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Alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here 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 Alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here 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 Today, taxonomy is viewed by many as an outdated field, one nearly irrelevant to the rest of science and of even less interest to the rest of the world.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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Alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here 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 Alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here 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.

30 review for Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

  1. 5 out of 5

    Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch

    “The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.” – E. O. Wilson One reason I read few books is that they are usually written by human persons, and I have a dim view of the human person. On the other hand of course, books produced by editorial committee usually suffer from their own incoherence and disorganization, which perhaps suggests an equally dim prospect for human cooperation. “Naming Nature” is written by a very evident individual and centers “The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.” – E. O. Wilson One reason I read few books is that they are usually written by human persons, and I have a dim view of the human person. On the other hand of course, books produced by editorial committee usually suffer from their own incoherence and disorganization, which perhaps suggests an equally dim prospect for human cooperation. “Naming Nature” is written by a very evident individual and centers on a single organizing principle, described by the author as a revelation of sorts: that humans possess an intuitive native sense of the organization of the “natural world,” a sense made manifest (though there much extended and elaborated) in traditional Linnaean taxonomy. Upon this the author hangs a sketch of the history of the naming and organization of the planet’s species through Linnaeus, Darwin, Mendel, Mayr, numeric and molecular taxonomic methods, and finally contemporary (and wholly evolutionarily determined) cladistics and systematics. Dr. Yoon connects her claim of an innate human understanding of biological organization with that fairly standard history-of-science narrative in terms of ever an increasing conflict and contradiction, observing the descriptions of taxonomy growing ever more distant and removed from life as experienced. Then, with this widening gulf in mind, she turns to what she holds to be the public’s indifference and/or incomprehension in the face of scientific authority’s report on the planet’s various biological crises (of bio-diversity, “the sixth great extinction,” the health of non-biological natural systems, etc.), suggesting that this unresponsiveness is the result, at least in some significant part, of the growing distance between the premises and language of natural science and the public’s “natural” sense of things. However, much as this public policy dilemma might seem to be the intended pinnacle of her argument, that issue is not, evidently, the real point at all. The actual protagonist of “Naming Nature” is the “umwelt,” a term Dr. Yoon has appropriated from the work of Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944), an invertebrate researcher who early in the 20th century, apparently taking Kant to heart, began to focus on the phenomenology of the animals he studied, hoping to explore them “as subjects, not objects.” (To the extent Uexküll became preoccupied with the internal dynamics of his species’ umwelt, his work seems now mainly grist for semioticians and cybernetic studies.) And from this attempt to map the cognitive feedback loops of ticks, sea urchins and amoebae, Dr. Yoon has derived her own rather diminished human analog, that of our species’ ostensible inborn ordering of the plants and animals we encounter. In describing her use of the term, Yoon enlists a fair amount of more or less suggestive evidence. Among the more persuasive: a universal similarity in the anthropological record of folk taxonomies, the wide instance of human binomial naming (from pin oak to New York to Lao Tze), and the dramatic phenomenon of discrete neurological deficit leading to the inability to name or recognize, exclusively, living things. Those examples, however, stand among a flood of alleged umwelt manifestations in “Naming Nature,” some registering almost as mere curiosities, if that: the “fact” that folk taxonomies and perhaps human memory (as suggested by the listings of Dioscorides, her own husband and others) might self-limit at 500 to 600 genera, and that those folk taxonomies regularly correlate species as “brother,” “sister,” or “parent” species; that many non-human species are able to name, sort and communicate varieties of creatures (usually predators) active in their environments; that in a large-sample study students unfamiliar with the Huambisa language (of the Peruvian rain forest) scored a 58% hit rate identifying Huambisa species names as either fish or fowl; and that, of her own daughter’s first 25 spoken words, 13 of them referred to living things… On the same tack as the last example Yoon also considers the decoration of North American children’s rooms (all those little bunnies, duckies, teddy bears and other stuffed animals) and the tales those children are told: “The Cat in the Hat,” “Peter Rabbit,” “Winnie-the-Pooh,” etc. And occasionally she wanders still farther afield, as when (after suggesting the mysteries of chicken sexing are somehow umwelt related) she considers the modern excellence in commercial taxonomy, the skills displayed in navigating a world of brands and logos, the naming and recognizing of the creatures of commerce, the Nikes, McDonalds, M&Ms, Fords, etc., citing along the way a Dutch study in which two year olds demonstrated their proficiency at identifying brands as distant from their lives as Mercedes, Heineken and Camel – a line of thought easily casting more doubt on the biological essence of her umwelt theory than clearly reinforcing it. As we’ve seen, Yoon often points to the child’s apprehension of the natural world, and it might not be too unfair to characterize her umwelt claim in those terms: we humans possess a simple, innate, likely hardwired mode of perception for the organization of the species around us: There are trees. There are shrubs. There are flowers. There are birds, fish