around the world they break their world into different taxonomies.  This isn’t all that weird.  The weird part is that universally these taxonomies are only 5 or sometimes 6 levels deep.  There really is no good answer as to why this is the case. 

There are several guesses.  One has to do with the depth of families; you, your children, Your parents, and your grandparents.  If you count up the generations, you get 5.   If you add you children’s children, then get 6.  The idea then goes that this is culturally conditioned into us and the way that we see the world.  Eventually those individuals who are predisposed genetically to accept this fact become more successful in reproducing and the “idea” is carried forward via genetics and culture.

That’s an interesting idea, but also controversial even among evolutionary biologists.  I think the idea above is interesting, but it is just as scientifically mythological as other anthropological mythologies.  As a religious person I would love to have seen Adam apply the first Taxonomy.