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Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  294 ratings  ·  56 reviews
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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
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published August 24th 2009 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 2009)
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Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch
Nov 25, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: reality

“The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.” – E. O. Wilson

One reason I read few books is that they are usually written by human persons, and I have a dim view of the human person. On the other hand of course, books produced by editorial committee usually suffer from their own incoherence and disorganization, which perhaps suggests an equally dim prospect for human cooperation.

“Naming Nature” is written by a very evident individual and centers on a
Malcolm Logscribe
Dec 26, 2014 rated it it was ok
The bits about the history of taxonomy as a science could have been an interesting book.

The bits about folk taxonomy and how people categorize life could have been an interesting book.

Framing them in opposition to each other, though? There was lots of talk about the "destruction" of fish, of the idea that fish "don't exist". Why? Flightless birds exist as actual, physical creatures with features in common, and not classifying them together doesn't alter their existence. You can group animals bas
Apr 09, 2011 rated it liked it
Fascinating book about the history of scientific classification of nature that started with Linneaus. This is a book about the history of taxonomy. I never knew that his classifications were replace in the 80's with a h ole new system. Author goes on a bit too long about the "ummwelt", the built-in view of ordering that humans have in their brains. I skipped a chapter or two.
Preliminary review: I'm giving this two stars instead of one solely because I now know more about the history of taxonomy than I did before and have discovered that it's actually interesting (even if I did have to sort through Yoon's language and ridiculous argument to get at that history). Longer review to come.
May 15, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, science
This is an interesting book. I'm mostly glad I read it, and while it held my interest it is difficult to recommend others to read it. It rather felt like there were three books mashed into one, ineffectively. The historical bits were the best and by far the most interesting and coherently organized. Interspersed with the coherent parts were rabbit trails into the author's own personal experiences and thoughts, monologues about evolution, and an odd fascination with the 'umvelt' (instinct?).

Jul 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
From Wikipedia - a discussion of the word "umwelt":

