HarveyNick.com Musings of a professional nerd

Platypus Categorisation

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book I recommend without hesitation, but with caveats. It’s an extremely difficult and heavy book. In fact I had to take a break in the middle of reading it for something a bit lighter. It’s less famous sequel Lila manages to be heavier still. In fact I have a confession to make: many years after starting to read it, I still haven’t finished.

Nevertheless, it contains a lot of brilliance, including this passage, which I still refer back to on a regular basis:

Early zoologists classified as mammals those that suckle their young and as reptiles those that lay eggs. Then a duck-billed platypus was discovered in Australia laying eggs like a perfect reptile and then, when they hatched, suckling the infant like a perfect mammal.

The discovery created quite a sensation. What an enigma! it was exclaimed. What a mystery! What a marvel of nature! When the first stuffed specimens reached England from Australia around the end of the eighteenth century they were thought to be fakes made by sticking together bits of different animals. Even today you still see occasional articles in nature magazines asking ‘Why does this paradox of nature exist?’.

The answer is: it doesn’t. The Platypus isn’t doing anything paradoxical at all. It isn’t having any problems. Platypuses have been laying eggs and suckling their young for millions of years before there were any zoologists to come along and declare it illegal. The real mystery, the real enigma, is how mature, objective, trained scientific observers can blame their own goof on a poor innocent platypus.

If you are (like me) a software engineer, this sort of thing happens all the time. In fact if you have to deal with categories or classes of any sort I think this way of thinking is incredibly useful.

It comes down to this: If new information doesn’t fit, consider the possibility that your existing system, classification, or world view may be in error. Of course, it’s also possible that the new information is incorrect. Consider that too. But don’t treat it as heresy and your present system as dogma.