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Dore chaos
My friend Stuart sent me a letter:

You can learn a great deal from a springer spaniel. For instance:

Total order and total chaos are the same thing. Identical. Not a dime’s worth of difference. And neither is very helpful.

Think of it in terms of the Linnean metaphor. I’ll get to the spaniel in a moment.

At one end of the spectrum is chaos, a totality that is unordered, a cosmic goo. This is not the current chaos of the eponymous theory, which is merely a complexity beyond calculation, but rather the mythic chaos out of which the gods either create the cosmos, or arrive unannounced from it like Aphrodite from the sea. It has no edges, no smell, no shape, no parts, no color, no anything. Inchoate muddle. john martin chaos

So, in the beginning was the word: Or rather, our ability to organize this chaos through language. The universe exists without form and void. Then we begin the naming of parts to help us understand the welter.

And so, god created the heaven and earth, dividing the parts. And this division of parts is in essence what the Creation is all about. Ouroboros

Of course, the incessant need to divide and name is only a metaphor, but it will help us understand the conundrum of order in the universe, and how the ouroboros of Creation begins and ends at the same place, no matter which direction we go in: The law of entropy and the law of increasing order both have the same final destination.

When we look at the world around us, we immediately split what we see into two camps: That which is living and that which isn’t. It helps us understand the world we live in and we make many of our biggest decisions on this basis: Ethics, for instance. We have no problem splitting a rock in half with a hammer, but would feel rather evil doing the same to a dog.

But the living things fall into two large camps, also: Animal and vegetable (again, I’m simplifying. I haven’t forgotten the bacteria, but we can ignore them for the sake of the metaphor).

Some of us have a problem eating animals but not eating vegetables. So, again, our ethical world depends on how we sort out the chaos.

Let’s take the animals and subdivide them, the way Carl von Linne did, into classes, orders, families, phyla, genera and species.

Each level makes our divisions less inclusive, more discriminatory.

Let’s take the dog, for instance. It is classified as a chordate, which means it has a central nervous system stretched out into a spinal chord. This is different from, say, a starfish or a nematode. But there are many chordates, so, if we want to differentiate a dog from a shark, we have to look to its class. It is a mammal. That makes it distinct from birds and fish.

But there are lots of mammals, too. Some of them eat other animals; we call them carnivores. A dog is a carnivore.

Notice how each level of nomenclature narrows our definition down to a smaller and smaller group of initiates. When we had only living and non-living, there were only two groups; with each level, we add dozens, hundreds and then thousands of other groups disincluded in our catalog.

The order carnivora is one of many orders in the class of mammalia, which is one of many in the phylum chordata, which in turn is one of many in the kingdom animalia.

The order separates our subject, but lets us see in relief that it is just one constellation in the heavens populated by many other constellations.

The same poor pup is in the family canidae, which includes all the dog-like animals, from fox to coyote to jackal. Among them, it is in the genus Canis, and species lupus, which makes it brother with the wolf.

But our wolf is a friendly one, as long as you aren’t the postman. So, now we call it Canis lupus familiaris, or the family dog. And our particularization of the beast means we are conversely aware of all of creation — each in its own genus and species — that makes up the non-dog, and each of them is like the billions and billions of stars that make up the many constellations in the night sky.

Yet, this isn’t far enough. For the dog I’m thinking of isn’t just a dog, but a spaniel, which is a type of dog which isn’t a poodle and isn’t a terrier. It is a dog with “a long silky coat and drooping ears.”
Sylvie

Each time we subclassify, we are adding to the order we impose on existence, and each classification adds to the proliferation of categories just as it reduces the members inside each class.

So, there are also different kinds of spaniels. The dog I’m thinking of is a springer spaniel, which come in two forms, with a brown-and-white coat and a black-and-white coat.

My brother’s dog is a brown-coated springer spaniel named Sylvie. She is getting old now, and her backside — very much like humans — is getting broader.

