Sunday, December 5, 2010

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Wht I read it: I could name many things by their Latin names, but could never tell you how the Latin naming system came to be.

Summary: The history of taxonomy, featuring the role of the human umvelt.

My Thoughts: I knew Linnaeus, and I knew Darwin, but I didn't know Mayr, or Woese, or the others who have toiled over time to classify the earth's living things. Taxonomists get so little press these days, when there are so many Lady Gagas and Lebron Jameses about.

That's not to say that Yoon's work is a straight history of taxonomy. Instead, it's a story interwoven with the history of the human umvelt, that hard-wired section of our brain that helps us order the natural world. Lose it, as some men and women have over time, and you lose the ability to recognize wild creatures, what you can eat and what can eat you.

The umvelt is, in fact, the star of the book. Linnaeus's umvelt was the uber-umvelt, highly developed and primed for the gathering and naming of all the known species of the world. Darwin's wasn't bad either, even if the world was not ready for what he had to say - animals evolving? You mean they're not set in their ways for all time, that a pinyon jay may in the future not be exactly like a pinyon jay is today? Hogwash!

The umvelt takes a beating through time, as different theorists come along with new methods of classification. Numerical taxonomists believed they could compare traits between species - by the way, there is no accepted definition for the word "species" - and count the similarities to determine how closely they grew on the tree of life. Molecular biologists debunked this creative math by breaking life down to its lowest levels, comparing chemistries. Cladists have come along and turned birds into dinosaurs and eliminated fish (I'll leave that story to the reading of the text).

With each step, the human intuition for naming species was farther removed from the science of taxonomy. But it's still there. We still classify things. Think of all the brand names in our heads. Our forebears named the natural world, as it was the world they lived in. We name the marketed world, as we live in malls, magazines and websites.

The story is full of comedic moments, like in the early days of collecting and naming plants and animals when a Madagascaran scout shouted "Indri! Indri!" at the sight of a disappearing lemur. The westerner on the collecting journey wrote down the species as the Indri indri, only to find out later that his guide was yelling "Look! Look!"

With 1.8 million of the apprximately 3 to 30 million species of the world named...on this one planet...there are missteps to come. Have we reached the final revolution in taxonomy? Probably not. But as the author says, we're up against it; with each passing generation, our umvelts, the ultimate tools with which we can tackle this task, move farther and farther from the workbench, or lab table.

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