By Chris Henson, Creative Director
A very good friend of mine posted this thought-provoking meme on Facebook the other day. What it says — that the average American child can recognize 1,000 corporate logos, but can’t identify 10 plants or animals native to their own region — is indeed true. I totally get the intent of the message. Kudos to it and to John for putting it in my brain for an entire day. As humans move evermore from communing with nature to becoming its master, and we trade superstitions for spreadsheets, what we gain is impressive. But what we lose is, at the very least, lamentable.
Still as an advertising creative who designs a lot of logos, my first comment was “Yay! Advertising is working!”
Then, after thinking about the meme and my comment all day long, I sat down to collect some more appropriate thoughts. I come from a background that holds nature in high regard. I’ve hugged a tree or two. But I also know a lot of young people, and I can tell you, they are not idiots. Far from it. In fact, according to a group of studies cited in the book “The Better Angles of Our Nature: Why Violence is Declining” by Steven Pinker, all of humanity gains about three IQ points every decade. That’s 15 points just in my lifetime. That doesn’t mean that Thomas Jefferson was a vegetable. But what it does mean is that, thanks to universal education, books, the Internet, and easy access to culture, humans are getting better at abstract reasoning, something that escaped the average person a couple of centuries ago.
So, I applied some of this “reasoning” to this meme and ultimately drew a few conclusions of my own. The bottom line is, kids not being able to identify plants and animals is not the end of the world.
Modern Hunting and Gathering
As we become a more urbanized, mechanized society with an abundance of food, medicines, non-agrarian career opportunities, and cultural venues, humanity’s waning dependence on hunting and gathering has brought about the arguably regrettable inability to identify indigenous flora and fauna. Since none of us are likely to step outside and grab a fistful of leaves and start chomping, we’re not so biologically dependent on quick identification of leaves, nuts, roots and berries. While it may seem as though our children’s disconnection from the natural world is complete and irreversible, it’s worth noting that the average kid today knows enough about science, chemistry, biology, math, geography and sociology to make Thomas Jefferson look like a superstitious, dirt-eating dolt. Meanwhile, when hunting and gathering for the modern meal, it’s critical that — like cave dwellers of old — people be able to make choices based on previous experiences with foods they found sustaining and satisfying. Thus, a growing dependence on brands and packaging. A caveman might know that a puma pelt will yield a warm cloak and wraps for his feet. A modern person might feel that a Puma jacket and shoes will comfortably protect him from the elements.
The Beauty of Symbols
The use of symbols separates us from the vast majority of animals. It’s how we read, do math, navigate, communicate, and tell who won the Super Bowl. As most of today’s babies are still passing through the birth canal, parents are waving black and white symbols at them and deafening them with Mozart. Logos are merely symbols that represent other things, just like words do. Virtually every child alive today can identify thousands and thousands of words, manipulate numbers, and work a computer. These are hardly bad developments.
Apples™ and Oranges
The statement in the meme above is a rhetorical non-equivalency. It sounds like a valid comparison with a scary conclusion, but it’s not. Trademarks and vegetation are only vaguely related in the grand scheme of things. Logos are specifically designed by people to be quickly and uniquely identifiable and meaningful to other people. Trees and flowers on the other hand are designed to attract each other, insects, birds, and naturalists.
Here’s the thing. I’m not saying that being able to name plants and animals isn’t important. It’s good to know about the world around you and the love of the natural world leads to a healthy and fulfilling life. But not being able tell the difference between a sycamore and an oak doesn’t mean a kid is ignorant or even poorly educated. It just means he doesn’t forage so much. Now excuse me while I munch on this three-leafed vine here.