Friday, September 18, 2009

Naming Nature

The Clash Between Instinct and Science
Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Whatever editor though up that dumb subtitle should be sent back to the mail room for reeducation. There is no clash in this book between science and instinct. Instinct is not even mentioned. What there is, is an interesting discussion of the way that esoteric systems of classifying the plants and animals of the world, used in the in he academic pursuit of biology, have become far removed from the way we, regular people, recognize them.

Yoon, a biology graduate student turned science journalist, calls this ordinary view of the natural world the "umwelt" (oom-velt) which is a German word for the way we, or the different ways other creatures, perceive the world. A creature's umvelt depends on what kind of senses that creature has, where it lives in the world, what it looks for to eat and what eats it. A dog's unwelt, for instance, has a lot to do with how things smell and prominently features squirrels and the postman. In our case, how we think about the world is another major factor.

Naming Nature contains an entertaining history of the study of taxonomy, starting with Carolus Linnaeus, known to his friends as Carl. Linnaeus devised the system, familiar from high school, of dividing life into domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. He established the tradition of naming species with two Latin names, the binomial system. Linnaeus' system is an artificial construct which helps us to comprehend the relationships between different plants and animals. Yoon makes the mistake of equating Linnaeus' taxonomy with the taxonomies of any and all cultures, saying that we all organize nature in our minds in the same way, even though she, herself, gives several examples of cultures that classify animals in bizarrely different ways. Her argument for the universality of Linnaeus is weak. It's also beside the point.

As she proceeds with the history of taxonomy Yoons point becomes clear. Just as physics has wandered far from the common sense of Isaac Newton into the far out realms of relativity and quantum mechanics, taxonomy has found, through statistical analysis, DNA matching and cladistics, all of which Yoon talks about in some detail without any MEGLO (My Eyes Glaze Over) effect, that some of the common sense relationships we believe in, among plants and animals, don't really exits. She quite proudly announces the demise of fish as a teaser at the beginning of the book. Her later explanation of this, having to do with the lungfish having characteristics similar to a cow, seems a bit off the wall, but no matter. That salmon I had for dinner was not a fish. I believe her.

Yoon calls for a revival of the umwelt in our daily lives. Don't let those snooty scientists tell you that nature is a strange place inaccessible to ordinary mortals. Go out there with your Peterson's Field Guides and revel in it before it's too late. Good advice. I think I'll shut off my computer now and go outside.

Ed Note: I went back and corrected the spelling of "umvelt." See the comments below.


  1. At the very least, it should be "Umwelt".

  2. Ah, correct. You've caught me in an egregious error in German.


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