Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

( 5 )


Finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science and Technology: the surprising, untold story about the poetic and deeply human (cognitive) capacity to name the natural world.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus set out to order and name the entire living world and ended up founding a science: the field of scientific classification, or taxonomy. Yet, in spite of Linnaeus’s pioneering work and the genius of those who followed him, from...

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Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

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Finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science and Technology: the surprising, untold story about the poetic and deeply human (cognitive) capacity to name the natural world.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus set out to order and name the entire living world and ended up founding a science: the field of scientific classification, or taxonomy. Yet, in spite of Linnaeus’s pioneering work and the genius of those who followed him, from Darwin to E. O. Wilson, taxonomy went from being revered as one of the most significant of intellectual pursuits to being largely ignored. Today, taxonomy is viewed by many as an outdated field, one nearly irrelevant to the rest of science and of even less interest to the rest of the world.
Now, as Carol Kaesuk Yoon, biologist and longtime science writer for the New York Times, reminds us in Naming Nature, taxonomy is critically important, because it turns out to be much more than mere science. It is also the latest incarnation of a long-unrecognized human practice that has gone on across the globe, in every culture, in every language since before time: the deeply human act of ordering and naming the living world.
In Naming Nature, Yoon takes us on a guided tour of science’s brilliant, if sometimes misguided, attempts to order and name the overwhelming diversity of earth’s living things. We follow a trail of scattered clues that reveals taxonomy’s real origins in humanity’s distant past. Yoon’s journey brings us from New Guinea tribesmen who call a giant bird a mammal to the trials and tribulations of patients with a curious form of brain damage that causes them to be unable to distinguish among living things.
Finally, Yoon shows us how the reclaiming of taxonomy—a renewed interest in learning the kinds and names of things around us—will rekindle humanity’s dwindling connection with wild nature. Naming Nature has much to tell us, not only about how scientists create a science but also about how the progress of science can alter the expression of our own human nature.

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Editorial Reviews

“Impossible to put down.”
O Magazine
Evolutionary biologist Carol Kaesuk Yoon makes the case for looking, touching, listening, making our own imperfect sense of the marvels that surround us. Like Darwin, Yoon can find the beauty in a barnacle, and her book—lush with biology, biography, and folklore—is a sensuous delight to read.— Cathleen Medwick
Cathleen Medwick - O Magazine
“Evolutionary biologist Carol Kaesuk Yoon makes the case for looking, touching, listening, making our own imperfect sense of the marvels that surround us. Like Darwin, Yoon can find the beauty in a barnacle, and her book—lush with biology, biography, and folklore—is a sensuous delight to read.”
Peter Dizikes
Whether or not you share [Yoon's] views, this is a lively blend of popular scientific history and cultural criticism…defying simple classification.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this entertaining and insightful book, New York Times science writer Yoon sets out to document the progression of the scientific "quest to order and name the entire living world-the whole squawking, scuttling, blooming, twining, leafy, furry, green and wondrous mess of it" from Linnaeus to present-day taxonomists. But her initial assumption of science as the ultimate authority is sideswiped by her growing interest in umwelt, how animals perceive the world in a way "idiosyncratic to each species, fueled by its particular sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits." According to Yoon, Linnaeus was an umwelt prodigy, but as taxonomists began to abandon the senses and use microscopic evidence and DNA to trace evolutionary relations, nonscientists' gave up their brain-given right (and tendency) to order the living world, with the devastating result of becoming indifferent to the current mass extinctions. Yoon's invitation for laypeople to reclaim their umwelt, to "take one step closer to the living world" and accept as valid the "wondrous variety in the ordering of life," is optimistic, exhilarating and revolutionary. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Yoon, a New York Times science journalist, writes about the human need to name and classify living things in our perceived world—she uses the term umwelt(from the German Umwelt, enivronment) to describe our environment. Anthropologists have found that similar taxonomies are created no matter what culture, language, or age group is studied. This suggests that there is a part of the brain devoted to naming things, and Yoon describes studies showing that the part of the brain that names living things is different from the part of the brain that names inanimate or human-made objects. Yoon argues that as we move away from traditional taxonomies toward more scientific evolution or gene-based taxonomies, we begin to lose part of who we are. VERDICT Rob R. Dunn's Every Living Thing also covers taxonomy, but as well as addressing Carl Linnaeus, it discusses new species and the people who classify and name them, rather than the human instinct to name species. Given the specialty of the topic, Yoon's work may attract educated lay readers interested in cognitive science, the origin of words, and natural history.—Margaret Henderson, Tompkins-McCaw Lib., Virginia Commonwealth Univ., Richmond

