NAMING NATURE: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

Carol Kaesuk Yoon
W. W. Norton & Co. ($27.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

In Naming Nature, science reporter Carol Kaesuk Yoon tells a fascinating story about the history of taxonomy, the biological field that seeks to give names to all living things on the planet. The field has been recently revolutionized by mathematical and chemical techniques, leaving the old guard disgruntled and under attack.

Yoon begins with founder Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), who took on the "biggest" question of his day, giving names to all of God's creations. The story continues with Darwin, who showed that species were not immutable, and eventually proceeds to the contemporary, where a brash new breed of scientist is combating the common sense of their predecessors.

Cladists, or those who wish to change the taxonomy groupings to reflect newfound evolutionary connections, argue that certain historical groupings are no longer accurate. Yoon bemoans in particular the loss of "fish" as a cohesive group, which has led to whales now being classified in the same category as fish, even though they are mammals.

The predominant historical trend explored here is the death of our "umwelt," a German word that signifies the perceived world, “the world sensed by an animal, a view idiosyncratic to each species, fueled by its particularly sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits . . . We might call it reality, but it is indeed an umwelt, an idiosyncratic sensory picture of the living world around us."

Yoon is a captivating biographer and presents a fascinating chronicle of our loss of essentialism. Surprisingly, she does not investigate how our umwelt may be affected by our education, with trips to the zoo and PBS documentaries having made a big impact on our understanding and interest in wild creatures. Still, her book is infused with passion, disdain, concern, and even humor. Naming Nature is a fine journey through how we humans know and shape the natural world.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010