Why is classification so important to so many? That question could be answered from a few different angles, including a brief look at the lengthy historical quest to develop a workable taxonomic system. However, if the basis of the question is what the original impulse was that motivated said quest, it is time to look to the Greeks. The root word of taxonomy or taxis, is “arrangement” and nomos, is “law.”
The search for a taxonomic system represents humankind’s desire to make order out of the complexities with which nature presents us. In the information management word, we use taxonomies and ontologies to organize document collections. But controlled vocabularies are also used to organize the aisles in a grocery or pharmacy, clothes in the closet, and your pantry.
Imagine a library without any organizational system, with books simply crammed at will on the shelves. Such a place would be full of chaos, and if one happened to find what they were looking for, it would be a case of pure luck. The odds would be weighted heavily against that happening, especially in a large municipal library or university library.
Taxonomy itself makes one think of plants or insects as that is the commonly known usage. However, almost anyone can begin to classify anything. On and on go the categories, and if one is inclined toward a classifying mind, this kind of mental exercise can be fun. Many educational programs and games call on the child to group objects, animals, etc. Although these kinds of groupings, and the efforts to place animals into one group or another, constitute a form of classification, there is a distinct difference between this and scientific taxonomy.
Taxonomy is tied closely to evolutionary study and Darwin’s theory of evolution was a turning point in the history of scientific classification. Taxonomists are concerned more with the evolutionary patterns that link organisms than they are with what may be only superficial similarities. Habitat, for instance, is significant in studying biomes, but it seldom plays a role in taxonomy.
As result of Darwin’s work, taxonomists became much more oriented toward the representation of phylogeny in their classification systems. Therefore, instead of simply naming and cataloging species, modern taxonomists also try to construct evolutionary trees showing the relationships between different species.
A striking example of the difference between scientific taxonomy and common sense classification is the fact that whales and dolphins are grouped along with other mammals rather than with fish and other creatures that most readily come to mind when thinking of aquatic organisms.
Common terms are far from adequate in a scientific context, because such terminology can be deceptive. But while common terminology can be misleading, sometimes correlations with scientific taxonomy can be found in what is known as folk taxonomy.
A folk taxonomy is a vernacular naming system and classifications of the way people traditionally describe and organize the world around them. Folk taxonomies are generated from social knowledge and are used in everyday speech.
Look around, what types of folk taxonomies do you see in your world?
Melody K. Smith
Sponsored by Access Innovations, the world leader in thesaurus, ontology, and taxonomy creation and metadata application.