Naming nature : the clash between instinct and science

by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Hardcover, 2009

Status

Available

Publication

New York : W.W. Norton, c2009.

Description

This surprising, untold story about the poetic and deeply human (cognitive) capacity to name the natural world illuminates science's limitations and the urgency of staying connected to the natural world by using familiar, rather than scientific, names.

Media reviews

Yoon explores the formative environment, motives and personality of the field and scientists within it, from its origins to maturity. She argues that taxonomy generates new views of the world that are counterintuitive, for example that fungi are more like animals than plants; reductionist, depending on molecular data and statistical techniques; and bewildering, such as the prolific yet invisible domains of bacteria and archaea. She is concerned that the professionalization of biology has distanced humanity from nature. But her incursions into anthropology, neuroscience and psychology to explain our empathy with nature are disappointingly superficial.

User reviews

LibraryThing member collingsruth
I wish I could rate this book higher, because the history is quite interesting, but I have problems with how racist and sexist it is. The author constantly describes her surprise that the native peoples of various areas that live off the land have nuanced understandings of the world around them. The thought of researching local, American aboriginal tribes, does not seem to have crossed her mind, because she only ever uses "exotic" and distant examples. Although she occasionally acknowledges the fact that women have been and continue to be involved in the world of natural history and taxonomy, none of the scientists her story revolves around are women. Her glorification of early explorers who contributed to colonization is frustrating. The invention of cheap and efficient DNA sequencing equipment and the drive of western white males to quantify nature is taken for granted. Science has contributed to colonialism around the world, and colonialism holds a big responsibility for why modern citizens of Mexico City do not have the knowledge of the people who originally lived on that land before Spanish invasion. It's not something that just happened on its own.

In the end, her conclusion is that science has separated us from our inherent understanding of the world and contributed to the massive loss of species we see today. I don't think this is particularly incorrect, but very superficial. I would like to read another book on this topic written by someone with a greater understanding of the subject.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
An interesting history of taxonomic classification and the concept of "umwelt." I wanted some more details at various points, but overall I was engaged and intrigued.
LibraryThing member cbjorke
Whatever editor though up that dumb subtitle should be sent back to the mail room for reeducation. There is no clash in this book between science and instinct. Instinct is not even mentioned. What there is, is an interesting discussion of the way that esoteric systems of classifying the plants and animals of the world, used in the in he academic pursuit of biology, have become far removed from the way we, regular people, recognize them.

Yoon, a biology graduate student turned science journalist, calls this ordinary view of the natural world the "umwelt" (oom-velt) which is a German word for the way we, or the different ways other creatures, perceive the world. A creature's umvelt depends on what kind of senses that creature has, where it lives in the world, what it looks for to eat and what eats it. A dog's unwelt, for instance, has a lot to do with how things smell and prominently features squirrels and the postman. In our case, how we think about the world is another major factor.


Naming Nature contains an entertaining history of the study of taxonomy, starting with Carolus Linnaeus, known to his friends as Carl. Linnaeus devised the system, familiar from high school, of dividing life into domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. He established the tradition of naming species with two Latin names, the binomial system. Linnaeus' system is an artificial construct which helps us to comprehend the relationships between different plants and animals. Yoon makes the mistake of equating Linnaeus' taxonomy with the taxonomies of any and all cultures, saying that we all organize nature in our minds in the same way, even though she, herself, gives several examples of cultures that classify animals in bizarrely different ways. Her argument for the universality of Linnaeus is weak. It's also beside the point.

As she proceeds with the history of taxonomy Yoons point becomes clear. Just as physics has wandered far from the common sense of Isaac Newton into the far out realms of relativity and quantum mechanics, taxonomy has found, through statistical analysis, DNA matching and cladistics, all of which Yoon talks about in some detail without any MEGLO (My Eyes Glaze Over) effect, that some of the common sense relationships we believe in, among plants and animals, don't really exits. She quite proudly announces the demise of fish as a teaser at the beginning of the book. Her later explanation of this, having to do with the lungfish having characteristics similar to a cow, seems a bit off the wall, but no matter. That salmon I had for dinner was not a fish. I believe her.