and creepy-crawly things. And not only are there dogs, but there are poodle dogs, German shepherd dogs, daschund dogs, terrier dogs, etc. Not only trees but maple trees, and not only maple trees but silver maple trees, red maple trees, Norway maple trees, etc. This is how we naturally think: rather like children, but in a mode capable of Linnaean extension and sophistication. However, Yoon reminds us, science has come to claim otherwise. There actually are no fish, per se, systematics instructs. Whales are related to camels and hippopotami, lungfish more akin to cows than salmon, birds are dinosaurs, etc. Our minds, she argues, have turned against themselves. The book’s subtitle is: “The Clash Between Instinct and Science.” So, what is Dr. Yoon describing? First of all she is describing what, notwithstanding Science’s great expedition from the prima facie to the occult, remains still nameless: the biota, the bios, the creature systematics (so far) insists we are, the enormous assemblage of familiar cellular and subcellular routines occupying the planet’s skin from miles below its surface to miles above it, much varied in accidentals but apparently essentially one in gist (if not quite in simple lineage), the many billion year old multiform entity presently sending tracers (microbial, for the most part) out into and beyond our star system. And when human language (or English at least) at last gives this thing a common name, will it be some defeat of our special “human nature” as manifest in Dr. Yoon’s umwelt? A victory for our nonhuman identity? For the mind? For truth? Then secondly, Dr. Yoon is describing the mind, the mind at work. The obvious fact that the history of many, if not most human disciplines follows a trajectory similar to that of taxonomy is not commented upon. As these too have become increasingly specialized and esoteric, a good many of the recent claims of mathematics, astronomy, geology, microbiology, even human history itself, might be seen as equally absurd on their face and likewise counter to our presumed and intuited understandings of the world. (And the works of our hands? 100 floor buildings, 200,000 ton ships, mile long bridge spans? None of these are conceivable without modes of analysis far beyond the sensible, the familiar, the expected, the intuitive or the obvious.) And is it because this sort of discrepancy is so obvious that “Naming Nature” never names it? Or is it rather that if named, it might suggest something of a category error, at least by omission, on Dr. Yoon’s part? That there are discrete areas (of some kind) of the human brain strongly implicated in the naming and recognition of plants and animals (as there are as well for the naming and recognition of faces, facial emotions, colors, clothing, letters, body parts, tools, abstract vs. concrete entities, naturally occurring vs. manufactured entities, fruits and vegetables, place names, verbs, etc.) is, like so many reports of anomia generally, strangely fascinating and almost irresistible in its apparent hint at some profound root of humanity, if not some deeper essence of mind and matter. But as the above parenthetical catalog suggests, that particular aphasia is hardly unique. Children can indeed be regularly fascinated with learning complicated dinosaur (and Pokeman) taxonomies, but those propensities (to whatever extent they are universal, or have universal analogs) neither seem exceptional nor hardly even remarkable in view of the larger landscape of human cognitive development ranging from the acquisition of handedness, language and number, the flowering of complex make-believe and story-telling activities, through the hundreds of other stereotypical behaviors our species’ children are thrall to. Finally, whether or not Dr. Yoon has produced a convincing demonstration of the special corner of human phenomenology she has tagged the “umwelt,” that demonstration would not be, in itself, an identification of the crux of "The Clash Between Instinct and Science.” Dr. Yoon’s umwelt (and her umwelt conflict) are ultimately only an instance of something wider and deeper than the conflict between our apprehension of other species and the evolving sophistication of modern natural science, and that she does not bring herself to consider that broader view eventually leaves “Naming Nature” frustratingly lacking and disappointingly naive. It is hard of course to fault a history of taxonomy for not unraveling the knots of human consciousness, but Yoon has, quite self-consciously, stepped beyond any attempt at simple history and into that other larger realm. That departure I have no argument with, contextualization is a good thing, investigation of the implicit ground of an argument a good thing. My argument is simply that Dr. Yoon never really does either, never passes beyond her umwelt antechamber, nor even acknowledges it as such. So amazed by the unexpected discovery of this umwelt space and the illumination it apparently provides, she never proceeds to qualify or contextualize the place itself. Given the turn her volume took (to her own admitted surprise) I would have taken a single chapter (at least) of such context. A recognition of the peculiarities of human intellection generally, a bit of serious reflection on the relation of things, thought and language and the business of experience and perception, ideation and abstraction, on the nature of mind in short, even if not a full essay on phenomenology, critical philosophy, or current thinking in the philosophy or neurology of consciousness. In the end though, perhaps I misspoke when suggesting the protagonist of “Naming Nature” was Dr. Yoon’s umwelt. In a real sense the protagonist of “Naming Nature” is Carol Yoon herself and its story is that of her umwelt epiphany; it is a conversion narrative full of the biography, confused excitement and enthusiasm (along with a bit of naive prescription) conversion accounts regularly entail. And like many converts to a newly discovered grand organizing principle – the Freudian or Marxist economy, the Masonic conspiracy or even the presence of an attentive deity – it seems Dr. Yoon cannot imagine the insights of her epiphany as ever being less than central to the history of life and mind on the planet, rather than merely an aspect of it. Eventually perhaps all epiphanies require curing, all need to shrink a bit to be finally and profitably integrated into a broader fabric of thought and understanding. Even God maybe, once met, has to be put in place. If so, likely also the activities of the superior temporal sulcus and the lateral fusiform gyrus.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Malcolm Logscribe

