Do me a favour, forget my name and strike me off the nation's register

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The Independent Online
WE LIVE in the Age of Names, and I believe that it is drawing towards a close. The modern period which began in Europe more than 300 years ago contains many separate Ages - of Reason, Steam, Empire, Dictators and Computers, to mention a few. But one thing gives character to the whole epoch: the mania to classify, to label, to give a single permanent name to everything in creation.

Last week, at the Edinburgh Festival, there was a masque entitled Linnaeus. It was done out of doors, in the Botanics, which I still think the most beautiful botanical garden in the world. The audience followed the crowd of gaudy young performers from stance to stance, as they enacted with music, song and rhetoric the fate of nature at the hands of the great 18th-century Swedish scientist. African drums boomed, baroque instruments twanged, and a full moon rose over the hedges and espaliers as the show unfolded.

Linnaeus, born Carl von Linne, was the first modern taxonomist, or namer of things. To every plant and creature which he and his wandering 'apostles' encountered, he gave a double name in Latin: family and species. Flowers, birds, fish, insects and animals known by different words in hundreds of languages, or by none, were pinned down into a universal classification. To a great extent, his names still stand, followed in the manuals by a little bracket: (Linn.).

But towards the end of his life, Linnaeus was assailed by doubts. Was his work consonant with the will of God? Was not the existence of a multitude of languages, in which each living being was assigned its own term, itself part of the Lord's design, and had he not therefore committed a dreadful sin against God's commandment to diversity? He grew nervous and confused. Towards the end of his life, the man who had named much of the natural world began to forget his own name.

To me, the most important part of the Genesis myth is the scene in which the creatures of the world are passed in parade before Adam and he gives them each a name. This could be because one of my own ancestors was a taxonomist, an old Professor Ascherson who tramped about central Europe with his botany students identifying small plants. By then (this was in the 1880s), there was less room for discovery. Most things already had their scientific label. But he left a few new ones of his own, and somewhere in Poland there is a humble grass called Harba Kujavica Aschersonii. He never married or had a family. Grasses were his stepchildren, and they are still alive.

But the story of Adam's naming of creatures is more important than my great-great uncle. It describes a rite of possession. By hanging his own word round the neck of giraffe, cockroach and herring, Adam took possession of the natural creation for his own use and that of his descendants for ever. The natural world was declared to be the heritage of the human race, without a separate identity of its own. In much the same way, slave-owners bought some Kwame or Kofi off the boat from Africa and addressed him as 'Jemmy' or 'Enoch'. To name is, in a certain sense, to possess.

In the modern period, the human race enslaved the rest of the natural world. This had to be done so that it could be exploited efficiently. The whole structure of science rested on naming. A huge inventory was carried out, mostly in the Victorian century, which issued catalogue after catalogue of rocks and fossils, of elements and compounds, of butterflies, microorganisms, civilisations and diseases. To know was to have, but naming was the precondition of knowing.

Now, like Linnaeus, we begin to have doubts about the whole enterprise. Who do we think we are? The idea that man owns the globe like an estate has become ridiculous, although the damage done to the natural environment is so overwhelming at the end of this millennium that much of the living world will have to be 'managed' like a farm or an estate if its species are to survive at all. The childish instinct to grab and consume everything has ebbed away, and is being slowly replaced by a sense of humility. (We did at least leave many of the ancient names for the stars and constellations.)

And the great inventory no longer seems so impressive. Names begin to feel relative, rather than absolute. Our grandparents thought that the little brown anonymous bird which existed before human beings began to talk had now, in some objective way, been turned into 'Sparrow' (Passer domesticus (Linn.)). But these days it is easier to see that a name is only a word. If dolphins do not appear when we go down to the shore and yell 'Delphinus delphis]', it is not because they are too stupid to know who they are. All those catalogues of Latin names have not really drawn Nature up into ranks and files, each shouting 'Present]' when its species or sub-species is called out. Nature remains as chaotic as ever. Names are just labels scribbled under an image, signals from one Homo sapiens to another.

But it is not only the natural environment which has been enslaved with names. In an act of unconscious self-punishment, the human race has done the same thing to itself. In much the same period of history, and for pretty similar reasons, people were chained down to a permanent surname.

Scientists had to name minerals, so that rich men could make a chemical industry. Bureaucrats had to name people, so that kings could make armies and manpower reserves and ratepayers. Before that, individuals carried only their personal forename and perhaps a patronym (Boris Petrovich - son of Peter), and often a nickname. Famous people might have an origin tacked on, like Julian of Norwich. But ordinary people were elusive. Lame Peter, son of Big Jim, was hard to find and regiment. Peter J Smith of the Smith family, on the other hand, is a sitting duck for the census officer.

Everyone knows how Gentile bureaucrats dubbed Jews with bizarre surnames - Date Tree (Teitelbaum) or Cat's Elbow (Katzenellenbogen). But the same happened everywhere. In the Celtic lands, Red Rory, son of Calum, would be obliged to take his clan name as a permanent surname, becoming Roderick MacDonald in the registers. Somebody at a desk in a far-off city, whom he had never met, could now tick his name off for a vote, a tax or a spell in the army.

But the time has come to rebel. Nation-states are weakening, and individuals grow more independent. The first task is to become elusive again, and the first revolutionary act is to throw away our surnames. They bind us to the state, and perpetuate male supremacy. Jesus, Euripides and Genghis Khan all did without surnames, long before Linnaeus made the entire creation carry identity cards. No more Ascherson, then. Blethering Neal, son of Evelyn, wrote these words.