Giving names to the animals

Here’s a delightfully odd Bob Dylan song:

I’ve been thinking about that one lately as I’ve tried to give names to all the animals who dwell in or visit my little patch of Chester County — such as the pickerel frogs like the one pictured here. That photo is by Wayne Fidler, from the Pennsylvania Herp identification site — a terrific resource.

(I found my way there while failing in a long-shot attempt to identify a tiny snake who also visited our yard. Unfortunately I can’t describe it very well except to say it was dark, shy, elusive and really fast.)

Dylan’s song comes from an equally odd/delightful Bible story — or really a story within a story. The larger story there is the creation story from Genesis 2. This story is quite different from the one in the previous chapter. That one, the more famous six-day version, is more sweeping and cosmological. It’s a story about God creating the whole universe. The second version is more intimate in scope and in action. It’s about God making a world for humans to live in. In the first story, God speaks the cosmos into being. In the second, God forms humans out of the dust of the earth and then kisses us into life.

In that first story, God makes humans — “male and female,” it doesn’t say how many, possibly a “multitude” — on the sixth day, after everything else has already been created. In the second story, God makes a garden, and then grows a man in that garden. And then God sets about making other creatures to keep this lone human company:

So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field.

I love this little story within a story. It portrays God as delighting in creation, and particularly as delighting in seeing what humanity makes of all these amazing creatures. God “brought them to the man to see what he would call them.” I love the giddy enthusiasm of God in this story. God can’t wait to find out what the human thinks about all the “cattle and the birds of the air and every animal of the field.”

“‘Buffalo,’ huh? I like it. ‘Buffa-lo.’ Excellent. Suits it perfectly. ‘Buffalo’ it is. OK, OK, OK … now, close your eyes. You’re gonna love this next one. Are they closed? OK, ready? Aaaaand … Ta-da!”

This story suggests that our curiosity about and interest in all creatures great and small is something that delights God. The God portrayed in this story would love David Liittschwager’s photographs for his One Cubic Foot project.

Liittschwager isn’t just giving names to all the animals, he’s capturing beautiful portraits of them too. And now he’s taking his project into the water, capturing the dizzying diversity of creatures that live there as well.

“The idea of biodiversity is a little abstract when you start talking about these huge numbers of creatures,” Liittschwager said. “There may be as many as 40 million species we don’t even know about — and that doesn’t even take into account the really little things.”

The writer of that story in Genesis 2 had no idea about those “really little things.” None of us humans did until we built our first microscope in 1590. If the writer of Genesis 2 was correct about the character of God, then this invention must have pleased God a great deal.

Once we were able to get a glimpse of the universe of tiny creatures invisible to the naked eye, I’m sure that God was eagerly waiting “to see what we would call them.”

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  • Will Hennessy

    “When they were naming animals, somebody got lazy… Ant-eater?  ‘What’s it doing?’ ‘It’s eating ants.’ ‘Done! Next!'”

    –Demetri Martin

  • Of course,  some of us (i.e. literalists, whether pro- or anti-) might be inclined to wonder whether Adam was calling it a “frog,” or “rana” (Latin), or the Hebrew word for “frog,” or the Sanskrit….

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    “‘Buffalo,’ huh? I like it. ‘Buffa-lo.’ Excellent. Suits it perfectly. ‘Buffalo’ it is.

    I always did think “Buffalo” stopped sounding like a word after memorizing the sentence, “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”

    But yeah, great article. It’s interesting how many people today gaze wistfully at the time when mercury vapor was considered to be a cure for most diseases.

  • The_insane_protagonist

    Am I the only one who was sort of disappointed that the NatGeo article doesn’t give the full list of species he found? As a wildlife nerd it’s super interesting to me!

  • MikeJ

    OK, OK, OK … now, close your eyes. You’re gonna love this next one. Are they closed? OK, ready? Aaaaand … Ta-da!”

    OK, Ima do one more, but first pass that, what did you call it? Mary Jane? Ok. Here goes……


  • One might almost wonder whether some exotic species were God’s idea of a joke when directing evolution.

  • I’ve long been of the opinion that at least some of the work of Creation was delegated to committees, who then split it up without conferring on an actual plan first.

    It would explain SO MUCH. 

  • Fusina

    I learned in science class that systems become more chaotic with time. This was used to disprove evolution in one of the churches I went to–that the system was simplifying and therefore… but the system is actually getting more chaotic based on the fossil records–and so I came to accept that evolution is real. 

  • Tricksterson

    Remember, pre-Tower of Babel there was supposedly, only one language.