    The bits about the history of taxonomy as a science could have been an interesting book. The bits about folk taxonomy and how people categorize life could have been an interesting book. Framing them in opposition to each other, though? There was lots of talk about the "destruction" of fish, of the idea that fish "don't exist". Why? Flightless birds exist as actual, physical creatures with features in common, and not classifying them together doesn't alter their existence. You can group animals bas The bits about the history of taxonomy as a science could have been an interesting book. The bits about folk taxonomy and how people categorize life could have been an interesting book. Framing them in opposition to each other, though? There was lots of talk about the "destruction" of fish, of the idea that fish "don't exist". Why? Flightless birds exist as actual, physical creatures with features in common, and not classifying them together doesn't alter their existence. You can group animals based on relatedness and also have a mental group for animals that might eat you, regardless of how close crocodiles and bears are on your relatedness list. You can have a group of animals you call fish because of their appearance/behaviour, and the fact that it's not a "real" group in other contexts isn't relevant at all to this one. Just... is there something I'm missing? Why wasn't this two interesting shorter pieces? (She was disappointingly vague about the facts she did present, not giving anything like enough detail - when talking about where the brain stores information about living things vs constructed objects, but with no mention of anything that wasn't clearly delineated as one or the other, or of whether this was identical for people in cultures that consider some things I class as inanimate to be animate, or whether this translates across cultures at all - so the two theoretical books are unlikely to have been great, but I would have enjoyed them more.)

  3. 5 out of 5

    Christy

    Preliminary review: I'm giving this two stars instead of one solely because I now know more about the history of taxonomy than I did before and have discovered that it's actually interesting (even if I did have to sort through Yoon's language and ridiculous argument to get at that history). Longer review to come. Preliminary review: I'm giving this two stars instead of one solely because I now know more about the history of taxonomy than I did before and have discovered that it's actually interesting (even if I did have to sort through Yoon's language and ridiculous argument to get at that history). Longer review to come.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

    Fascinating book about the history of scientific classification of nature that started with Linneaus. This is a book about the history of taxonomy. I never knew that his classifications were replaced in the 80's with a whole new system. Author goes on a bit too long about the "ummwelt", the built-in view of ordering that humans have in their brains. I skipped a chapter or two. Fascinating book about the history of scientific classification of nature that started with Linneaus. This is a book about the history of taxonomy. I never knew that his classifications were replaced in the 80's with a whole new system. Author goes on a bit too long about the "ummwelt", the built-in view of ordering that humans have in their brains. I skipped a chapter or two.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ameliarator

    Mixed feelings. At times it seemed the author was trying too hard and overstating the case, or oversimplifying concepts, and I had trouble following all the things she was attributing to the umwelt, or maybe I had trouble remembering the definition of umwelt. I enjoyed hearing about the history of taxonomy, her personal experiences as a scientist, and the idea of respecting and valuing folk taxonomy.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Barry