—Margaret Henderson
Kirkus Reviews
New York Times "Science Times" writer Yoon debuts with a wondrous history of taxonomy-the science of ordering and naming living things-and how it has disconnected us from the natural world. As she lucidly describes how different cultures have named plants and animals through history, the author uncovers the sharp disjuncture between folk taxonomy-the similar, appearance-based ways in which ordinary people have always named living things-and the science of classification, which has dominated our thinking about nature since Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and author of Systema Naturae (1735), set the rule that every species must have a two-part name, or Latin binomial. Yoon traces the rise of various schools of scientific taxonomy-evolutionary, numerical and molecular-each of which emphasizes different factors of classifying living things. She also examines the work of leading figures in the field, from the German ornithologist Ernst Mayr to Austrian biologist Robert Sokal, and describes the near-rabid infighting over methodology. Against all of this she posits the power of the human umwelt (a German word for the environment or "surrounding world"), a hard-wired way of perceiving the living world that has allowed humans since the ancient hunter-gatherers to recognize things and survive. The umwelt, writes the author, accounts for the fact that different cultures give similar names, such as fish, to wildlife-and has long served as humanity's most intimate connection to the natural world. By bowing to the rationality of a scientific view of the natural order, we have undermined our understanding of the world. Yoon's accounts of brain-damaged individuals who cannot recognize and nameliving things-and of young children's unquenchable interest, even before they can walk or talk, in the natural world-bring to life the marvel of our intuitive umwelt abilities. We must cling to these abilities if we are to preserve nature, the author argues. Brightly blending scientific expertise with personal experience, Yoon is an outstanding science writer who takes a seemingly dull topic and rivets unsuspecting readers to the page. Superb. Regional author tour in Washington state. Agent: Elizabeth Wales/Wales Literary Agency
The Barnes & Noble Review
Carol Kaesuk Youn wants to puzzle out an important question: How did science, a discipline rooted in human hunger to make sense of the known and felt natural universe, paradoxically make ordinary people feel more distant from it? Her search for an answer takes her deep into the history of Western scientific classification, and beyond, into various cultures' strategies for naming, classifying, and therefore knowing the natural world around them. Beginning with Linnaeus, and moving toward Darwin, she ends in a world where a group of evolutionary biologists called cladists have made a genomically correct, but socially abstruse discovery -- that what we lay-people have known and called fish for centuries -- do not in fact exist as an evolutionarily intact group. How did we get here? asks Youn. Is this -- scientifically accurate but surely inaccessible wisdom -- helpful in a world in which need to reinstate rather than further disrupt what connections to nature we do have? In a delightful, ruminative romp through the seemingly dry field of taxonomy, Youn explains the evolution of western taxonomical systems and also points out non-Western ones, trying to show the key ways that humans have always lived alongside, reached out toward, and made sense of their time on earth among plants, bugs, birds, and beasts. She argues that our need to connect to plants and animals is more similar across cultures than separate, and she wants us to reconnect with the living world now -- in ways scientific, and also in ways purely joyful -- which may or may not, at different moments, feel the same. To name is to know is to love is to steward -- and with mass extinctions of everything from wild beasts to songbirds, Youn urges us to know, in whatever direct ways we can, the animals around us, and to care for them, as directly as possible, now. --Tess Taylor
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393061970
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/24/2009
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Carol Kaesuk Yoon received her Ph.D. PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University and has been writing about biology for The New York Times since 1992. Her articles have also appeared in Science, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Yoon has taught writing as a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University’s John S. Knight Writing Program, working with professors to help teach critical thinking in biology classes. She has also served as a science education consultant to Microsoft. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.

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Table of Contents

1 The Strange Case of the Fish That Wasn't 3

The Search for the Natural Order Begins

2 The Little Oracle 25

3 Miracle in a Barnacle 53

4 What Rock Bottom Looks Like 80

A Vision Illuminated

5 A Surprise in the Tower of Babel 117

6 The Umwelt Among Babies and the Brain-Damaged 146

7 Wog's Legacy 171

A Science Is Born

8 Taxonomy by the Numbers 191

9 Better Taxonomy Through Chemistry 215

10 The Death of the Fish 239

A Vision Reclaimed

11 This Strange Station 271

12 Beyond Science 286

Notes 301

Acknowledgments 319

Index 323

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    What's in a name?

