"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.