  • “One Cubic Foot” reminds me of that wonderful story about Charles Darwin in his earthworm phase, scooping up shovelfuls of dirt from his back yard and spreading it out on his dining-room table to count the worms. 

  • J_Enigma32

    “Once we were able to get a glimpse of the universe of tiny creatures
    invisible to the naked eye, I’m sure that God was eagerly waiting “to
    see what we would call them.””

    Hmm… if this is true, just imagine God’s excitement when we finally discover how FTL works and are capable of visiting other planets.

    What will we name them? Just how vast and expansive is creation, anyway?

    Course, that’s a whole ‘nother theological can of worms. Especially if it turns out there’s sapient, intelligent life out there…

    “What do you mean you get to name it? As humans, that’s our job!”

  • D9000

    The real reason for the expulsion from Eden:

    “Right, how about this one, Adam? This is a good one. I especially like the shade of green on the wings. What are you going to call it?””Beetle”.
    “Beetle! That’s the 399,000th time you’ve said ‘beetle’. I swear to Me, if you say ‘beetle’ one more time …”

  • I think it was Gallagher who said that giraffes were evidence of God’s sense of humor:

    “Let there be yellow spotted horses with really long necks!

    Or something like that, been a while since I saw the show.

  • Edo

    …which was, by the account of its surviving speakers, Basque.

  • Jurgan

    I think he also said that the orange must have been named before the carrot.  Or maybe it was Jim Gaffigan…

  •  Everyone knows that Giraffes are heartless creatures

  • Tricksterson

    And here I thought the root laguage was Esperanto.

  • Darkrose

    You know, when you put it this way, it makes me like the Old Testament God for a little while. I can relate to the “Hey, isn’t this cool!” God much more than the “I’m going to fuck with the Egyptians, including killing their children, to make a point about how awesome I am!” God, or the “Psyche! Told you not to eat from the Tree that I put RIGHT THERE!” God, or the “Sacrifice your son to me–Hah! You’ve been punked, Abraham!” God. I like the God who’s dorkily excited about creation. The God who acts like a vindictive practical joker? Not so much.

  •  …so Adam says, “OK, beatle!”

  • Albanaeon

     And was English, up until then.  At least according to a person trying to justify why the King James version was THE BIBLE.


  • Will Hennessy

     That was definitely Demetri Martin. One of my favorite bits.

  • Will Hennessy

    Also: Fred! You’ve encountered the Darkshy Elusifast Snake of Pennsylvania!?!

    (end bad Australian accent)

  • Darkrose

    “Cat? Are you sure? I mean, if that’s what you want, but isn’t it a little…dull? I was thinking something more like AwWho’sAnAdorableKitteh…a little more descriptive, you know what I mean?”

  • pharoute

    “OK next one!”
    “… but it’s not an apple and it’s not even close to a pine tre”

  • Tricksterson

    No.  Cats named themselves.  Because they’re like that.

  • Darkrose

    Hah! Very true. I’m sure in the feline language, “Cat” means “The Center of the Universe.”

  •  Cat is in fact, an acronym:  Conqueror of All Time.  In the presence of multiple cats they add Space to the equation.

  • Launcifer

    I suppose we should just be thankful that no feline crept up on Adam and frightened him into calling it a Glockenspiel.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    And here I thought the root laguage was Esperanto.

    No, don’t be silly.  It was obviously Hymnnos.

  • Broggly

    So did anyone else think this was going to be a post about Jeremiah?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Friends of mine have a hilarious cartoon book called Big Lies to Tell Small Children. One of the pages says “It is bad luck not to name every ant you see. For the rest of your life.”

  • inhumandecency

    I never saw the three-synonym variant before. The capitalization makes it much easier to parse. Very clever. I might say… devilishly clever.

  • inhumandecency

    To quote a great scientist:

    Creationists always try to use the second law,to disprove evolution, but their theory has a flaw.The second law is quite precise about where it applies,only in a closed system must the entropy count rise.The earth’s not a closed system, it’s powered by the sun,so f*** the damn creationists, Doomsday get my gun!

  • Nomuse

    I can’t think of the whole naming-the-animals thing without remembering this:

  • Just so you know:  the Bob Dylan song has been made into a rather charming children’s book.

  • Frank McCormick

    In my freshman Roman Catholic religion class, I was taught that the “naming” of the animals was a mystical way for God to give dominion over them.  Conversely, God (or more to the point G_d) could not be named.  Thus the parenthecal conventiond of Yahweh and Jehovah — not the “true” names — man has no power over G_d.