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Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science [Kindle Edition]

Carol Kaesuk Yoon
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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 Today, taxonomy is viewed by many as an outdated field, one nearly irrelevant to the rest of science and of even less interest to the rest of the world.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 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.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this entertaining and insightful book, New York Times science writer Yoon sets out to document the progression of the scientific quest to order and name the entire living world—the whole squawking, scuttling, blooming, twining, leafy, furry, green and wondrous mess of it from Linnaeus to present-day taxonomists. But her initial assumption of science as the ultimate authority is sideswiped by her growing interest in umwelt, how animals perceive the world in a way idiosyncratic to each species, fueled by its particular sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits. According to Yoon, Linnaeus was an umwelt prodigy, but as taxonomists began to abandon the senses and use microscopic evidence and DNA to trace evolutionary relations, nonscientists' gave up their brain-given right (and tendency) to order the living world, with the devastating result of becoming indifferent to the current mass extinctions. Yoon's invitation for laypeople to reclaim their umwelt, to take one step closer to the living world and accept as valid the wondrous variety in the ordering of life, is optimistic, exhilarating and revolutionary. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Impossible to put down.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1157 KB
  • Print Length: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (June 24, 2009)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B002EF2AMA
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #947,505 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
67 of 68 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting, but Disturbing Take on Taxonomy January 2, 2010
To set the record straight at the start, I am a taxonomist, as well as an ecologist. My specialty is in spiders, of which I've described and named 14 species. I also have some interest in microscopic organisms, especially diatoms. I am quite aware of the problems associated with defining species and also aware that taxonomy is difficult to explain to the layman, and even to some biologists. The world is not organized for our convenience, but it is, I think, of use to at least try to understand what is meant by kingdom, phylum, class, order, species, and populations, even if we decide that some categories are a bit on the fuzzy side. After all evolution has not stopped (even for humans) and thus many species and even higher classifications may seem a bit blurry.

It is with this background (and probable biases) that I examined Carol Kaesuk Yoon's new book "Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science." I was impressed by the many positive reviews that were listed and saw even more on the book website, including at least one scientist I know. Unfortunately in reading the first part of the book I quickly became uneasy. She has invoked the ethological term "umwelt" to define the natural instinct to name things and believes that the re-reinstatement of "instinctive" classifications for organisms (which make whales fish and cassowaries mammals) would make people appreciate nature more. While I think I see her point, I tend to also think, like Quentin Wheeler in another on-line review of the book, that her suggestion does not really solve the problem. In the early 19th Century a U.S. court ruled that for commercial and tax purposes a whale was a fish. Do we not find it easier to kill a fish than a mammal?
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A post-modern approach to taxonomy. July 24, 2011
Yoon's basic contention is that scientific taxonomy should be viewed as one among many competing and equally valid approaches to understanding biodiversity. She is willing to (grudgingly) accept that the science of taxonomy is correct to arrive at various counter-intuitive conclusions (her favorite being that fish are not a natural group). However, she is attached to various aspects of intuitively obvious taxonomy and unwilling to let those go. Worse, she interprets this as a universal restriction on human understanding. She claims that our intuitive understanding of biodiversity is so ingrained and hard-wired that it simply is not possible for us to comprehend a world in which fish are not a natural, real group. Accepting scientific taxonomy leaves us, she says, divorced from any comprehension of the natural world. We just can't understand objective reality, so we shouldn't try and should insist that subjective intuition is just as good.

I don't buy it. Yoon gives us a world in which there ultimately is no reality. We're left with a morass of differing opinions, all "valid". Scientific taxonomy is left in a kind of limbo. She isn't quite willing to say we should just ditch it, but she's adamant that we not attach any greater importance to the results of painstaking empirical research than to those of a toddler looking out on the world of vertebrates for the first time. Science is allowed to exist in its own little domain, but not to help the rest of us comprehend the world. Yoon frequently professes that she is a scientist--really, she is!--but her view here is anti-scientific to the core.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
I read Carol Yoon's piece in the New York Times two weeks ago, and thought it was one of the most eye opening, refreshing pieces about the natural world and science that I'd ever read. So I decided to invest in the book, although I was skeptical that she could sustain the enthusiasm of the NYT piece. I was wrong: The book is excellent! On just about every page, I found myself saying to friends, "Hey, did you know..." The book is for the same audience who reads Jared Diamond, E.O. Wilson, and/or Stephen Jay Gould, except Carol Yoon's voice is fresher, more spontaneous, more intimate. Really, I think the book is for anyone who loves the natural world, and wants to think harder about our relationship with that world, and/or who wants to enjoy more fully our time spent in nature.