Each functional component of an umwelt has a meaning and so represents the organism's model of the world. It is also the semiotic world of the organism, including all the meaningful aspects of the world for any particular organism, i.e. it can be water, food, shelter, potential threats, or points of reference for navigation. An organism creates and reshapes its own umwelt when it interacts with the world. This is termed a 'functional circle'. Th
Sep 22, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: evolution
A fascinating history of taxonomy from Linnaeus to attempted evolutionary taxonomy to numerical taxonomy to molecular(DNA)taxonomy and finally to the logical use of evolutionary clades. The author while clearly in the scientific camp bemoans the loss of the more instinctive or intuitive method used by Linnaeus. She points out that anthropologists have discovered a certain cultural universality in the ordering of plant and animal species-- what she calls our "umweld".
Ms Yoon goes further in blami
Aug 04, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-read
A perfect book to follow Andrea Wulf's The Brother Gardeners, Naming Nature examines the development of taxonomy from Linnaeus to cladistics with interesting coverage of evolutionary biology, numerical taxonomy, and molecular biology. Yoon is fascinated with the human Umwelt and its role both in creating traditional taxonomy and in causing our resistance to the science of cladistics. According to Yoon, the human brain is wired to take a taxonomic view of nature, and the parameters of that taxono ...more
Jul 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
I've always been attracted to the taxonomy of plants without knowing much about it. Now I know more thanks to this accessible history of taxonomy. I've been thinking about it from a naturalist perspective so I was surprised to discover how purely scientific taxonomy has become. This is Yoon's thesis- that the scientific approach to classification entailing numbers, microscopes, and strict criteria of evolution has become detached from our instinctive feeling for the world around us. But it also ...more
Bob Gustafson
Aug 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I love science history and this time I was in biological, rather than physical, science. This is the story of Linneas, and then everything that happened after him, written for intelligent people who may, or may not, be smart about in biology. What earned this book the fifth star was Yoon's personalized editorial at the end, which I happen to strongly agree with.
Feb 18, 2010 rated it liked it
The best parts of this book were those describing the development of taxonomy and nomenclature. However, I don't buy into Yoon's argument concerning the role of modern systematics in the death of what she terms the "umwelt" - the ability of humans to perceive the natural world.
Feb 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
loved this book. I've read several books on the history of taxonomy that had a lot more infomration, but this one had a thoroughly different approach. It probably resonated with me because 30 years ago when I was in college, I learned some traditional taxonomy and then, a few year back , in taking some biology classes to get certified for wildlife rehab, I was introduced to the new cladistics. I wondered if I was just too old to adjust my thinking, and this book makes me feel better , since it f ...more
Apr 14, 2018 rated it it was ok
The parts about taxonomic history were really nice. However, when she finishes summarizing the history of taxonomy, the author uses the book as a soapbox and goes on a multi-chapter rant about how much she hates cladistics and how the fact that some brain-damaged people can't identify animals and an 'experiment' she conducted with a sample size of two people apparently proves that we should go back to classifying whales with fish and birds with mammals. The fact that she has something personal a ...more
Jun 15, 2018 rated it it was ok
It's an interesting history of the the work and "science" of taxonomy, and the major players who pushed it forward. Unfortunately, the majority of the book is colored with rigorously unscientific personal speculation and a sustained abuse of the concept of "umwelt." Frustrating.
Oct 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Probably a self selecting title - you'll know if you want to read it. Didn't love the last chapter, but the history of taxonomy is fascinating.
Mar 30, 2010 rated it liked it
This book has three different aspects. First, it is a history of western taxonomy from Linneaus to cladistics in the late twentieth century. Second, it is an exploration of what the author calls the umwelt, the common way that humans from all cultures tend to organize living things. Third, it is a discussion of the current, human-caused, mass extinction.
Fish, as a category, play an important part in this book. One of the ways humans stereotypically organize living things is to have a category f
Tom Elpel
Jan 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed reading Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s 2009 book Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science. It was an interesting look at the ways that we intuitively see order and relationships in the natural world, versus how modern science now views order and relationships. For one thing, people tend to see and expect well-defined, God-given species, but anyone who studies nature long enough discovers that there is so much evolutionary variation in the natural world that it is nearly impossible to ...more
Scott Cox
Jan 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Evolutionary biologist and popular science writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon has crafted a fascinating history of the field of taxonomy. "Naming Nature" details taxonomic progress since the days of Linnaeus, who while "toiling for the glory of God," first gave order to the natural world into three kingdoms: animal, vegetable and mineral. Or was he truly mankind's pioneer taxonomist? One of Yoon's main theses is that humans have had a long history of ordering the natural world, and to this end she introdu ...more
Jason Furman
Aug 16, 2011 rated it liked it
It wasn't until I was thirty-eight years old that I learned there was no such thing as fish. Specifically, the most recent common ancestor of sharks, lambreys and salmon is also an ancestor of snakes, bats, and pigeons. And in some cases what we call "fish" are actually more closely related to mammals (via our ancestor that made its way out of the water) than they are to salmon.

