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Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Scienceby Carol Kaesuk Yoon
Synopses & Reviews
Biologist and journalist Carol Kaesuk Yoon takes us beyond genus and species to deep cognition, revealing our drive to name life. She tells the strange story of scientists leading people away from the impulse to name the living world, even as they are driven by it.Naming Nature, sure to delight readers who love words and nature, is a rich journey of naming from Linnaeus, whose system turned classification from a hobby to a science, and Darwin, who ended the idea of rigid species definitions, to today's dream of naming all of earth's species and listing them online.Readers will see science's limitations and will feel the urgency of staying connected to the natural world by using familiar, rather than scientific, names. Naming Nature illuminates the reasons why we might care less whether a whale is a fish or a mammal as long as we know its importance in our world.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Whether or not you share [Yoon's] views, this is a lively blend of popular scientific history and cultural criticism-defying simple classification." New York Times
"Brightly blending scientific expertise with personal experience, Yoon is an outstanding science writer who takes a seemingly dull topic and rivets unsuspecting readers to the page." Kirkus Reviews
"Impossible to put down." Booklist
Book News Annotation:
Yoon, a science columnist for The New York Times, notes that while taxonomy has been largely ignored in the scientific community in the last few decades, its importance must be reconsidered due to its links to language, culture and the deep human need for "naming the living world." The author explores the history of taxonomy and its development among ancient cultures and reports on renewed interest in this supposedly outdated science based on increased interest in ecology. The author also provides case studies throughout history that illuminate the need to define the natural order. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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.
Finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles TimesBook Prize in Science and Technology. 'A lively blend of popular scientific history and cultural criticism."New York Times Book Review
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.
Advance praise for Naming Nature:
"Original, delightful, and wise. . . . Yoon descends from the best writers of popular science, Stephen Jay Gould and Brian Greene among them."--Sue Halpern, author of Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly
"Naming Nature will be enjoyed by every biologist, birder, and general nature lover."--Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University, and author of The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment
"Naming Nature is rich with prickly characters, from Linnaeus to Ernst Mayr to Willi Hennig, who animate the fascinating story of how science has learned to find a deep orderliness within life's diversity."--David Quammen, author of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin
"To name is to know is to be able to love, and that is biodiversity's last best hope: Such is the thesis of this compelling, quirky, beautifully written guide."--David Takacs, author of Philosophies of Paradise: The Idea of Biodiversity
"A fascinating history of science, an illumination of nature's improbable exuberance, and a thoughtful evaluation of occasional conflict between man-made definitions and living reality."--Deborah Blum, author of Monkey Wars
"Optimistic, exhilarating and revolutionary."--Publishers Weekly, starred review
About the Author
Carol Kaesuk Yoon writes for the New York Times 'Science Times.' She has a BS in biology from Yale University and a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.
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