Taxonomy, for kids

At an age of no more than four, I received a gift of plastic animals that would become the defining playthings of my childhood. They came in clear, flimsy boxes, outfitted with colorful nylon handles, and were sold according to a theme of where, in nature, they were typically found. With the exception of Farm Friends and Dogs (which featured an array of domesticated breeds), the manufacturers had arranged their products according to habitat, selling lion, impala and crocodile as the Savanna pack, and shark, dolphin and octopus as Under the Sea. My mother and father took great care to amass a menagerie spanning the whole of the Animal Kingdom, and while I have no memory of marsupials in my collection, I do remember some rarer finds like capybara and bat-eared fox. Together they lived in a red toy bin that rested quietly in the corner behind the living room recliner, a medley of feathers, scales, claws and paws.

When it was time to play, I would extract the bin and dump the animals onto the carpet. Much to my delight, the fireplace was a defunct entity in my mother’s living room arrangement, and so the stone tiles of its hearth served as somewhat of platform, removed from the chaos of dogs and siblings, yet still on display. On that stage I made sense of the feathers, scales, claws and paws by sorting the animals according to physical similarity, creating clusters of creatures that I felt belonged together. The first group was always the birds, because they all had wings, beaks, feathers, and were relatively small. Penguin was a bit larger than the others, and ostrich the largest, so these came last in line. Next came reptiles, as overall they were larger than the birds, yet a bit too creepy-crawly to fit in with some of the furrier fellows. They were all rough to the touch, although snake seemed smoother than the others, and salamander the smoothest, which made him a natural antecedent  to the fish. The fish contained swimmers with fins, including trout, barracuda, whale, and seal, and owing to its dog-like whiskers and partial affinity for sandy beaches, seal became the usher for other land dwellers. The hoofed organisms made a natural bunch, as did the domesticated crowd of dogs, cats and hamsters. The rest of the animals were divided based on “scary” and “scurry”, lions, tigers and bears belonging to the former, and rat, weasel and mongoose to the latter. And bugs… well, bugs were just bugs.

The assemblage was set, and although I am sure that some of the more questionable individuals (e.g., octopus) were shuffled between categories depending on day, mood, and other childhood variables, the groups remained more or less consistent. Despite random disturbances by the figurine-snatching family Weimaraner, the disorderly jumble of my red bin maintained, for at least a brief moment, a sense of order in its living room exhibit. It must have been a strange sight in our household; all other toys remained in a state of disarray until one or more of their components were stepped on by an adult and banished to a storage area of the basement. A child who was otherwise notorious for leaving Legos, books and hair bands strewn about the house had become the dedicated coordinator to a troop of tiny animals. What was so provoking  about the plastic menagerie?

It is true that I enjoyed the animals more than my other toys. They were charming, inanimate models of all the exotic forms that galloped, swung and slithered through biomes across the globe, and sitting cross-legged on the living-room floor I became aware of living creatures that I had never observed with my own two eyes. The long spotted necks, iridescent plumage, and armored shells were fantastical and foreign, forms so impressive they sometimes seemed as if they came from a different world. But thrown all together in a big red bin? How chaotic! The animals, so noteworthy and dazzling, seemed to lose their personalities when tossed into a disorganized heap, co-mingling claw to paw as if mortals of the same design.

Yet in their assembled positions the animals became something defined and understandable, first as single creatures, and then in relation to one another. The tall, twisted horns and slick white streaks across the back of the greater kudu was something that I had never imagined, let alone seen. But that they had had horns, and hooves, and long, fit legs beneath a sturdy midsection with a mid-length, flickering tail told me that they were not unlike the deer that bounded about my yard, at least in part. Kudu and white-tail were fundamentally different creatures, this much was clear, but they had much more in common than, say, crocodile and civet. And so, animal after animal, the ambiguity of the feathered, scaled, clawed and pawed medley was transformed in to a system, an orderly structure of related individuals, even if only in the mind of a kid.

Now it stands that perhaps I was just a highly neurotic youth, and that my animal assemblage was merely a game of obsessive-compulsive zoo keeper. But it is also possible that for as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by life on earth, its categorization, and how it came to be. Luckily for me (and the sciences in general), there exists a much better system of classification for biological life, crafted roughly 250 years before the advent of Farm Friends. It was a Swedish botanist by the name of Carl (or Carolus, for the Latin buffs) Linnaeus who first introduced a system of naming organisms via the method of binomial nomenclature. The two-part label process gave every life form a genus and a species, the two most exclusive levels of belonging. As humans, we belong to the genus Homo and the species sapiens. Since I don’t have my red toy bin on hand to explain what differentiates us from the feathers, scales, claws and paws, I’ve created a learning tool that may be a tad more intuitive…

An illustrated PDF on the human place in nature!