NAMING NATURE

THE CLASH BETWEEN INSTINCT AND SCIENCE

New York Times “Science Times” writer Yoon debuts with a wondrous history of taxonomy—the science of ordering and naming living things—and how it has disconnected us from the natural world.

As she lucidly describes how different cultures have named plants and animals through history, the author uncovers the sharp disjuncture between folk taxonomy—the similar, appearance-based ways in which ordinary people have always named living things—and the science of classification, which has dominated our thinking about nature since Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and author of Systema Naturae (1735), set the rule that every species must have a two-part name, or Latin binomial. Yoon traces the rise of various schools of scientific taxonomy—evolutionary, numerical and molecular—each of which emphasizes different factors of classifying living things. She also examines the work of leading figures in the field, from the German ornithologist Ernst Mayr to Austrian biologist Robert Sokal, and describes the near-rabid infighting over methodology. Against all of this she posits the power of the human umwelt (a German word for the environment or “surrounding world”), a hard-wired way of perceiving the living world that has allowed humans since the ancient hunter-gatherers to recognize things and survive. The umwelt, writes the author, accounts for the fact that different cultures give similar names, such as fish, to wildlife—and has long served as humanity’s most intimate connection to the natural world. By bowing to the rationality of a scientific view of the natural order, we have undermined our understanding of the world. Yoon’s accounts of brain-damaged individuals who cannot recognize and name living things—and of young children’s unquenchable interest, even before they can walk or talk, in the natural world—bring to life the marvel of our intuitive umwelt abilities. We must cling to these abilities if we are to preserve nature, the author argues. Brightly blending scientific expertise with personal experience, Yoon is an outstanding science writer who takes a seemingly dull topic and rivets unsuspecting readers to the page.

Superb.

Pub Date: Aug. 24, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-393-06197-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2009

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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