--Phil in St. Louis
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Go Fish April 20, 2010
I read this book by mistake. The summary on the jacket flap led me to think that it was a book about taxonomy, but I should have been paying more attention. On the very first page Dr. Carol Kaesuk Yoon explains that she had intended to write a book about taxonomy, but then she had a revelation and decided not to. I missed this because I skipped to the good parts and started reading in the middle. So, strictly speaking, it is not Dr. Carol Kaesuk Yoon's fault that I thought the book fell short here and there, but I don't see that as any reason for not complaining anyway.

I read the book in a skippy fashion because Dr. Carol Kaesuk Yoon spent a good part of it discussing two ideas that were not new to me. The first: We all do taxonomy on some level. We see something in our back yard, we say to ourselves "What is that?" take a closer look and think "That is a very big bird." We have just done some taxonomy, we have classified a living creature, placing the thing in the back yard into the class of things that are birds, and not into the classes of things that are dogs, cats, groundhogs, rabbits etc. The second: One of the functions of the brain is to create what we perceive as reality out of the blip-blip electrochemical Morse code signals of the sensory nerves. Since we all have human brains, it is to be expected that the realities our brains create will have notable similarities. Since we are individuals, differences are to be expected. Dr. Carol Kaesuk Yoon refers to these constructed realities as the "umwelt," and points to a classifying or taxonomic function as an in-born or "instinctive" feature of the neural machinery that produces the umwelt.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful
Great insight into the human psyche, and had times that made me laugh out loud. HIGHLY recommend if you are interested in understanding human nature, how we learn and what we are... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Myla Van Duyn
4.0 out of 5 stars Experiencing Nature
Our natural affinity for living things is transferred to brands and logos as we become more disconnected from nature itself. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Replicant2
1.0 out of 5 stars Great topic, poor treatment
I'm fascinated by animals and language, so it's not surprising that I find the topic of taxonomy quite interesting. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Lucubration
2.0 out of 5 stars Naming Nature
This is one of the most annoying books I have ever read. The author worked as a research scientist before going into journalism, but throughout the book I felt I was in the company... Read more
Published on February 7, 2012 by McCann
5.0 out of 5 stars A great little book!
Really loved this book! I am in the Horticulture field, but
not an academic, and an amateur in the area of taxonomy. Read more
Published on January 11, 2011 by Hortbeardie
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Balance of Science and Humanity
In a tour through the history of classification, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, Carol Kaesuk Yoon shows an extraordinary talent for making what could be... Read more
Published on November 8, 2010 by Dawn Bovasso
5.0 out of 5 stars Linnaeus meets Chomsky; Biologists fail nature
Taxonomy as science, has been covered in grandiose books such as The species problem, a philosophical analysis by Richards. Read more
Published on September 4, 2010 by Sarakani
5.0 out of 5 stars An easy, excellent, entertaining and educational read
I really loved this book and recommend it highly. As an amateur naturalist who's always been interested in taxonomy, I think this is by far the best book I've ever read on the... Read more
Published on August 14, 2010 by charles murphy
2.0 out of 5 stars Unimpressive
Although the premise of the book - our instinctual categorization of the world is at odds with scientific reality, and why this matters - is intriguing, Yoon never finds any... Read more
Published on March 28, 2010 by Jon Stark
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
This book has three (too closely) interwoven threads. The first is a very good history of taxonomy and biological systematics. Read more
Published on March 9, 2010 by William B. Swift
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