Taxonomy and Quacksonomy: Pluto, The Definition of a Planet and How Your Culture Gets You Talking Out of Uranus
As an educator, you become deeply familiar with the process by which humans acquire culture and reach conclusions. Kids pick up ideas, words and attitudes all the time without knowing where they come from. The most obvious area where this shows up is with words. Kids often don’t know the meaning of words. Or they’ve heard the word and don’t know what it means. Or they’ve heard the word, think they know what it means and then find out they’ve been using it incorrectly for ages. Probably my favorite example of this comes from an experience Katie O’Brien, my co-author on The Straight-A Conspiracy, had while tutoring the MOST SPOILED child we’ve ever worked with. Katie was quizzing this kid on the meanings of words.
Spoiled Child: I’ve heard that word but I have no idea what it means.
Katie: (Long Pause) Correct.
In the last few years, we’ve all had this experience surrounding a word we thought we were all familiar with: planet. For years, most of us have referred to Pluto as a planet. Then, on August 24th, 2006, the International Astronomical Union (or IAU) announced that Pluto was not a planet. Pluto was left out of Planet Club.
Why did the IAU do this? Well, since Pluto was discovered in 1930, a number of increasingly large objects were discovered in the Solar System and then on July, 29th, 2005 astronomers at Caltech discovered Eris. Eris was bigger than Pluto. If Pluto was a planet, then Eris should be. Or maybe if Eris wasn’t, then maybe Pluto shouldn’t be either. In the end, it all comes down to how you define what is and what is not a planet and that definition is something that was made up by humans and can be remade by humans. The definition of a planet and the redefinition of a planet was created by people no smarter than you.
While the ways in which we group astronomical bodies may not matter to us on a daily basis, there is a type of grouping that matters a whole lot: how we group each other. This video from Denmark shows just how many ways we can group humans in.
The problem is that there are many categories that were made up long ago with definitions that we barely understand. And that isn’t something that spoiled brats have a monopoly on.
Rozanne Duncan: The only kind of people I do have problems with is negroes…and I don’t know why.
Me: (Long Pause) Correct.
Adversity, planet and negro aren’t concepts anyone alive today invented. Like the International Astronomical Union, we can choose to reflect on them and see whether they actually make sense. If you don’t know why, they came from your anus.
Except…did they? Pluto was classified as a planet in 1930 long before most of us were born. And classifying people based on skin color is hundreds of years old. Adversity, with the meaning Katie’s student didn’t know, is about eight hundred years old. These are mental tools that have been blindly copied from generation to generation. Whether we choose to use them and pass them on to the next generation is a decision we all make. The IAU has decided on a new more rigorous definition of the word planet. Will you go along with their definition and kick Pluto out of the group of planets? Or, will you add Eris and others to the group of planets in your mind? It’s your choice how you structure your mental groups and what you call those groups.
Scientists call this process of grouping things taxonomy. We group animals, plants and bacteria into kingdoms, orders, genus, phyla and species. And sometimes, biologists also have to regroup things and recognize that old ways of grouping things just don’t make sense any more. Old taxonomies like the one that counted Pluto as a planet become quacksonomies. In 1930, it made sense to call Pluto a planet. Once you discover Eris (which is BIGGER than Pluto), it just doesn’t make much sense. In the same way, with all the genetic data that has come in, race has now become a quacksonomy. If you’re not a dermatologist, then skin color doesn’t tell you much meaningful biological data. However, even though Rozanne Duncan doesn’t like negroes, if you listen to what she’s saying then you realize she’s figured out the issue. Something did happen to her as a baby. She picked up a quacksonomy from the people around her. The issue isn’t what the people she never met did to her. It’s what the people she grew up did to her.
The key thing with a taxonomy is WHY you’re grouping things the way you are and what you think it tells you about them. If you think grouping people based on skin color tells you something about their skin color, then you’re right. If you think grouping people based on skin color tells you something about their intelligence, then your taxonomy is a quacksonomy. And anyone who buys into that quacksonomy is a quack…even if they have a PhD from a very fancy University.
The argument by academics over whether Pluto is or is not a planet may seem like a colossal waste of time and, yet, think about the amount of time that the internet has spent arguing over how to group humans based on gender in the last year. It is all one vast argument over taxonomy and the more closely you look at things that don’t fit neatly into one category or the other (as Darwin did for eight years with barnacles) the more you are reminded of one simple thing: these categories were made up by people just like you trying to make sense of the world. Google image search “ambiguous genitalia” and you’ll be reminded that he and she are human-invented buckets. Are they useful? I think so. Are they truth? Nope. They’re made up categories. Planet is a made up category that can be remade on new criteria. Race is a made up category. American is a made up category. Christian is a made up category. And we can make up any new category and buy into it that we choose. And there’s one category that I’m particularly committed to getting people to buy into as the most meaningful: human.
We all recognize that we are human but the word has that same vague, unexamined quality that “planet” has. What are the common features of humans? Could you define the common features of humans as clearly as the International Astronomical Union has defined the common features of planets?
- The object must be in orbit around the Sun.
- The object must be massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity. More specifically, its own gravity should pull it into a shape defined by hydrostatic equilibrium.
- It must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.
Well, much of what the Mixed Mental Arts Belt System is designed to do is to teach you the key features of our shared humanity at work in your own life. The better you understand those the more strongly you see how we all fall into that group called human. And that has a real personal benefit, it helps you realize that the ways in which you have categorized yourself were made up by people no smarter than you. In fact, many of the ways in which you have categorized yourself were made up by you.
In reality, the tragedy of our wealthiest students is that they were given everything and never had to discover their own potential. They classified themselves as not very smart. We forced them to reveal that taxonomy as a quacksonomy by making them do the kind of practice to succeed.
The thing is though…the same thing was true for our poorest students. Humans have to discover their own potential by being pushed either by themselves or by someone else to do what they never thought they could. The jobocalypse is going to force us all into conflict with our own beliefs about what we can’t do. Some of them we learned from our cultures. Some of them were formed by our experiences as kids, often in school. Either way, it helps to remember one simple thing: groups can change whenever humans decide they should. Just ask Pluto.
The most useful way to group humans currently is by culture but culture can change. In fact, evolving a better culture is precisely the goal of Mixed Mental Arts. For now, we’re promoting making sense of the world through honor cultures, W.E.I.R.D. culture, optimistic Americans and actors, pessimistic Russians and lawyers and atomistic Westerners and holistic Easterners. Like all categories, these groupings aren’t perfect. Moreover, our goal is to help people overcome these biases and others until these groupings no longer make sense. As we promote these groupings, it is worth remembering that the point of promoting them is to spark self-reflection so that individuals can be empowered to evolve their own culture. A beautiful example of that process is contained in Kamar Thomas’ recent post for Mixed Mental Arts. What happens to racism when there are a few million Mixed Mental Artists of every color who understand that ALL HUMANS blindly download culture and are actively updating their cultural software? Well, there becomes a new way to group humans based on how actively they are updating their cultural software.
You didn’t invent your culture. You do the things you do, feeeeeeel the way you do and group humans the way you do and often you don’t know why. Why not find out and then figure out if it’s actually helping YOU or not? In practice, the jobocalypse will force all of us to do that. Your only choice is how proactive you are about that. Kamar Thomas is on it. Be like Kamar.
Originally published at mixedmentalarts.co on July 29, 2017.