And now, by classifying things to the level of the individual, we have as many categories as there are things in the universe, which is effectively the same as nothing being categorized: It is all primordial goo and might as well not be cataloged: Total order and total chaos are the same thing. QED.

museum gorilla

I had two homes as a boy. First, there was the house my family kept, where I was fed and went to sleep. But second, there was The American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Its vast halls and marble floors held the wonders of the world. I couldn’t get enough of it. To say nothing of the Hayden Planetarium next door.

There were dinosaurs and sharks the size of split-levels; there were dioramas and a life-size blue whale; there were vast vitrines of rocks in darkened rooms where sound bounced off the hard floors and walls, giving young ears their first taste of echo location — the inner ear knew this was a large space.

There was the “Soil Profiles of New York State,” always one of my favorite places. The museum opened me up to the wide world and the things in it. The woods I grew up knowing were enshrined behind glass, letting me know that such things were important enough to study. It first showed me that there was nothing truly “ordinary,” that everything was somehow miraculous, like the gigantic centipede in the leaf litter exhibit.museum postcard

I have gone back to the museum countless times in the ensuing years, and it has always been a joy. But something has changed, and not just in the Wordsworthian sense.

What has changed is museum philosophy. Back then, museums were collections displayed indiscriminately: glass cases of quartz crystals; boxes of dragonflies; walls of stuffed birds.

Today, the emphasis is on education and, as a result, the displays are smaller, more organized and accompanied by explanatory text, with maps and diagrams. What used to be a pile of rocks is now one or two dramatically lit examples with a video display next to them with a media baritone giving us the pertinent facts.

It used to be the museum was about stuff. Now it is about words, and the stuff has been turned into visual aids. museum blue whale

The new museum is less cluttered, has greater clarity and is easier to digest. And, for me, that is just the problem. I feel cheated: My museum experience becomes passive.

I am no longer allowed to think for myself but am given only a single interpretation of the material, one that can only be called ”the official story.”

What I loved, and what sparked my boyhood imagination, was the profusion of specimens, and the lack of coherent explanation. There were those vitrines, with their hundreds of small chunks of quartz, and next to each a tiny typewritten label saying it came from Haddonfield, N.J., or Bloemfontein, South Africa. It was up to me to figure out why they all meant something, and why they were exhibited together. I got to make up my own story from the blizzard of data. museum butterflies

Surely, my stories might not be accurate, but then, they might be more accurate than the “official story.” That’s how Alfred Wegener figured out that the continents were rafts, how Johannes Kepler figured out — from the rafts of data collected by Tycho Brahe — that the planets move in ellipses.

Science, after all, like history, is made up of two elements: data and hypothesis, that is, primary material and the sense we make of it.

A historian, for instance, doesn’t write history from history books, but from the letters people have left behind, the church records and deed registers, old clothes and kitchen middens. A mass of confusing detail comes into his hands, and he has to whittle it down to a believable story. Only then is the history book written, and, if the historian has done a good job, his version becomes the accepted version.

Just being spoon fed the accepted version hinders our ability to make progress. Because the accepted version is always, to larger or smaller degree, imperfect. museum elephants

Part of the wonder of museums for me was just that: seeing a jumble of minerals or scarab beetles and figuring them out. I miss the confusion and the creative thought that is born of it.

The history of science is littered with abandoned theories, from geologic catastrophism to uniformatarianism, from geocentrism to heliocentrism, from Newton to Einstein.

In the science of history, this is often called ”revisionism” and thought of as a bad thing, although I can’t imagine why. New information or better hypotheses are good: They are truer.

So, when I go to the American Museum of Natural History and I see a few dinosaur bones with a timeline on the wall, I know the version I’m being fed is no more sacred than the version it replaced: coldblooded, lumbering lizards replaced by warmblooded, twitching, nervous birds 20 feet tall. museum dinosaur

The new museum thinks it is being educational, but more exactly, it is being entertainment. It is like TV.

And I cannot call that an improvement.