Friday, October 4, 2002

A little more on classification

"The ALL Species Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to the complete inventory of all species of life on Earth within the next 25 years - a human generation. To describe and classify all of the surviving species of the world deserves to be one of the great scientific goals of the new century." (I thought I might have read about this at V-2, but could have been somewhere else.)

One of my favourite examples of the implications of classification is the different taxonomic categories to which bats have historically been assigned by zoologists. Once grouped with birds due to the external (visible) characteristic of having wings, bats were later re-categorised as mammals according to their internal (invisible) characteristics. Now, did the bat change or did our understanding of the bat change? Was our earlier interpretation wrong, and is our current interpretation correct? Does the bat have an essence that we finally understand, or has the bat always, and only, been what we have said it is?

If the question of whether a bat is a bird or a mammal seems trivial, then let us consider another example of the consequences of biological classification. Goudsblom describes the domestication of fire as a behaviour used to distinguish between different biological species, and perhaps more interestingly, between stages of human evolution, as the ability to make fire was considered to be a sign of civilisation. Accordingly, it was this assertion of progress - the domestication of fire - that, in part, allowed taxonomists to distinguish between animal and human. So, in this sense, the biological category was socially constructed, according to prevailing norms of interpretation, rather than merely (and purely) being a biological entity in the world.

Notions of inclusion and exclusion from systems of classification are central to our understanding of anomalies in scientific work, as an anomaly is something out of place, that which does not belong. For example, while doing archaeological fieldwork, I was instructed to identify “isolated artefacts,” or that archaeological evidence located outside of the site boundaries we had established according to artefact density patterns. I was also instructed to exclude these data from any analysis or interpretation of the archaeological site, as they were “anomalous,” or “statistically irrelevant.” While this may seem to be a matter of practicality in terms of limiting the variables for analysis, it was highly arbitrary and could become quite problematic if one were attempting to relate one site to another. Such an approach treats archaeological sites as delineated and contained spaces, mutually exclusive in much the same way that society and economy have traditionally been separate but inter-dependent; to investigate “isolated artefacts” required an approach sometimes referred to as “non-site” archaeology. For those reasons, what constituted archaeological evidence, and thus, what constituted an archaeological site, were socially constructed according to (agreed upon) definitions of inside and outside, relevant and irrelevant.

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