Collecting, naming, and organizing thingsanything, from banana labels to dachshund paperweightsseems to be built into human nature. At least, that’s what the Bible tells us. The first task God gave Adam was the naming of the animals. God “brought them to Adam to see what he would call them” and “the man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field” (Gen. 2:19–20). No matter how you imagine this scene, its meaning seems clear enough. The gift of language is what separates us from other species. We can name them, but they cannot name us.
Far from being an ancient myth with no contemporary relevance, the story of Adam’s task has inspired and shaped human endeavor throughout the centuries. Modern science got its start in the golden age of exploration, when collectors began cataloging exotic plants and animals in the hope of restoring Adam’s complete knowledge of the world. Some sixteenth-century scholars, like Benito Montano (1527–1598), gave Hebrew names to the places Columbus discovered, because they assumed that the Bible must contain all the words we need to understand the New World. Others realized that there were more things to know and to be named than they ever imagined. Francis Bacon exhorted gentlemen of means to build gardens “with rooms to stable in all rare beasts and to cage in all rare birds . . . so you may have in small compass a model of the universal nature made private.” Adam’s sin, Christians believed, not only expelled the first couple from the Garden. Plants and animals too had been dispersed, but now scholars could imagine a return to paradise by achieving universal knowledge.
If God were to bring all the animals before man today, the line would be too long. This scene could only take place on the computer, which is exactly what the new Encyclopedia of Life proposes. This remarkable project aims to gather descriptions of every species known to science on a single website. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has been the driving force behind the Encyclopedia, and his enthusiasm for it is unbounded. “It’s going to have everything known on it,” he said, “and everything new is going to be added as we go along.” Nearly two million species are known, but scientists estimate that ten times that many are yet to be discovered. Most of these unknown species are bacteria, fungi, and insects. We can name them because we know, or want to know, everything about them.
Call it what you willan electronic ark, the final chapter in the book of naturethe Encyclopedia of Life is the culmination of Adam’s task. Wilson’s own specialty is the study of ants, and he hopes that putting all 14,000 known species on the website will stimulate others to add all the unknown ones, a number that might be as high as 25,000 additional species.
Wilson is a worthy heir of Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), who is known as the Father of Taxonomy, the science of identifying, naming, and organizing species. As a young man, Linnaeus set himself the monumental task of classifying everything in existence. “God created,” he is said to have boasted, “Linnaeus ordered.” By the time of his death, his magnum opus Systema Naturae described 15,000 species in 2,300 pages. His division of species into strict hierarchies was overturned by the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, but other aspects of his system of classification survive to this day. Indeed, his recognition of the similarities between humans and apes makes him one of Darwin’s most important forerunners. Linnaeus was the first person to define humans as an animal among animals, giving us the name Homo sapiens.
Linnaeus’ exuberance for naming brought him worldwide fame, but today the status of taxonomy is pretty low. Taxonomy is a thankless task, made even more so by the anonymity of websites, especially one as vast as the Encyclopedia of Life. Why be content to describe the world when you can develop theories to explain it and, better yet, change it? Wilson’s project is going to demand a significant increase in the number of taxonomists in the world. It will be interesting to see whether enough people will dedicate themselves to the task of description to make it succeed.
Our ancestors were inspired to name the animals by the idea that the world is a good and orderly gift from God. Adam named the animals as an act of husbandry and stewardship, but Genesis also portrays Adam’s task as a quest for companionship. Right before God parades the animals before Adam, he says, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen. 2:18). The next verses states, “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air.” The Israelites were an agricultural people, so it should not be surprising that this sacred text portrays the animals as the first companions of man. It should also not be surprising that Adam did not find among the animals “a helper as his partner” (Gen. 2:20). At this point in the Genesis story God creates the woman to be flesh of the man’s flesh. Animals, Genesis teaches, are a good part of a divinely sanctioned order, but we are not one of them. We can name them because we know that we have a destiny that transcends the animal world.
The current frenzy for naming has a different basis. Post-Darwinians can name the animals because we know that we are the same as them, not different. We share the same biological structure, and, more importantly, we share the same precarious existence on the environmentally troubled planet Earth.
Indeed, much of the hype for the Encyclopedia of Life concerns the claim that only by naming every species can we hope to preserve them from extinction. Yet there is no reason to think that this quest for absolute knowledge will lead to the protection of animals rather than their exploitation. Wilson is a champion of biodiversity and the love of nature for its own sake, yet even he admits that the Encyclopedia of Life will accelerate “the discovery of wild plant species adaptable for agriculture, new genes for the enhancement of crop productivity, and new class of pharmaceuticals.” If knowledge is power and humans are one animal among many, then what will keep us from using this knowledge to lord our power over all other animals?
Genesis describes Adam’s task in the Garden as innocent and almost childlike. In fact, the story captures the way that animal names and sounds are among the first things that children learn. The Encyclopedia of Life is also exciting for its novel opportunities, but whether we end up completing Adam’s task out of a spirit of gratitude for what God has given us or in an attempt to play god over the animals remains to be seen. In either case, Adam’s task is still our own, and perhaps now more than ever before.
Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence: A Nation with a Mission, The Divine Voice, and Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved.