Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science is a nonfiction book about the history of taxonomy. It falls into a category that I call “science lite,” written for a nontechnical audience. I really like these kinds of books but good ones are hard to find. I think they must be hard to write. It’s tricky to achieve just the right tone – accessible but not condescending. I will say that this book could have been shorter. Yoon is so enamored of her topic that she repeats herself sometimes, and she tries a bit too hard to make us appreciate the cosmic interconnectedness of it all.
On the other hand, it is kind of cosmically cool. Did you know that civilizations all over the world and throughout history classify animals and plants in similar ways? For example, native tribes people in remote parts of Asia put the same plants into the same categories that the Oxford botany department does, without either group being familiar with the others’ methods or choices. Yoon hypothesizes that humans evolved the ability (and the desire) to classify things very early on in history as a survival skill. After all, it’s important to know what kinds of things you can eat, vs. what might eat you.
Yoon provides delightful sketches of the fathers of taxonomy, including Carl Linnaeus (a big ego) and Charles Darwin (obsessed with barnacles). She follows up with good explanations of the current state of the field, which focuses on analyzing DNA to decide for certain which things are related to which others. I also enjoyed her digressions about folk taxonomy, which describes categories like pets, and her ideas about why children are obsessed with dinosaurs (again, an innate desire to sort and classify).
(Book 28, 2010)