I adored Naming Nature: the Clash between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. I had no idea I could get so excited about any science book, never mind one about the seemingly dry field of taxonomy! Yoon, a science writer for the New York Times, explains concepts clearly and engagingly, with detailed examples to illustrate her points that allow even the less scientifically inclined readers (that would be me) to comprehend her arguments. If all popular science books – which I usually find overly simplified or insultingly condescending – were written with Yoon’s energy and skill, I would not be half so terrified of them.
Yoon is completely captivating as she details the history of taxonomy (the field of scientific classification), showing not only how each stage was developed, was accepted and what the benefits or pitfalls were, but also at pointing out and illustrating how human the need to classify the world around us is, how tribes around the world and all through history have done so and how, if we lose this ability, adrift we become, unable to identify organic matter from inorganic, food from foe. She also questions whether the modern methods of classification, ordering organisms by common ancestors based on DNA rather than any observable features, is further distancing man from nature when, historically, taxonomy was the favoured obsession of intellectual amateurs.
Central to the book is the concept of the umwelt, defined by Yoon as “the perceived world, the world sensed by an animal, a view idiosyncratic to each species, fueled by its particular sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its defects.” People (and, it has been shown, even some animals) all over the world consciously and unconsciously order the organisms that surround them, all by their own method. We create order out of chaos, necessary meaning that helps us to survive:
The umwelt is what allows us to make our way, confidently, sensibly, and happily, in the world every day. The umwelt and the order we see in it are what allow us to function. Without the power to recognize – to see, order, and name life – we simply would not know how to live in our world and understand it.
From Carl Linnaeus in the 18th Century with his creation of the framework for taxonomy to modern-day Cladists, the eager inheritors ofDarwin’s evolutionary taxonomy now armed with DNA technology, Yoon writes entertainingly and quite passionately on the brilliant scientists who have shaped this field. More than anything, I came away with the impression of just how muddled the particular science is. I romanticize the era of the amateur naturalist as much as anyone – and why not? They were pretty dashing and both the adventurous and the plodding were able to make important scientific contributions, regardless of their lack of training – but it is amazing to me how imprecise the science of classification was. It is still not terribly well-ordered (so Yoon leads me to believe and so my biologist brother confirms) even with DNA information but when it was based entirely on observation and instinct? My god, the chaos has completely banished any fantasies I might once have had of scientific precision. Here, as Yoon describes them, were some of the challenges faced by taxonomists:
The original dilemma of taxonomists was this: when confronted with a variety of living things, say a group of birds or plants or grasshoppers, one is immediately confronted with a wide array of similarities and differences. How to know which of the variety of similarities and differences are the ones to pay attention to when sorting organisms into species, genera, and so on? It had long been known that not all similarities and differences between species are of equal usefulness in determining the natural order. So taxonomists had forever counted on their sense and the vision it provided of a natural order to tell them which mattered and which did not.
Darwin’s theory of evolution did absolutely nothing to ease the process:
As soon as a person sees life through an evolutionist’s eyes, as 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 realise, 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. They 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.
I love creating order (remember those posts discussing the ordering of my bookshelves and the logic behind that? The umwelt in action, my friends) and so when Yoon took a bit of a side trip in her history of taxonomy to discuss the unwelt, focusing particularly on young children and people with brain trauma, I was almost giddy. The entire chapter was fascinating, but especially Yoon’s examples of children and their compulsive need obsessively classify and order. Think, for instance, of the almost compulsory dinosaur phase:
Isn’t it a little strange that these small people are so obsessed with learning the taxonomy of long dead giant reptiles? In these wonderful and too short-lived phases, we see the unwelt quite openly at work as children go in search of a hierarchy perceived – the natural order among dinosaurs. As anyone who has seen a child in the throes of dino-obsession knows, it’s not a blanket concern with all things dinosaur. Children in a dinosaur phase are not necessarily that interested in, say, fictional stories featuring dinosaur protagonists. They are fixated instead on studying dinosaur’s forms, behaviours, and names with an eye toward ordering them, toward learning how to recognize particular species and genera of dinosaurs.
And then we came to either the very bright or very dark days, depending on your perspective, of DNA breakthroughs and the end of fish (I am not going to explain this – read the book!). Molecular biologists studying DNA were suddenly able to determine the evolutionary history of a species. They could “actually track the twists and turns, the branchings of the evolutionary tree, the true genealogy of life.” This work is exciting and revolutionary but at the same time it reveals truths that aren’t consistent with our observation-based vision of the world. A scientist sitting in a lab, with tiny almost-empty vials of DNA material can tell us more about a species, about its ancestors and history, than we’ve learned in hundreds of years of observing it. This is work that can only be done by the professionals in their labs. It is the ultimate evolutionary biology, it’s far more precise than the completely arbitrary styles of taxonomy that came before, but it has nothing to do with observing the natural world and there is no scope for amateurs (unless they happen to have their own DNA labs):
Nearly the last tie to the days of Linnaeus, to the child naturalist wandering in the woods sensing the natural order, had been cut. The truth of a simple human vision could no longer compete with what scientists had to offer – the truth of a series of coloured lines in a glowing gel. How absurd this would all have seemed to Linnaeus: that to uncover the truth of the ordering of life, one need not know anything about animals or plants, anything of what swam or breathed or flew, of what sprouted or flowered, anything about the living world at all. One need only know about molecules, about DNA. Even taxonomy – the science of ordering life – was moving away from life itself. Scientists had taken the last step toward a commitment to thoroughly modern science – not intuition of what the order seems to be, but to what the science of the previously invisible would reveal as the new, scientific natural order.
Yoon’s nostalgia for science rooted in the real world, accessible to all, the kind that engages professional and amateur alike with the wonders of nature, is understandable. By leaving science to the scientists, it is too easy for us to ignore the wondrous organisms that surround us, to ignore without bothering to comprehend the staggering numbers of species that go extinct each day, week, month, hour. But the classification work currently being done, even if it is by white-coated scientists who may never think of taking time to observe the natural world, who are perfectly happy in their labs, is exciting and important. Like Yoon, I think it is vital that we somehow get people to engage more with their surroundings, to marvel at and value the wonders around them, but not at the price of such advances. And certainly not when we’ve just found a consistent method – however illogical it may seem, however it may violate the umwelt and our powers of observation – of scientifically classifying anything and everything that surrounds us.
A really wonderful, exciting, intelligent book that I could not recommend more highly.