    A perfect book to follow Andrea Wulf's The Brother Gardeners, Naming Nature examines the development of taxonomy from Linnaeus to cladistics with interesting coverage of evolutionary biology, numerical taxonomy, and molecular biology. Yoon is fascinated with the human Umwelt and its role both in creating traditional taxonomy and in causing our resistance to the science of cladistics. According to Yoon, the human brain is wired to take a taxonomic view of nature, and the parameters of that taxonomy are remarkably consistent across cultures. She regrets that the new science of cladistics serves to distance humans from nature by creating taxonomies that are (in some notable cases) absolutely counterintuitive, because they do not match the human Umwelt. Despite the importance of the book and all that I learned from it, I do have a few quibbles. The illustrations do not greatly advance one's understanding of the text, particularly since the captions are merely quotations from the text. The book is overwritten and could have been much shorter without losing its value. The prose hardly matches the excitement of the subject and suffers from repetition -- the word "umwelt" seemed to occur hundreds of times, although surely it occurred only in many scores of sentences. Nevertheless, I found the book both interesting and informative and recommend it to anyone with an interest in how humans categorize the natural world.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I'm sorry I bought this book and I can't believe I read it.

    This is a bad book. Yoon's thesis, that there is an inherent conflict between scientific (cladistic) and intuitive taxonomy, is tendentious, contrived, irrelevant, argumentative and boring. Yoon exults over her discovery of something called the "umwelt" and hammers away at it for 300 pages, proving again that one should never say in a sentence what one can say in a book and charge for it. Yoon derides modern schemes of taxonomy as in conflict with the supposedly pristine and earth-honoring "umwelt," and manages to paint all science with the same damning brush. Her complaint seems to be that rationality (science) leads to diminution in our appreciation of nature, whereas, reviving folk taxonomies would improve things, a sort of back to Eden trip. Along the way, Yoon reveals herself as one who deplores rationality; she should own up to this or quit writing science altogether. OK fine, we humans have lost some of our appreciation of nature as we have become more urbanized and, frankly, more comfortable. But this is no endoresment for abandoning science and re-embracing pre-scientific attitudes. (Yoon comes thiiis close to endorsing "creationism," simply because it isn't scientific.) In reality, science tells us to what degree organisms are related, regardless of their apparent affinities or lack thereof. This knowledge is useful, as Yoon might perhaps agree. Folk taxonomies tell us different things about the relationships between and among organisms, such as, which might be good to eat, to use as medicine, etc. Both classification schemes can increase - or decrease - our individual and collective appreciation of nature. Yoon's idea merits presentation as a 200-level term paper, maybe. But a book? What was Norton thinking?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2009

    One Of The Best Science Books Of The Year

    This is a fun book to read. Almost every chapter has something that you will want to share with someone. The author artfully takes you through the history of taxonomy and so it has a much deeper and broader impact than this. It is an insight into human nature in two significant areas. The first is how human nature handles change. Replace taxonomy with other "disciplines" of study and at various points you will see that taxonomists resist, hang on to old ideas and basically find it difficult to let go of what they have invested in. When science shatters a discipline the resistance is very similar to what taxonomists experienced and so this book is a valuable lesson in human nature and what happens when our disciplines or ways of constructing the world are proven wrong. The second area that continues to keep me thinking after I have finished reading the book is the human "umvelt" - our way of seeing the world. The author does an excellent job of helping us see that the world is not as simple as we construct it. Again in this area this book is much broader than just taxonomy for our umvelt is not only in the area of taxonomy but all the ways of ordering our world. There were many times that I put this book down and thought of our present economic crises and how economists cannot give up their umvelt. Even in the solutions that are proposed it is a discipline, like taxonomy, that is not based on science (read The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb). Of course it is easy to see that the umvelt of our own culture has narrowed our approach to such things as religion and so I had to ponder my own discipline of theology. Here I found this book to be very insightful in how our way of shaping the world impacts all areas of thought.

    I have only one small criticism of this book. I think the author did not realize that the importance of this book goes far beyond naming nature and that it truly is a portal into understanding human nature. Here the last chapter needs to be reconsidered. I think that human nature can wrestle with dualities better than we give it credit. Everyday I wake up to the sun rising and go to sleep with the sun setting. I watch what makes sense in my world but I know that the sun is not rising or setting. I think that it is the same with human nature. Here I would argue with the author and say that I can still go fishing knowing that there are no fish (the book is well worth reading just to understand this reality). But then this is why I think this is a great book because after I put it down I still wanted to think about it and talk about it.

    The last year I have taken thousands of pictures of nature in my backyard and it is crawling with life. Each time I spend contemplating the nature around me my world gets bigger and more exciting. That is what Carol K. Yoon did for me in her excellent book - she enlarged my world and made me want to watch more nature and even human nature.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted September 26, 2010

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    Posted January 5, 2010

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