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.

The ambitions of the All Species Foundation have earned praise from some quarters and skepticism from others. The scope of the effort, some critics say, verges on the preposterous. We aren't even sure, they go on, what the precise definition of "species" is. I'm not going to step into the middle of this debate, beyond observing that the human urge to render phenomena into categories is more powerful than any critique of that urge will ever be. The Book of Genesis begins with a taxonomy of species. Aristotle divided the animal kingdom into vertebrates and invertebrates, and the plant kingdom into herbs, shrubs, and trees. "The construction of categories is a basic human imperative," the biologist Jody Hey writes in Genes, Categories, and Species, a provocative new book that shows how our cognitive wiring often dictates the way we divvy up nature. The human brain has an affinity for patterns even when they're trivial: one day last spring, after a Barry Bonds home run, a television sportscaster noted that this was "the fifth successive year Bonds has homered on April 13." Indeed, the brain is so inclined to discern patterns that it finds them where none exist—producing phrenologists, Spenglerians, conspiracy theorists, and political consultants.

The great animating principle behind most productive human endeavor is the resistance to entropy, the impulse toward order. That virtually anything at all can be perceived in categorical terms underlies everything from Twenty Questions to the Dewey decimal system to sentences that begin with the words "There are two kinds of people ..." The process of filling out a tax return amounts to a strenuous exercise in personal taxonomy ("railroad employee"; "qualifying widow"; "married filing jointly").

I keep a small but representative collection of taxonomic schemata in a folder—a kind of petting zoo. It is broken down, needless to say, into categories. Psychology, for instance, has given us taxonomies of personalities (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and of dreams ("falling or drowning," "naked or dressed"). Scholars have picked apart popular culture, producing humorless taxonomies of jokes ("inferential," "paradoxical") and numbing taxonomies of graffiti ("folk epigraphy," "latrinalia").

In the realm of religion, the taxonomy of demons encompasses fates and furies, deluders and ensnarers, incubi and succubi. A Web-site spreadsheet from the University of Notre Dame displays an intricate theological taxonomy of the passions. Under the rubric dolor ("pain") come the subcategories poenitentia ("sorrow for one's moral sins"), invidia ("sorrow at someone else's good"), and acedia ("sorrow that debilitates by taking away even the desire to escape"). Under the rubric timor ("fear") come erubescentia ("fear of what others will think of you if you act in a given way") and agonia ("fear of an unanticipated evil").

The taxonomic impulse has its foes. A recent screed in the e-zine Turk's Head Review railed against the underlying organizational principles of the Yahoo! search engine: "To pigeonhole is to imprison. To categorize is to suck some of the lifeblood out of the living for the sake of convenience and fast retrieval." What this writer probably means is that the organizational principles don't accord with his own. And who can fail to sympathize? Probably all of us have entertained visions of how reality might better be organized.

Thus the unimaginative division of world literature into national subliteratures may make a certain kind of sense. But a much more useful scheme would be to categorize books according to the age at which it is best to read them—for instance, "while in college," "not until you've had children," "only after you're sixty." There are usually good scientific reasons for assigning animals to one species or another, but many people recognize that some kinds of dogs (Pekingese, Pomeranians, Chihuahuas) are as a conceptual matter actually cats, and the biological charts should reflect that fact. The Greeks considered the four elements to be Earth, Air, Fire, and Water—how could they have forgotten about Hype? And although everyone is familiar with the classic assignment of all comestibles to five nutritional "food groups," many people would appreciate a prior division of all foods into the two categories that really matter: "things you want to eat now" and "things you'll wish in thirty years you had eaten instead."

I should add, by the way, that the foie gras and short ribs were great.