Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon
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 Today, taxonomy is viewed by many as an outdated field, one nearly irrelevant to the rest of science and of even less interest to the rest of the world.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 taxonomya renewed interest in learning the kinds and names of things around uswill 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.
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.
Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science 2.6 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
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.
More than 1 year ago
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?
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
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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