From Soup to Nuts

The categorical imperative

"Grilled slice of fresh foie gras served with a stew of corn, red beans, chickpeas, green peas, and duck jus."

"Beef short ribs braised in a rich Khmer broth with fresh ginger, garlic, young coconut juice, mushroom soy, tamarind, and chiles."

"Roasted lamb loin with a light curry sauce, garnished with plantain, mango, raisins, and couscous tabouleh."

"Tuna tartare with fresh wasabi, Sevruga caviar, cucumber, radish, and a Meyer lemon coulis."

These descriptions, drawn from different menus, exemplify the modern restaurant practice of listing as many exotic components as possible. The supporting ingredients surround the central item like vainglorious courtiers around a prince—the gastronomic equivalent, perhaps, of Velázquez's The Surrender of Breda. The descriptions can be enticing. But for me, at least, they also have an unintended consequence—they call attention to the sheer number of life forms required to produce every fancy dish. Start taking inventory and the task quickly gets out of hand. Dozens of plants and animals and fungi may be involved in a few tablespoons of sauce. The simplest glass of wine once teemed with enabling microbes. So whenever Justin, who will be my server tonight, reads from his card of specials, a portion of my mind dwells not on the choices but on a larger question: How many different species participated in the creation of this menu? Five hundred? Five times that many?

Which leads to an even more sobering question: How many different species does a human being make use of in the course of a lifetime? Cro-Magnon Person was a more sophisticated creature than we tend to think, profoundly knowledgeable about the plant and animal worlds and capable of bending nature mightily to human will—but this ancestor of ours probably drew upon only a few thousand species, all told. The average American is in another league. Just the books on one's shelves may embody the contributions of hundreds of kinds of trees. Pharmaceuticals are species-intensive, and our medicine cabinets are crowded. Every package of processed food is a small Noah's ark of biodiversity (even if many of the species, to judge from the lists of ingredients, are traveling under assumed names). The organisms represented in a Big Mac easily add up to a couple of dozen. Include everything that goes into home furnishings, and all the contents of drawers and closets, and the numbers mount rapidly. I wouldn't be surprised if Americans made use of 100,000 or more distinct species during a lifetime.

But we still have a long way to go—or so I concluded after learning about an enterprise called the All Species Foundation. This is not, as you might fear, the research-and-development arm of the restaurant industry. The All Species Foundation was established two years ago by a consortium of scientists and publishers (among them Stewart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog), and its goal is to conduct an All Species Inventory—to name and classify, within the next twenty-five years, every living thing on earth. "If we discovered life on another planet," the foundation's manifesto states, "the first thing we would do is conduct a systematic inventory of that planet's life. This is something we have never done on our home planet."

It is an enormous undertaking, though just how enormous no one actually knows. Some 1.7 million plants, animals, and microbes have been named and classified during the past few centuries, and the estimates of how many remain undiscovered range from seven million to more than a hundred million. The foundation believes that new technologies for finding and identifying species (remote viewers, DNA samplers, cheap electron microscopes), together with the Internet and a few billion dollars, will empower naturalists around the world and make a global inventory possible.

The All Species Inventory represents, of course, the taxonomist's ultimate quest. Taxonomy is the science of classification—in this case, the classification of living things, a process that involves not only giving them names but also sorting them into orderly groups based on natural relationships. It is an endeavor that in its modern scientific form goes back to the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, who in the eighteenth century devised the official Latin naming system (Homo sapiens, Bacillus anthracis) and also took the first stab at arranging organisms into categories. Much of his schema remains intact, though large parts have been revised as science has advanced. The All Species Inventory will almost certainly bring major revisions in the presumed order of things.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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