2.2. The Powers of Recognition

The ability to read nature in this qualitative sense, to know its phenomena from the inside, is not restricted to primitive cultures. While we may not know how to reconcile this ability with the canonized procedures of science, we do often recognize it as a mark of scientific genius. The primary subject of Davis' book, the legendary Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, exemplified this sort of genius.

Schultes stood apart in his field. As Davis relates it, "Even the most highly trained botanists are humbled by the immense diversity of the Amazonian forests":

Confronted with the unknown, they collect specimens and do their best to identify a plant to family or genus. Only later, in the comfort of the herbarium and invariably with the assistance of a colleague specializing in that particular group of plants, will they figure out the species and obtain a complete determination.

With Schultes, who collected more than 25,000 plants in Colombia between 1941 and 1953, and who was the first to record entire genera previously unknown to science, along with hundreds of species, it was different. "He possessed what scientists call the taxonomic eye" an immediate ability to detect significant variation within an overall pattern. He occasionally demonstrated his powers of attention to such variation in striking ways:

He was once in a small plane that took off from a dirt runway, brushed against the canopy of the forest, and very nearly crashed. A colleague who was with him recalled years later that throughout the entire episode Schultes had sat calmly by a window, oblivious to the screams of the terrified passengers. It turned out that he had spotted a tree, a new species of Cecropia, and had scarcely noticed the crisis.

What all this meant, Davis comments, is that Schultes

could resolve botanical problems in the moment, write descriptions in the field, realign species and genera just by holding a blossom to the light. In the entire history of Amazonian botany, only a handful of scientists have possessed this talent.

". . . just by holding a blossom to the light." This is the essence of qualitative knowledge. It's the difference between going laboriously through a set of analytical keys to identify a plant or, based on direct and intimate familiarity with the plant world, immediately recognizing the distinctive character of the plant and its relations to other plants. In order to appreciate what this means, think of how you would identify a face in a crowd when all you had was a list of discrete features, and compare that to recognizing an old friend. The recognition is instantaneous, or nearly so, a single act drawing on the qualities of an entire image, without analysis. And in that image you may read a great deal about the kind of experience your friend has just been through and how he is relating to those around him.

We in fact exercise such powers of recognition all the time; without them there would be no science. Yet a science that long ago disavowed any concern with the qualities of things has steadily pushed our acts of recognition to the periphery. Mention these mundane, daily human performances in certain scientific contexts and you will soon hear the muttered epithet, "mystical." Our technologies, with their emphasis on automatically transferable information, persistently train us in the disregard of subtle qualities. The steps in identifying a plant analytically via a key are easily taught through a program. What Schultes learned to see when he held a flower to the light is not. The program yields clean, unambiguous, yes-or-no answers and little else. The kind of understanding Schultes employed when studying a blossom enabled him to reimagine and reorganize the relations upon which programmatic keys are based.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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