Get Shouty

foundations of taxonomy
July 2, 2009, 2:10 am
Filed under: Experience, Great Stuff, passion


Sputnik Observatory is a New York not-for-profit educational organization dedicated to the study of contemporary culture. They fulfill this mission by documenting, archiving, and disseminating ideas that are shaping modern thought by interviewing leading thinkers in the arts, sciences and technology from around the world.

Their philosophy

  • ideas are not selfish.
  • ideas are not viruses.
  • ideas survive because they fit in with the rest of life

The site contains jaw dropping videos of the most amazing thinkers, or ‘extraordinary minds shaping modern thought’  like the transcript below from Wade Davis who is the National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence,and  honorary member of the hundred-year old Explorers Club. He’s an ethnographer, writer, photographer and filmmaker, observing worldwide indigenous cultures and the traditional uses and beliefs associated with psychoactive plants, celebrated in his best-selling book “The Serpent and the Rainbow” about the zombies of Haiti.

In the Amazon, I’ve been with hunters who could smell animal urine at forty paces and tell you what species left it behind. You look at the Polynesian seafarers who could, just by reading the ocean like a series of rivers which is how they saw the currents, by looking at the rhythm of the waves, they could sense the presence of a distant atoll far beyond the horizon. You talk about how, even the taxonomy of the Amazonian shaman, when they begin to characterize and systematize creation, particularly with some of their sacred plants. For example, one of the most important Amazonian plants is something called Ayahuasca, which is a Liana and, to the botanical eye, there’s one main species that’s used. But that species is actually, by at least one tribe that I know, the Sienna Sequoia(?), they recognize 17 different types of it. Now, to our scientific taxonomic eye, they’re all referable based on morphological traits to the same species. Indistinguishable. They consistently distinguish them and from great distances in the forest. And you ask them what is the foundation of their taxonomy? And they’ll say to you, “Well, you take each one on the night of the full moon and it sings to you in a different key.” Well, obviously, that’s not an idea that is going to get you through Harvard with a PhD, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than counting stamens. But, more importantly, you start thinking of what does that intuition really says to you? How do they find these plants in the forest, for example? And they say to you, “Well, the plants talk to us.” And we, of course, with our Descartian rational mind say, “Well, that’s nonsense.” And it’s only nonsense because it doesn’t fit into our paradigm. But when you begin to consider the possibility that different societies belief systems can make almost for different individuals, but also make for different levels of perception.


5 Comments so far
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Three top posts this morning before I’ve even caught the ferry to Hong Kong Island. Faris, Rory Sutherland and now this.

Not bad this internet thing. Not bad at all.

Comment by Charles

That’s some pretty good company…glad you liked it.

Comment by katiechatfield

Katie, I’ve FB shared, Tweeted and surfed it, now I’m going to forward it to our NextNow Collaboratory and Program for the Future think tankers, so I obviously appreciate this find—thanks so much for the heads up! 🙂

Comment by Amy Jussel

Thanks for sharing different belief systems create different levels of perception on Twitter. You might be interested in Wade Davis idea of Ethnosphere

Comment by whatidiscover

Based on the Amazon story, ideas survive because we look at the world with wonderment. I bet if a child had been walking with the Amazon hunters he or she would have learnt a lot more. Indigenous people in most parts of the world carry with them knowledge that becomes part of their natural instincts or intuition.

Thanks for directing me to Sputnik Observatory with this wonderful post, Katie.

Comment by Subbu

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