Taxonomy is something I’ve been thinking about recently, because it very much underlies our current world view. Everything is classified and sub-classified so that it can be put into a tidy little box, marked neatly with a (preferably Latin) name and declared separate from everything else. We do it with flora and fauna, obviously, but that mania for neat, clear, unambiguous boundaries and definitions has become a mainstay of life in general. It’s how we understand and make sense of things – their features, their purposes, their very existence.
At times, the classifications have to be tweaked. Poor old Pluto is downgraded from Planet to Big Rock; some garden plant suddenly gets a new name and all the garden centres have to readjust their labelling. And don’t even get me started on the labels they use and change around in medical and psychological diagnoses… Basically, though, humanity clings to the concept that everything that is, can be labelled, and that this is a Good Thing.
Was it always so? We know our Greek and Roman forebears were keen on this organised labelling idea, but if we go way back to the people who made those strange and wonderful structures that seem to evade neat classification and confound the theorists, I suspect a very different world view was in place.
We are told by the experts that these creations were burial chambers or astronomical observatories or temples or meeting places or whatever the latest fragments of archaeology suggest. They dig in the dark and assume that a few pieces of charred sheep bone or potsherds will allow them to make a classification. The truth is, though, we don’t get it. We, as 21st century humans, simply can’t see why so many people would work together and go to such enormous lengths to create massive, perfectly aligned and painstakingly constructed edifices such as the Giza pyramid complex, Gobekli Tepe, the Stonehenge landscape or Teotihuacan for ANY of those purposes. The nearest (relatively) modern equivalents we can find are the great Gothic cathedrals of mediaeval Europe or intricate mausoleums, so, for want of better data, we decide that’s what they must have been ‘for’.
Deep inside, though, we know there has to be more to it than that.
What if our distant ancestors lived in a world where classification was considered counterproductive or, at the very least, irrelevant?
Think of all those folk tales and ancient religious texts where a name was considered to be a dangerous thing – so powerful that it was only to be used by initiates, and then only in the direst of circumstances. That suggests that categorisation per se was not the way their minds worked. Did these people see the world, and indeed the cosmos, as something so integrated, that to divide it into its constituent parts would be to destroy, weaken or pollute it? Was it, indeed, a form of heresy?
What if, instead of saying, “Hey, guys, let’s build a gigantic temple to the gods here,” or “Oh, this would be a great place to build an observatory,” those wise and distant people would perhaps work together to build something that was not this or that or the other, but something that was this AND that AND the other AND all that they could possibly create as a microcosm of the universe itself?
The current mainstream science-based world view is that everything is a fortuitous accident – evolution and climate, gravity and the tilt of an axis here or there somehow randomly resulted in all this. As such, it’s very fragile, very likely to dissolve back into chaos and we need to impose order on it, if we are going to make any sense of it at all.
If we can imagine a society where such a view does not hold sway – a society where the skies above us, the planet we inhabit, the plants, creatures and all of us exist as a conscious, intelligent, unified whole, with each aspect relying on the rest for its existence, there would be no need to separate and divide it. On the contrary, all that could be done to celebrate its perfect symmetries and unity would be a job worth doing well. I suspect that such a society would have a language based in something that expands naturally, like mathematics or perhaps musical notation, rather than words that label, define and confine. Perhaps such a language, were it ever rediscovered, would help us towards an understanding of our mysterious ancestors, and our cosmos.