So when I saw a book that began with a chapter on the death of fish I was intrigued. This book is a history of taxonomy
Apr 23, 2013 rated it did not like it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
M.E. Traylor
Jul 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: wishlist
I was extremely intrigued by the premise of this book, especially coming from a self-professed scientist. I was more interested in the insights into how traditional/indigenous cultures group and name living things than any of the scientific taxonomy methods, so I tended to skim those chapters, picking out the interesting parts. Yoon does an amazing job, however, of using engaging language to make various taxonomic personalities and sects entertaining, and uses them as stepping stones to showing ...more
Apr 01, 2010 rated it did not like it
What does it say when you don't like something, and yet you read it anyway? Shouldn't you just stop? I did a lot of skimming with this book. I learned about 6-7 interesting things, but she could've written her introduction and stopped there. The introduction had all these interesting ideas I thought I was going to learn more about, but really didn't in the rest of the book. And she was writing for like a 4th grader. Worse than a 4th grader, because I think even Grace would have been bored by thi ...more
Boria Sax
May 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is rare to find a book on science with a thesis that is so elegantly simple or so consistently argued. This book is a history of the taxonomy of animals, particularly from Linneaus to the present day. The author shows how the taxonomies used by biologists, which rely increasingly on arcane concepts and on features that are only visible under the microscope, have become almost entirely detached from the way creatures are perceived, thus also severing an important bond between humanity and the ...more
Julia Hendon
Aug 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It may be hard to imagine that a book on the history of taxonomy would be enjoyable but Naming Nature is a clever, witty, insightful read. A bit repetitious but author Yoon provides clear explanations of Linnaeus's achievements and the subsequent efforts by biologists to improve upon his efforts. At the same tume, Yoon makes a convincing argument that the ever more refined statistical and molecular approaches to classifying living creatures have resulted in a widening gap between scientific and ...more
Samuel Wells
Jul 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Carol Kaesuk Yoon is a science writer with a Ph.D. in biology. She seems also to be a very practical thinker and is asking us to consider the disconnect between our increasingly well informed taxonomies and the animal and plant groupings that make sense to our human way of looking at nature. Her first major target is the classification of fishes - a group that makes no evolutionary sense. And here (as someone who teaches ichthyology) I would have to agree. Even among biology majors, this concept ...more
Aug 22, 2009 marked it as to-read
Off this review: Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science
By Carol Kaesuk Yoon (Norton)
New York Times science journalist Yoon set out to write a story about taxonomy and classification highlighting “the endearing kookiness” of prescientific and nonscientific ways of ordering life. Instead, she found that many cultures construct hierarchies of the natural world that, while nonscientific, are surprisingly coherent—and that our urge to order nature is believed to be hardwired. With eloq
Caroline Bombar-Kaplan
Feb 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful non-fiction that put me in touch with what is a lovely and vital part of being human: one's umwelt (oom-velt). Neat lead up from the very earliest days of taxonomy to today's cladists (clay-dists) whose scientific study of the origins of the natural world have redefined living species in a way that we can no longer "get" just by observing them. It's all in the genes/DNA/computers these days. Carol says "no worries," get in touch with the nature around you or go seek it anyway. Your umw ...more
Jan 26, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone!
The author gets repetitious at certain points, and sometimes over-explains ideas. However, this wasn't a deal breaker for me, I was entertained throughout the whole book. Also, I learned a lot of new things about nature and taxonomy, which was the whole point of my reading it. Like most good non-fiction that I have read, this book made me take stock of how I live my life and think about changes that I should make. Will I actually make them? Meh. But I will certainly think about them, and the aut ...more
Nov 29, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: people interested in the history of science
Shelves: science
I didn't finish this book (got caught up in something else and it needed to go back to the library). I am interested in the history of science, and I know almost nothing about taxonomy, so this book filled in some huge gaps in my knowledge. The style it was written in was a bit too... conversational(?) for my liking, though, so I didn't find myself wanting to pick it up every day to keep reading. Perhaps some day I'll finish it (I stopped reading before I got to the rise of the cladists), as I d ...more
Apr 25, 2011 rated it liked it
While a little repetitive in its explanatory tone, this book was really interesting and kept me pretty engaged throughout. I don't read much non-fiction so it says something that I read this as quickly as I did. I especially loved the description of Victorian amateur 'naturalists' and intend to copy them as much as possible.

Side note: I wish the author could have found another word for 'umwelt' as that got tiresome. At the same time, considering that she is a scientist she is a very good writer
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Carol Kaesuk Yoon was born and raised in Massachusetts, spending much of her childhood roaming around in the forest behind her house, that or reading comic books. At Yale she studied biology and then went on to get a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell, where she did research on the evolution and genetics of fruitfly mating songs.

After grad school, instead of getting a normal post-