    This is an interesting book. I'm mostly glad I read it, and while it held my interest it is difficult to recommend others to read it. It rather felt like there were three books mashed into one, ineffectively. The historical bits were the best and by far the most interesting and coherently organized. Interspersed with the coherent parts were rabbit trails into the author's own personal experiences and thoughts, monologues about evolution, and an odd fascination with the 'umvelt' (instinct?). The This is an interesting book. I'm mostly glad I read it, and while it held my interest it is difficult to recommend others to read it. It rather felt like there were three books mashed into one, ineffectively. The historical bits were the best and by far the most interesting and coherently organized. Interspersed with the coherent parts were rabbit trails into the author's own personal experiences and thoughts, monologues about evolution, and an odd fascination with the 'umvelt' (instinct?). The author's own personal experiences and thoughts were fine to read about but would have been better had they been included in a memoir rather than a historical exploration of taxonomy. Her adherence to evolution, while admirable, came across as cloying and a fervent attempt to convince herself that evolution really is true. She goes so far as to call it a fact and denigrates anyone who dares conceive of an alternate explanation for the existence of life. In the end, Ms. Yoon's platitudes come across as self-serving sacrifices to her god, Evolution. But the real oddity of the book is the umvelt, which apparently is hard to explain, because despite all her repeated attempts she never really accomplishes it. The subtitle of the book includes the word instinct, and that seems as good of an explanation as any behind the idea of the umvelt. Waxing long about the umvelt ended up feeling like an attempt to say something new instead of being content to compile what could have been a nice account of the history of taxonomy. Just using the word instinct would have cut about 50 pages out of the book and made it more readable. In short, this book needs more aggressive editing. There were long paragraphs that were unnecessary because they expand on a simple idea that needed only a sentence to explain. The added explanations were tiresome and even a little insulting; does Ms. Yoon view humanity as a collection of dimwits? There was an entire chapter (or was it two?) on brain damaged people whose presence in the book baffled me. Ostensibly the chapters were there to explain the umvelt, but they served as a distraction - albeit an interesting one - and felt like a cheap way to hit a target number of pages. And then there was the death of the fish. Ms. Yoon harped on this theme so much, attention grabbing as it may be, that by the time she actually explained how 'the fish died' it was anticlimactic. The new-namers say you can't have a fish family because you need to include cows in with fish according to their fancy-pants evolutionary theory. No joke: cows go with the fish. Humans possibly go in the same grouping, but details on exactly how the new-namers divide the animal kingdom were very vague. Again, this is an interesting book and I learned a fair amount about taxonomy. The historical part of the book is very well-written and well worth reading, but if that is what you are looking for I imagine there are other books about there that better serve the purpose.

  7. 4 out of 5

    George

    A fascinating history of taxonomy from Linnaeus to attempted evolutionary taxonomy to numerical taxonomy to molecular(DNA)taxonomy and finally to the logical use of evolutionary clades. The author while clearly in the scientific camp bemoans the loss of the more instinctive or intuitive method used by Linnaeus. She points out that anthropologists have discovered a certain cultural universality in the ordering of plant and animal species-- what she calls our "umweld". Ms Yoon goes further in blami A fascinating history of taxonomy from Linnaeus to attempted evolutionary taxonomy to numerical taxonomy to molecular(DNA)taxonomy and finally to the logical use of evolutionary clades. The author while clearly in the scientific camp bemoans the loss of the more instinctive or intuitive method used by Linnaeus. She points out that anthropologists have discovered a certain cultural universality in the ordering of plant and animal species-- what she calls our "umweld". Ms Yoon goes further in blaming biological science and scientists for the loss of our "umweld" which she says has resulted in our crass indifference to the preservation of species and biological diversity. She even suggests that we are responsible for much of species extinction due to this crass indifference-- while clearly species extinction has been a consequence of evolution since the beginning of life. I think her arguments become strained when she claims our instinct for biological classification has been replaced by "brand recognition". I further think she misses the broader view that all of scientific investigation has become less intuitive or instinctive. Little of the most important science today would satisfy the old Baconian test of direct seeing, sensing, tasting, etc. We have necessarily become much more dependent on the use of models, theories and strong but indirect evidence. When science entered the study of the largest and smallest entities, Cosmology and atomic and sub atomic physics, we had left behind the "umweld" which the author describes. That "umweld" is necessarily stuck in place and time. However, none of this is intended to eliminate the usefulness of our "umweld" in our daily lives. The analogy to Newtonian vs. Einstein views of gravity is very appropriate. Newtonian physics works very well in our every day lives and its results can be taken with assurance. We simple need to be aware of the limitation of our "umweld".

