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Here you will find information, musings, and pictures about life, the natural world and writing.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: Naming Nature, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (2009) is about taxonomy, and kudos to Carol Kaesuk Yoon for tackling the subject with vigor. She sets up contrast between folk taxonomy, finding consistency across a variety of cultures, and compares that with modern scientific taxonomy. This structure is creaky and she overuses certain tropes, especially "the end of fish," but she also provides a tidy history of taxonomy. (Fish aren't really gone, of course. It's just that "fish" fails as a taxon using modern classification.)

She takes us to folk/cultural taxonomy, Linaneus's breakthrough of binomial nomenclature, and the uproar caused by cladists and their DNA analysis.

Those who can tolerate a rather over-amped emphasis on contrasting everyday classification of plants and animals (weeds, pets, fish)with scientific classifications will find many cool ideas about ordering the natural world. For example, certain specific brain lesions impair the ability to identify living things, while the ability to label non-living things remains intact. We are instinctive taxonomists, she proposes, and then asserts that science wrenches this innate sense of the world away from us.

She makes the case that we can no longer understand the natural world without field guides, without interpretation, when we once trusted our own experience. Yoon seems convinced that a layer of science between perception and understanding is a bad thing. She makes a useful, if unsurprising, point that "species" are human categories--nature is not tidy or static, and the scientific definitions fail here and there. She points out that we must live with both viewpoints at the same time--our innate perceptions and the scientific one. For example, dividing human beings into races fails--the boundaries are vague and inconsistent--yet race is a reality of our lives.

The history of science is the history of individuals promoting and resisting change and taxonomy is no different. The low opinion of taxonomists held by other scientists, the deep rifts within the taxonomic community, and the triumph of taxonomy by DNA make for fascinating reading.

Yoon says that we need the experiences in nature to build a personal taxonomy and we need to trust that organization for our own mental health. I wasn't convinced, but I found the history fascinating and recommend the book for that. I have to add, however, that Science (with a capital S) is not well respected in this country. Intuition and emotion seem to carry more credence. Worse, "facts" are often derided as joyless and dull and "experts" as limited know-nothings. My experience (bias?) is that harnessing emotion to the best information available produces far better results on average than simply going with gut feelings. Judging by Naming Nature, Yoon would disagree.

I swim, therefore I am.

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