Obsessed with Classification
We humans seem to have an obsession with classification, the clear distinction between one “thing” and another. Although a tree grows into the soil, we feel the need to distinguish between the soil and the root. There are bacteria with different DNA living inside our body, yet we separate “them” from “us”.
Over the months I’ve had several discussions and debates on various topics. But we seem to spend a large portion of our time only arguing about the definition of a certain term. One such debate was on the question of “the meaning of life”. As my Kiwi roommate put it, life has an inherent sacredness and thus meaning and purpose to it. His arguments would sound convincing to most, even without evoking religion. You can see the complexity of living things, their intricate interactions and their vibrant liveliness. They should be unquestionably distinct from the relatively dull mud or air.
His whole argument sits on the assumption that there is a clear line between life and non-life. Most creation myths put humans and animals on different stages, and the non-living environment on another. In Chinese mythology, Nǚwā (女媧) created humans by rubbing clay and mud together, after the whole non-living world had come into existence. However, such worldview has to evolve with our level of understanding of the natural world.
People debate on whether a virus is life. Yet when it comes to that level, everything is reduced (not the best word) to molecules and chemical interactions. Therefore, a virus is just as “dead” as a replicating DNA molecule, yet just as “lively” as a bacterium undergoing mitosis. It compels you to think whether very advanced electronics or non-cellular extraterrestrial organisms can be called life. This is explored in the lab by Martin Hanczyc, who presented his work on semi/quasi-life in a Ted talk.
My point here is not to discuss what the best definition of life is. The example above is an illustration of the fact that we invented terms like “life” to suit our preconceived intuition about the “middle world”, as Richard Dawkins said. For the sake of everyday conversations, “life” is a useful term; but when the boundaries are touched, one has to acknowledge that the term is no more than a human construct. Whatever you call it, a virus is what it is. It doesn’t give a damn.
Neither does a painting. I am utterly bored by any discussion or debate on whether this or that can be considered “art”. I am also disturbed by the rigid categorization of criminal offenses in any judicial system, as if a crime committed right before and right after one’s 18th birthday really makes a fundamental difference to the reality.
In another instance, I was in Cambodia, discussing religion on a lunch table with people who have different beliefs. I was about to make a point about which stance on the atheist-theist continuum is the more intellectual one, when two people started debating with me on my definition of an atheist. I will not go into the exact details, but Richard Dawkins is an atheist by my (and of course his) definition; while a member of the Westboro Baptist Church would be a fundamentalist. By their definition, though, Dawkins becomes an agnostic, and one can only be called an atheist if one’s beliefs are as absolute as a fundamentalist’s.
I was first surprised by the challenge, but soon realized the futility of such argument, since Dawkins is how he is, regardless of what you call him. Therefore, I encouraged them to continue the conversation, but ended up having to endure the half-hour meaningless talk. By the way, they have exactly the same religious views as mine, which further demonstrated my point that an obsession with strict classification is pointless.
This kind of obsession is not just time-wasting, it is sometimes an obstacle in one’s understanding of the real world, which doesn’t bother classifying things. For example, the taken-for-granted sorting of species/genus/family/etc. has, in a large population, obstructed the understanding of the theory of evolution, leading to wide-spread science denialism. No biologist (nor nature) bothers drawing a line between Homo habilis and Homo erectus. Neither can distinction be made in a ring species, where the original population spreads geographically, evolving from one site to the next, eventually returning to the first site, creating a continuum along the ring, but an abrupt change between the first and last sites. We humans, for the sake of discussion, classify ring species into different stages. However, that in no way reduces the true continuity.
From now on, when you see something so strange that you cannot put it into any known category, don’t create a new category for it. Instead, accept it for what it really is, and stop clinging onto semantics and futile classification. Thank you for reading.
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