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    From Wikipedia - a discussion of the word "umwelt": Each functional component of an umwelt has a meaning and so represents the organism's model of the world. It is also the semiotic world of the organism, including all the meaningful aspects of the world for any particular organism, i.e. it can be water, food, shelter, potential threats, or points of reference for navigation. An organism creates and reshapes its own umwelt when it interacts with the world. This is termed a 'functional circle'. Th From Wikipedia - a discussion of the word "umwelt": Each functional component of an umwelt has a meaning and so represents the organism's model of the world. It is also the semiotic world of the organism, including all the meaningful aspects of the world for any particular organism, i.e. it can be water, food, shelter, potential threats, or points of reference for navigation. An organism creates and reshapes its own umwelt when it interacts with the world. This is termed a 'functional circle'. The umwelt theory states that the mind and the world are inseparable, because it is the mind that interprets the world for the organism. Consequently, the umwelten of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and uniqueness of the history of every single organism. When two umwelten interact, this creates a semiosphere. As a term, umwelt also unites all the semiotic processes of an organism into a whole. Internally, an organism is the sum of its parts operating in functional circles and, to survive, all the parts must work together co-operatively. This is termed the 'collective umwelt' which models the organism as a centralised system from the cellular level upward. This requires the semiosis of any one part to be continuously connected to any other semiosis operating within the same organism. If anything disrupts this process, the organism will not operate efficiently. But, when semiosis operates, the organism exhibits goal-oriented or intentional behaviour. Why is this important? Because I felt like the word was on every page of this book. Despite the repetition that bugged me, this was quite interesting. It's a history and discussion of taxonomy (scientific classification) which sounds like really dry reading but it's not. I learned a lot about Linnaeus, Darwin, E.O. Wilson and the different types of taxonomy as they were developed through the years. Science lovers would enjoy this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    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 taxono 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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Beverly

    I've always been attracted to the taxonomy of plants without knowing much about it. Now I know more thanks to this accessible history of taxonomy. I've been thinking about it from a naturalist perspective so I was surprised to discover how purely scientific taxonomy has become. This is Yoon's thesis- that the scientific approach to classification entailing numbers, microscopes, and strict criteria of evolution has become detached from our instinctive feeling for the world around us. But it also I've always been attracted to the taxonomy of plants without knowing much about it. Now I know more thanks to this accessible history of taxonomy. I've been thinking about it from a naturalist perspective so I was surprised to discover how purely scientific taxonomy has become. This is Yoon's thesis- that the scientific approach to classification entailing numbers, microscopes, and strict criteria of evolution has become detached from our instinctive feeling for the world around us. But it also makes sense that scientific study has moved in this direction.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Bob Gustafson

    I love science history and this time I was in biological, rather than physical, science. This is the story of Linneas, and then everything that happened after him, written for intelligent people who may, or may not, be smart about in biology. What earned this book the fifth star was Yoon's personalized editorial at the end, which I happen to strongly agree with. I love science history and this time I was in biological, rather than physical, science. This is the story of Linneas, and then everything that happened after him, written for intelligent people who may, or may not, be smart about in biology. What earned this book the fifth star was Yoon's personalized editorial at the end, which I happen to strongly agree with.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    The best parts of this book were those describing the development of taxonomy and nomenclature. However, I don't buy into Yoon's argument concerning the role of modern systematics in the death of what she terms the "umwelt" - the ability of humans to perceive the natural world. The best parts of this book were those describing the development of taxonomy and nomenclature. However, I don't buy into Yoon's argument concerning the role of modern systematics in the death of what she terms the "umwelt" - the ability of humans to perceive the natural world.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rae

    I ended up really liking this book a lot. I was afraid the author was going to get a little too preachy on the need for us to reconnect with the natural world in this day and age - but it wasn't too much. I really like the idea of the human umwelt (world view) and I agreed with the author that there was room for both our view of the world (with fish) and the current taxonomies that have meant there is no fish category. The fish is dead. Long live the fish. Overview of what I learned from this boo I ended up really liking this book a lot. I was afraid the author was going to get a little too preachy on the need for us to reconnect with the natural world in this day and age - but it wasn't too much. I really like the idea of the human umwelt (world view) and I agreed with the author that there was room for both our view of the world (with fish) and the current taxonomies that have meant there is no fish category. The fish is dead. Long live the fish. Overview of what I learned from this book Basically, the idea is that humans have a basic way of looking at the world - our umwelt - that organizes, categorizes, and names the natural world. Linneaus was very good at understanding this and initial natural taxonomies were based on this. Later taxonomists however attempted to create taxonomies based on evolution, statistics, molecular similarities, and eventually DNA to discover how related nature is to itself. Which moved our understanding of the world away from our umwelt making it more the realm of scientists than us. From this, we learned there is no category of "fish" and that a lungfish is more related to a cow than a salmon and that fungus is closer to mammals than plants. Things that fly in the face of "sense." But it allows us to understand the evolutionary similarities and relationships between things. It's not wrong. But also it's not wrong that there is a category called fish.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Colleen

