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    Ujaan, 12 Years
    Rupkatha, 7 Years
    Real Moms. Real Stories

    I see and I ponder….. thoughts from 17th Jan 2013

    The science of biological nomenclature and taxonomy is one of the oldest branches of biology, established by Carl Linnaeus through his monumental work, the Systema Naturae. It is an intriguing question as to why we feel this urge to group and classify things, and why we feel comfortable having clear boundaries between the different groups that we create. Is it some inherent characteristic of humans to prefer “order” and “discipline”, or is it something more basic, instinctive, that is also common in other organisms, though not evident to us?
    The thought occurred to me because of my observations of my 13 month old daughter. The behavioural biologist in me often overrides maternal instincts, leading to interesting observations. Rupkatha, my daughter, sees dogs and cows outside our house all the time, and one of her earliest words was “bho-bho” for dogs, soon followed by “aamba” for cows. There are a couple of cats around the house too, but somehow she seems to ignore them. The only cat she has shown in any interest in so far was a kitten that her brother had found on the road and had brought home. We had to keep the kitten away from Rupkatha, as she tried to grab it instantly, probably thinking it was another cuddly toy. The third animal that she easily identifies is the horse – she has been making riding motions seeing a horse image for several months now, and at times she even says “go-aa” (ghoraa is horse in Bangla). She knows the horse because she has inherited a wooden rocking horse from her brother, which they love riding together. This surprised me the first time, as this wooden horse is far from similar to the photograph of a real horse, but somehow she doesn’t seem to notice this. The fourth animal that she knows and likes is the elephant, because she has a stuffed elephant, which is also one of her favourite toys. If you show her an elephant or say “haati”, she shows a tusk with her hand over her face. Her brother has a stuffed tiger, so she knows what a tiger is, and identifies it with something like a growl.
    My daughter has developed an interest in books and television shows on animals on the channels like Animal Planet, Discovery and National Geographic. What is intriguing is that when she sees the animals, she tries to identify them as dogs or horses or cows, the three animals that she knows. So a donkey can become a horse, a yak or a wild buffalo can be a cow and a wolf can be a dog. She never mixes up anything with elephants, though she might see a cheetah and think it to be a tiger. Is it human tendency to name things and then grab the nearest likeness to describe something new? Is it because we have a language that allows us to name things in the first place, or is it something that all animals do – map objects to known specimens in the brain that has some kind of identity, whether they have language or not? Do babies that cannot speak do this anyway? To chimpanzees try to group objects into categories like my daughter?
    I remember that my son used to do something similar. He did not have a vocabulary as large as his sister at this age, but when he was about 18 months old, he started speaking properly, in short sentences, and I remember he used to look at animals on TV and try to identify them based on the animals he already knew. It is also interesting that babies seem to follow a sense of logic in lumping together animals that is not too far-fetched as per taxonomic standards. For example, my son would identify a hippopotamus as a cow and a deer as a goat. But of course, they are just looking at external morphology, which can at times give funny results: some days back my daughter saw a rhinoceros on TV and immediately turned to me doing her tusk movement!

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