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Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

Carol Kaesuk Yoon.
Publisher Norton  
Format hardcover
Product Dimensions 9.5 x 6.25 x 1 inches
ISBN 9780393061970
Pages/Publication Date 344/2009
Daedalus Item Code 11084
This item is not available.
A finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science and Technology, this is the surprising, untold story about the profoundly human cognitive capacity to name the natural world. Some 250 years ago 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. Today taxonomy is viewed by many as an outdated, nearly irrelevant field, yet as biologist Carol Kaesuk Yoon reveals, taxonomy turns out to be the latest incarnation of a long-unrecognized human practice that has emerged in every language since before time: the deeply human act of ordering and naming the living world. Yoon takes us on a guided tour of science's brilliant, if sometimes misguided, attempts to order and name the overwhelming diversity of earth's living things. We follow a trail of scattered clues that reveals taxonomy's real origins in humanity's distant past, from New Guinea tribesmen who call a giant bird a mammal to the trials and tribulations of patients with a curious form of brain damage that causes them to be unable to distinguish among living things.

"In this entertaining and insightful book, New York Times science writer Yoon sets out to document the progression of the scientific quest to order and name the entire living world—the whole squawking, scuttling, blooming, twining, leafy, furry, green and wondrous mess of it—from Linnaeus to present-day taxonomists. But her initial assumption of science as the ultimate authority is sideswiped by her growing interest in umwelt, how animals perceive the world in a way idiosyncratic to each species, fueled by its particular sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits. According to Yoon, Linnaeus was an umwelt prodigy, but as taxonomists began to abandon the senses and use microscopic evidence and DNA to trace evolutionary relations, nonscientists' gave up their brain-given right (and tendency) to order the living world, with the devastating result of becoming indifferent to the current mass extinctions. Yoon's invitation for laypeople to reclaim their umwelt, to take one step closer to the living world and accept as valid the wondrous variety in the ordering of life, is optimistic, exhilarating and revolutionary."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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