    loved this book. I've read several books on the history of taxonomy that had a lot more infomration, but this one had a thoroughly different approach. It probably resonated with me because 30 years ago when I was in college, I learned some traditional taxonomy and then, a few year back , in taking some biology classes to get certified for wildlife rehab, I was introduced to the new cladistics. I wondered if I was just too old to adjust my thinking, and this book makes me feel better , since it f loved this book. I've read several books on the history of taxonomy that had a lot more infomration, but this one had a thoroughly different approach. It probably resonated with me because 30 years ago when I was in college, I learned some traditional taxonomy and then, a few year back , in taking some biology classes to get certified for wildlife rehab, I was introduced to the new cladistics. I wondered if I was just too old to adjust my thinking, and this book makes me feel better , since it faults my umwelt, or human way of looking at things.I especially enjoyed the chapter on a particular type of brain damage that only effects the ability to name living things. The studies about language and "folk " taxonomies were also fascinating.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tigris

    The parts about taxonomic history were really nice. However, when she finishes summarizing the history of taxonomy, the author uses the book as a soapbox and goes on a multi-chapter rant about how much she hates cladistics and how the fact that some brain-damaged people can't identify animals and an 'experiment' she conducted with a sample size of two people apparently proves that we should go back to classifying whales with fish and birds with mammals. The fact that she has something personal a The parts about taxonomic history were really nice. However, when she finishes summarizing the history of taxonomy, the author uses the book as a soapbox and goes on a multi-chapter rant about how much she hates cladistics and how the fact that some brain-damaged people can't identify animals and an 'experiment' she conducted with a sample size of two people apparently proves that we should go back to classifying whales with fish and birds with mammals. The fact that she has something personal against cladists and cladistics is extremely obvious.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly Rosas

    Found this book at a thrift shop and enjoyed the cover art, then felt the subject was interesting enough to take a chance on for the price. Very out of my reading wheelhouse but the author was able to convey very complicated themes to a non-scientist reader. The first half of the book went quickly and I couldn't put it down, I especially enjoyed the reader tests included. The latter half was not quite as page turning but the whole concept was fascinating. Found this book at a thrift shop and enjoyed the cover art, then felt the subject was interesting enough to take a chance on for the price. Very out of my reading wheelhouse but the author was able to convey very complicated themes to a non-scientist reader. The first half of the book went quickly and I couldn't put it down, I especially enjoyed the reader tests included. The latter half was not quite as page turning but the whole concept was fascinating.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Tony

    If Naming Nature is about the history of how different tribes and cultures name their surrounding, it would have been more interesting. I would totally read (even if fictional) a book about the fight among numerical, molecular and cladistic taxonomists. Instead, it focuses on (and trying to preserve) the human umwelt (six sense) on ordering the living things around them.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Shpiece

    As an introduction to the science of taxonomy, and a deep and fascinating delve into its history, this book was excellent. That said, I don't think that Yoon successfully defends her fundamental thesis, and there are times that my frustration with the arguments made were strong enough that I had to put the book down and walk away. As an introduction to the science of taxonomy, and a deep and fascinating delve into its history, this book was excellent. That said, I don't think that Yoon successfully defends her fundamental thesis, and there are times that my frustration with the arguments made were strong enough that I had to put the book down and walk away.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    It's an interesting history of the the work and "science" of taxonomy, and the major players who pushed it forward. Unfortunately, the majority of the book is colored with rigorously unscientific personal speculation and a sustained abuse of the concept of "umwelt." Frustrating. It's an interesting history of the the work and "science" of taxonomy, and the major players who pushed it forward. Unfortunately, the majority of the book is colored with rigorously unscientific personal speculation and a sustained abuse of the concept of "umwelt." Frustrating.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Curtis Nelson

