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What is in a Name?

June 29, 2017

Updating the Rakhi Retreat Bird list - new nomenclature and structure of knowledge


There have been many changes since 1984 bird nomenclature. The thoughts I share are going to take a philosophical turn through some musings and I hope you take the time come along for a comfortable short ride and maybe continue on you own merry way from where we finish. From the bird names we will go back to Aristotle and end up with a contemporary reflection on discerning between information and knowledge.


In the late 1980's my Grandmother gave me a much loved bird book - 'The Birds of Australia' by Simpson and Day. It frequently emerges from my library to this day. It is in good condition having benefited from my mother's librarian skills covering it to protect it from the excited dirty fingers of an enthusiastic boy looking for the birds just spotted wandering the bushland or following the seasonal creek behind our family home in Taroona, Tasmania. 

Much later the one year trip to the tropics as i turned 30 turned into a lifetime move and i have gradually supplemented my temperate ecological (and agricultural) knowledge of flora and fauna with the identities of the species up here. The Birds of Australia came with me and i used it to identify new species and populate my Rakhi bird list with latin names. My grandmother has been gone for a couple of decades now, at 98 she just missed having a life across three centuries, but memories of her live in the book. "Stay Interested" she used to say and she would appreciate my parents, both retired scientists, updating my library with the newly published Australian Bird Guide by Menkhorst et. al. They are currently visiting us in Darwin and I appreciate the symmetries of my mum again providing protection to some treasured books. The older book is still functional providing more information on the life cycles and behaviour of the birds it describes.



I was aware that the genetic studies of birds since 1984 had brought some revision to nomenclature and particularly to family allocations but was shocked at how many of my 1984 names were out of date. A systematic review was required! I downloaded the latest nomenclature from the world bird name list and with some excel hot key efficiency managed to update the list. Here is the list.


A little under half the 88 names on Rakhi list needed updating,

predominantly the family names with a few genus changes.


The name changes are more than just aesthetic and they tell a story of evolution as much as anything. The family tree makes more sense now but there are still unanswered questions to maintain the interest. Rather than risk losing your attention as I report back some of the details I will paste a picture of the current family relations taken from Menkhorst et. al. Pictures seem more popular than word these days, you can just look at them and make up your own 1000 word story of the cut and thrust of nature and ideas if you like. Here is a link to source Science Paper and better quality of the family tree.



The knowledge enriches the experience of seeing the birds that become characters in a grand evolutionary story with patterns in adaption, behaviour and song revealing themselves amidst all the species on show at Rakhi Retreat. My favourite Aristotle quote comes to mind "there is no science of the specific".* Aristotle gets a fair bit of credit in the development of scientific thinking (and a critique for holding it up too), what he is referring to in this quote is differentiating between the general and the specific. It is only though generalisations that we identify patterns that lead to understanding. Genus and Species are linguistically derived from general and specific.


I recently listened to (another) episode of the minefield on ABC Radio National where a distinction between 'information' and 'knowledge' was made with particular reference to the opportunity cost of being exposed to so much information in the modern age. The discussion continued on the theme of the previous episode I mentioned in a previous blog where depth was sacrificed for speed of thought. They spoke of the moral and intellectual cost of the information overload and expectation to have an opinion on everything leading it all becoming rather glib and superficial with nothing much more being done than echoing a set of received ideas. the overload also provided an environment for people to feel their moral (high ground) opinions on the situation in Yemen are enough concern for the world while not paying sufficient attention to the moral agency of actions and impacts that they do have some control over.


There is an opportunity cost to #clicktivism.


It seems to me that it is the incorporating and structuring of information that turns it into our own knowledge. Further synthesis into understanding that may then lead to a little clarity and the empowerment that may flow from that is something I value. Last Wednesday I shouted at the radio after the host of RN Drive glibly segued from a devastating assessment of climate risk to something insignificant that I now have forgotten. When the profound and the banal are presented in such equal terms without distinction is our inability to collectively act on what really matters to some extent a consequence of information failing to be processed into genuine knowledge? After being presented with such heavy information some time is required to process it into knowledge and if the radio station and host existed to inform rather than to be listened too an appropriate response would have been "ok we will go quite for 10 minutes while you think about that". I turned the radio off where it has predominantly remained even as i edit this blog some weeks later. 


We need to self administer silence when surrounded by the need to be heard.


It has taken me a little time to update my knowledge of the new bird taxonomy, the new structure. My recall of the latin is still pretty modest in expert terms but the structure that houses the information and makes it knowledge is in place. I have never been great with names, just ask some of my poor former students who's character i had reasonable insight into but still their names occasionally escaped me, i am better at understanding how particular things relate to each other and work when i put my mind to them. It takes time to sift through all the received ideas we collect and make our own meaning of them. Be it from science, political ideology or religions of the world i guess there are also received structures on offer shaping our knowledge making. We peal them back in search of some differentiated self that i am not convinced exists, just a unique recombination for the times.  


These are musings on the edges of taxonomy and evolution of our own knowledge. A new take on an old rumination. Meme = Gene and the ecology of ideas. Extinction is a significant player and collections of ideas working together in a body of knowledge do better than those without context. In times of #infobeasity extinction rates are up. Ignorance is the consequence of bingeing on information without taking the time to selectively turn some of it into knowledge. Enough from me, maybe take some time to find some thoughts of your own to put a name to, to make some general understandings of your own out of all the specific little bits of information swirling around you. I recommend a quite spot where the birds sing and the breeze blows in the trees. If you are near Darwin I know just the place...




*i googled the quote and in a five minute search had no luck confirming the quote. I don't remember where i received it from but have used it a number of times. I choose to believe that it is a fair translation of something Aristotle said, it fits my narrative, my own knowledge structure. I am happy if someone with more depth of knowledge in the area confirms or denies its authenticity.