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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
Posted September 28, 2009
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.
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Posted February 1, 2010
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?
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Posted September 21, 2009
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.
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Posted September 26, 2010
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Posted January 5, 2010
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