Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

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)


Shelley said...

You have to love Darwin for how open he was to all incoming data, for his engagement with his theories and dismay at confusing evidence, saying that the “sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”

Vintage Reading said...

I like the sound of this. Takes a lot to drag me away from my beloved fiction but this sounds like a book I would enjoy.

herschelian said...

I would love to read this, but as we have just moved to Beijing it would probably be easier to find the Holy Grail than a copy of 'Naming Nature' in China. English language books are (a)not easily available and (b) the few that one can find are ruinously expensive. I now have a blog at: http://herschelian.wordpress.com and I will be posting about the challenge of finding enough reading material whilst I am here.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I read an article a few years ago which tried to answer the question why the words for Mother and Father sounds almost the same in every language.

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