I recently came across a reference to taxonomy as “the oldest profession”. Could it be? Intrigued, I g**gled and discovered that Dr. Joel Walker Hedgpeth had given an entire talk on the subject in 1961, as the Eleventh Annual University of the Pacific Faculty Research Lecture.

The thought has occurred to others. In 2003, Dr. Dave McShaffrey, a professor of biology and environmental science at Marietta College in Ohio, wrote the following contribution to a Puget Sound University thread on dragonflies and damselflies:

A thought occurred to me this morning, so I headed to the Bible to check it out. Sure enough, there it is. It seems that shortly after creation, God called Adam over, lined up all the animals, and paraded them by so that Adam could name them and presumably choose a mate (I’m not sure what this tells us about God’s concept of the biological species, but that’s another debate). There we have it – indisputable proof (at least for those in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths) – that Adam was the first taxonomist, and taxonomy is thus the oldest profession (remember, this was before Adam got kicked out of the garden of Eden and had to work for a living). It must have been great to have God do your collecting for you. He was probably good even with Neurocordulia, and I’m sure God always knew where the Anax longipes were hanging out. It’s a real shame Adam didn’t publish, but before Eve was created peer review would have been a real problem.

Photo by Dave McShaffrey. Posted at

As for how the naming was done in one day; how many names there were; what kind of hierarchy there was; whether dragonflies, damselflies, and other insects were even included; and whether to classify the whole account as literal truth, allegory, or none of the above, I’m going to stay out of the debates.

Dr. Hedgpeth had his own view of divine inspiration in choosing the right terms, as shown by his self-portrait below. (Dragon, dragonflies: Surely that couldn’t be mere coincidence? It should be noted, though, that the versatile marine biologist wrote poetry in Welsh, which could account for the Welsh dragon.)

Who will tell me, what fair goddess will lead me to the right word?


Self-portrait by Joel Hedgpeth, from Joel W. Hedgpeth, “Marine Biologist and Environmentalist: Pycnogonids, Progress, and Preserving Bays, Salmon, and Other Living Things,” an oral history conducted in 1992 by Ann Lage, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1996. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Barbara Gilles, Thesaurian
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