Most people are, by nature, categorizers. We like to put labels on things, sort the world into neat little boxes. For many of us, this drive is integral to our understanding of the world.
An example from my own field is the concept of species. The definition seems simple enough: a group of morphologically similar individuals that are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. It seems, on the surface, that given this definition, it should be trivial to determine whether two individuals are, or are not, members of the same species.
The problem is, the world is messy, and doesn't often acquiesce to our desire to paste labels on various bits of it. The word species is actually one of the hardest to pin down definitions in biology. Ring species, fertile hybrids, morphologically distinct populations that can interbreed, morphologically identical populations that cannot, and so on, all point up that we're trying to draw firm distinctions in a realm where those distinctions probably don't exist. As my long-ago vertebrate zoology professor once said, "The only reason that humans came up with the concept of 'species' is that Homo sapiens has no near relatives."
It's funny how serious taxonomists get about this, however. There are fierce arguments over whether species should be "lumped" or "split" (particularly contentious amongst birdwatchers, who often bump up their lists with no hard work if what was once a single species gets divided into two or more). There are endless arguments even about what names species should be given, and every month taxonomic oversight groups publish lists of name changes, to the chagrin of biologists who then have to go back and alter their records.
The same urge to divide a messy reality into neat compartments pervades a lot of other fields, too, and the results are sometimes more pernicious than the biologist's need to decide whether some plant or another is a new species. In psychology, for example, it has driven the use of diagnostic labels on groups of behaviors that might not actually be conditions in the clinical sense. ADD and ADHD, for example, are diagnoses that even the experts can't agree upon -- whether or not they are actual medical conditions, how (or if) cases should be medicated, and inconsistencies in how they are diagnosed have all led to significant controversy. (There's a nice overview of the arguments here.)
Then, there's the urge to relabel in order to give a previously stigmatized group a more positive spin. The adoption of the word "gay" to mean "homosexual" in the 20th century was, in part, to find a positive word to identify people who have throughout history been the targets of the worst sorts of epithets. In the 1990s, a group of atheists tried the same kind of rebranding, and settled on calling themselves "The Brights" -- a move that to many people, including myself, seemed so self-congratulatory as to be cringeworthy.
More recently, there have been two rather interesting examples of this same sort of thing. One is the idea of "Indigo Children," which is an increasingly popular label given to kids who are "empathetic, sensitive, intelligent, and don't fit in well." I can understand the difficulties that parents of sensitive children face -- one of my own sons certainly could be described by those words, and he had a hell of a time making it through the teasing and bullying that seem to be an entrenched part of middle school culture. But labeling these kids, even with a positive term, doesn't help the situation, and might even make it worse if the label makes the child feel even more different and isolated. Add to that a pseudoscientific twist that you often see on "Indigo Child" websites -- that "Indigo Children" frequently have paranormal abilities -- and you have a fairly ugly combination of a non-evidence-based false diagnosis with a heaping helping of New-Agey condescension. (For a particularly egregious example of this, go here -- and note that the article begins with a statement that the easiest way to identify "Indigo Children" is that they have "indigo-colored auras.")
Just yesterday, I found another good example of this -- the idea of the "Alpha Thinker." Eric Schulke, who wrote the article I linked and who works for the "Movement for Indefinite Life Extension," tells us that Alpha Thinkers "... are creatives, innovators, pioneers. They acutely and agilely navigate an abundance of diverse, fallacy aware thinking.
The alpha thinker can’t bring themselves to live at the last outpost
and not venture further. They cannot resist poking their finger through
the realm of subatomic particles. They can’t stay on this side of the
atmosphere. They look into biology and the elements. They want to know
why we are here, why the universe and all of existence is here, how far
it goes, what is out there, what the hell is going on. Alpha thinkers
are the universe’s way of creating the devises [sic] needed to help bring out
all of the potential in its elements."
Well, that's just fine and dandy, but how do you know if someone is an "Alpha Thinker?" It turns out that you more or less have to wait for them to do something smart: "It is not a college degree that signifies the alpha thinker. As the
alpha thinker knows, its [sic] an abundance of fallacy-aware thinking that
signifies it... Alpha thinkers control the elements. They are cosmic titans, the leaders
of humankind, the explorers of the universe setting sail with fierce
Spinoza, Newton, and Thomas Paine, we are told, were "Alpha Thinkers," which strikes me as kind of an odd trio to choose, but I guess there's no denying these three men were bright guys. Then, we are given two curious pieces of information: (1) whether or not you are an "Alpha Thinker" can be determined by an electroencephalogram; and (2) from "historical times" until now the ratio of "Alpha Thinkers" to ordinary folks has increased from 1 in 99 to 1 in 6.
So, I'm thinking: how can you know that's true, given that the EEG machine was only invented in 1924, and most people in the world will never have an EEG done during their lifetimes? It seems to me that the label "Alpha Thinker" is just a new way to say "smart person," and Schulke is pulling made-up statistics out of his ass in order to support his point that there's something inherently different about them. Further evidence of this comes at the end of the article, where Schulke gives the whole thing a New Age twist by saying that "Alpha Thinkers" are here to guide us into the next stage, the "Transhuman Revolution."
Oh, and of course, throughout the article Schulke makes it clear that he's an "Alpha Thinker." As if there were any doubt of that.
So, there you are. Today's musings about human nature. I suspect that all of the above really, in the long haul, does minimal damage, with the possible exception of the misdiagnosis of individuals who are actually mentally ill and who don't receive treatment because they are labeled "Indigo Children" or "Alpha Thinkers," or whatever. But it is a curious tendency, isn't it? I think I'll wrap this up here, because I need to go update the database of my birdwatching sightings and see if any of the scientific names have changed.