    Who knew the battles within taxonomy could be so intriguing?!? Yoon's personal and professional conflict about how nature is categorized, labelled, and (now) largely ignored by most people and the terrible price we all pay for ceding the natural world to the experts is one of my favorites. Who knew the battles within taxonomy could be so intriguing?!? Yoon's personal and professional conflict about how nature is categorized, labelled, and (now) largely ignored by most people and the terrible price we all pay for ceding the natural world to the experts is one of my favorites.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Who would think a book about taxonomy would be a page-turner! Carol Kaesuk Yoon has written a thoroughly engaging explanation of the inner dramas of taxonomy and it's importance to the quality of our lives. Who would think a book about taxonomy would be a page-turner! Carol Kaesuk Yoon has written a thoroughly engaging explanation of the inner dramas of taxonomy and it's importance to the quality of our lives.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Chika Kobari

    I found this book absolutely engaging and so beautiful and thoughtful. I read (honestly) once in a blue moon and have a tough time getting myself focused to get through most books. I immediately fell in love with it. Full of wonder and information. Highly recommend it.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Probably a self selecting title - you'll know if you want to read it. Didn't love the last chapter, but the history of taxonomy is fascinating. Probably a self selecting title - you'll know if you want to read it. Didn't love the last chapter, but the history of taxonomy is fascinating.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Özgür Takmaz

    Beware of your umwelt.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Starburst

    I thought it was very interesting, but I could have done without the last chapter.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Added after reading Why Fish Don't Exist. Added after reading Why Fish Don't Exist.

  27. 4 out of 5

    mikeyk

    The history of taxonomy was very interesting, but ruined by the author's pseudo-sceientific editorializing The history of taxonomy was very interesting, but ruined by the author's pseudo-sceientific editorializing

  28. 4 out of 5

    Converse

    This book has three different aspects. First, it is a history of western taxonomy from Linneaus to cladistics in the late twentieth century. Second, it is an exploration of what the author calls the umwelt, the common way that humans from all cultures tend to organize living things. Third, it is a discussion of the current, human-caused, mass extinction. Fish, as a category, play an important part in this book. One of the ways humans stereotypically organize living things is to have a category f This book has three different aspects. First, it is a history of western taxonomy from Linneaus to cladistics in the late twentieth century. Second, it is an exploration of what the author calls the umwelt, the common way that humans from all cultures tend to organize living things. Third, it is a discussion of the current, human-caused, mass extinction. Fish, as a category, play an important part in this book. One of the ways humans stereotypically organize living things is to have a category for things with fins that swim called fish. Often this has included besides swimming things with scales also swimming things with fins and lungs, what we would call whales. Some people who have had brain damage due to illness or accident cannot categorize living things (which is worse than it sounds, because one side effect is not being able to separate food from non-edible things). These unfortunates turn out to have in common damage to a particular part of the brain. Western taxonomy organized things in accordance with the umwelt until cladistics permeated the field. Despite the influence of Darwin, taxonomy did not change its methodology due to the rise of evolution, and was rather short on an explicit methodology until first numerical taxonomy, and then more importantly cladistic approaches, entered the field. Cladistics dominates today. The idea of fish was killed off by cladistics. The problem is this: a true evolutionary ordering should include, in the metaphor of the tree of evolution, whith each twig representing a particular evolutionary path, only those creatures that have in common shared and evolutionarily derived features. The problem with an idea of fish is that you can't split things up this way and still have a fish category. The lungfish is a problem. This creature, which looks like a fish, has lungs. Therefore it should go with mammals. If you want to keep fish as a group, you would have to keep the lungfish, which means you would have to keep the mammals as well. Cows and catfish in the same group would be rather odd, wouldn't it? Yoon notes that biologists started noticing the large number of extinctions in the 1980s at about the same time the strife among taxonomists over cladistics reached its climax. She thinks there is a connection between the lack of public interest in the large number of extinctions and the rise of cladististics and professional taxonomy in general. She believes that as taxonomy became a specialized field, the general public assumed that any loss in biodiversity was a problem for the scientists, not them. She therefore advocates that the general public not feel terribly bound to follow the categories derived by professional taxonomists, and to name things as they please. She thinks this would increase peoples feeling of a connection to the natural world. I enjoyed the parts of the book about the umwelt and taxonomy. I was less convinced that the professionalization of taxonomy had much connection to the lack of public response to the large number of extinctions. I think the lack of response to biodiversity loss and the professionalization of taxonomy are both results of an increasingly urban, economically specialized society.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Elpel