Yoon calls for a revival of the umwelt in our daily lives. Don't let those snooty scientists tell you that nature is a strange place inaccessible to ordinary mortals. Go out there with your Peterson's Field Guides and revel in it before it's too late. Good advice. I think I'll shut off my computer now and go outside.
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LibraryThing member dag.endresen
Excellent coverage of the issues and inherent problems related to the naming of species under an dynamic evolutionary process. Well written science book that really captivated my interest. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member jasonlf
It wasn't until I was thirty-eight years old that I learned there was no such thing as fish. Specifically, the most recent common ancestor of sharks, lambreys and salmon is also an ancestor of snakes, bats, and pigeons. And in some cases what we call "fish" are actually more closely related to mammals (via our ancestor that made its way out of the water) than they are to salmon.

So when I saw a book that began with a chapter on the death of fish I was intrigued. This book is a history of taxonomy, from Carl Linnaeus to the raging cladists. But more interestingly, it is about the evolutionary biology of our taxonomical abilities. Specifically, being able to tell edible from non-edible, threatening from non, etc., confers an evolutionary advantage -- and thus our ability to classify nature is something that we share with many animals and has evolved.

The thesis of the book is that the history of taxonomy is the struggle between abstract science and our instincts. And that the death of fish is the ultimate blow to our instincts. Personally, I think this is what makes science exciting, substituting rigor for instinct. And parallels (in a much simpler fashion) the way the general relativity and quantum mechanics force us to think in ways that are deeply contradictory to the macroscopic world we live in.

Yoon, however, seems to think that going against our instincts is the problem with taxonomy. And more strangely, that our mistreatment of the environment is somehow related to taxonomy becoming increasingly divorced from our instincts -- whether or not the vast majority of the population even know that was happening.

This isn't the main reason I only gave the book 3-1/2 stars. Largely that is because it was overly repetitive and superficial. All that said, the overall thesis and the first chapter were intriguing enough that I don't regret reading it.
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LibraryThing member Leeleelittle
they mention in the book that umwelt is an individual's innate classification system.....wouldn't that be considered instinct?

ps: fantastic book
LibraryThing member jen.e.moore
A delightful, fascinating book about the history of taxonomy which is also - more importantly, perhaps - a book about the ways in which science is inadequate to human experience. Yoon structures her book around the idea of the umwelt, the natural human sense of the living world around us. (And it is a natural human sense - anthropology has found a remarkable degree of uniformity in the umwelt.) Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, worked almost entirely out of his own well-developed umwelt.

Unfortunately, the umwelt does not match up at all with the distinctions important to science - the evolutionary history of organisms. So the history of modern taxonomy has been a history of ever-more precise definitions of evolutionary relationships which are also ever-more distant from the way humans actually see the world. (For instance: scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as fish, as a category.) Yoon concludes that, in the face of our disconnection from the natural world, we should leave scientific taxonomy to science and re-take folk taxonomy for the rest of us. Fish exist, and whales and dolphins are fish, and unless you're a scientist, that's all that matters.
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LibraryThing member Daumari
I'm sure there's others, but this was a really good pop sci look at taxonomy, a field I've always had a soft spot for and still secretly want to work in (albeit with molecular tools now). Yoon centers her book on how all our taxonomic leanings (culture to culture) up until cladistics centers on the umwalt, or our human need to categorize things.… (more)
LibraryThing member nosajeel
It wasn't until I was thirty-eight years old that I learned there was no such thing as fish. Specifically, the most recent common ancestor of sharks, lambreys and salmon is also an ancestor of snakes, bats, and pigeons. And in some cases what we call "fish" are actually more closely related to mammals (via our ancestor that made its way out of the water) than they are to salmon.

So when I saw a book that began with a chapter on the death of fish I was intrigued. This book is a history of taxonomy, from Carl Linnaeus to the raging cladists. But more interestingly, it is about the evolutionary biology of our taxonomical abilities. Specifically, being able to tell edible from non-edible, threatening from non, etc., confers an evolutionary advantage -- and thus our ability to classify nature is something that we share with many animals and has evolved.

The thesis of the book is that the history of taxonomy is the struggle between abstract science and our instincts. And that the death of fish is the ultimate blow to our instincts. Personally, I think this is what makes science exciting, substituting rigor for instinct. And parallels (in a much simpler fashion) the way the general relativity and quantum mechanics force us to think in ways that are deeply contradictory to the macroscopic world we live in.

Yoon, however, seems to think that going against our instincts is the problem with taxonomy. And more strangely, that our mistreatment of the environment is somehow related to taxonomy becoming increasingly divorced from our instincts -- whether or not the vast majority of the population even know that was happening.

This isn't the main reason I only gave the book 3-1/2 stars. Largely that is because it was overly repetitive and superficial. All that said, the overall thesis and the first chapter were intriguing enough that I don't regret reading it.
… (more)

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