    I enjoyed reading Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s 2009 book Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science. It was an interesting look at the ways that we intuitively see order and relationships in the natural world, versus how modern science now views order and relationships. For one thing, people tend to see and expect well-defined, God-given species, but anyone who studies nature long enough discovers that there is so much evolutionary variation in the natural world that it is nearly impossible to I enjoyed reading Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s 2009 book Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science. It was an interesting look at the ways that we intuitively see order and relationships in the natural world, versus how modern science now views order and relationships. For one thing, people tend to see and expect well-defined, God-given species, but anyone who studies nature long enough discovers that there is so much evolutionary variation in the natural world that it is nearly impossible to define a species. Here are a few interesting quotes on that topic from the book: “A species was an entity, a grouping of organisms that seemed, in a taxonomist’s estimation, to be just different enough from other things to be a separate species, yet not so different from all known species that it should be a new genus, and not so similar to any known species that it should be considered a mere variety of that species." (pg. 104). "Never mind that there remains no agreed-upon definition for a species or that there will almost certainly never be one." (pg. 291) “Splitters found twenty-two distinct species among the weasels of North America, while lumpers saw in this plethora of furballs only four. Splitters distinguished several thousand species of mammals across Eurasia, whereas lumpers insisted the group consisted of no more than 700. In the freshwaters of the world, where one taxonomist discerned some forty species of whitefish, another, considering the very same scaly creatures, saw a mere five." (pg. 93) “As soon as a person sees live through an evolutionist’s eyes, as a soon as they see all that confounded variation, all that incipient evolutionary change, their view of the species changes as well. It is not merely mutable; it is ever-changing. What we see at any moment, we realize, is just a snapshot in time, a moment in the great flux of the long life of its lineage, on its way to diverging into new species. It’s a triumph when this happens, for you have gained great evolutionary insight. The only problem is now you will have absolutely no idea how to order the living world. You will have no idea how to decide what constitutes or doesn’t constitute a species. You won’t have a clue as to how to decide where one variety; one species ends and another begins." (pg. 71) Available on Amazon.com

  30. 4 out of 5

    Scott Cox

    Evolutionary biologist and popular science writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon has crafted a fascinating history of the field of taxonomy. "Naming Nature" details taxonomic progress since the days of Linnaeus, who while "toiling for the glory of God," first gave order to the natural world into three kingdoms: animal, vegetable and mineral. Or was he truly mankind's pioneer taxonomist? One of Yoon's main theses is that humans have had a long history of ordering the natural world, and to this end she introdu Evolutionary biologist and popular science writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon has crafted a fascinating history of the field of taxonomy. "Naming Nature" details taxonomic progress since the days of Linnaeus, who while "toiling for the glory of God," first gave order to the natural world into three kingdoms: animal, vegetable and mineral. Or was he truly mankind's pioneer taxonomist? One of Yoon's main theses is that humans have had a long history of ordering the natural world, and to this end she introduces the concept of "umwelt" ("the world around") that "gives us our stereotyped, hard-wired way of perceiving the order in living things" (p.15). Yoon sagely asks: "And what does the Old Testament tell us was the first thing Adam did in the Garden of Eden? . . . Adam, the first naturalist, ordered and named the animals of the earth" (p.19). However the field of taxonomy has radically changed since the days of Adam and Linnaeus. We next read of Darwin and his theory of natural selection as a guide to evolutionary order. Then comes the numerical taxonomists who gather and analyze all raw physical data and assiduously avoid "weightings" to properly organize the natural world. Taxonomy’s next major advance comes with the molecular biologists (Linus Pauling, Paul Ehrlich, etc.) that focus on DNA research to help systematize nature. After this I floundered with Yoon's progression. Somehow we end up with the "Cladists" (from the Greek "klados," meaning branch) who take us back to a modified evolutionary taxonomy, but one that utilizes "only shared evolutionary novelties to identify groups of evolutionary relatives" (p.242). I am not sure how Yoon can describe this as advancement over DNA research? However ultimately it is the Cladists who manage to kill Yoon's fish - - meaning that they reorder fish in the evolutionary tree so that they are no longer a unique taxonomic branch. Lastly, I found it interesting to be reminded that the rise of evolutionary and scientific taxonomy corresponds directly with our devaluation of the natural world and stewardship. Yoon ends the book trying to juxtapose and correct these contradictory trends - - the reader must decide how successful she was in this regards.

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