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Naming Nature - The Clash Between Instinct and Science


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About the Author

Carol Kaesuk Yoon received her Ph.D. PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University and has been writing about biology for The New York Times since 1992. Her articles have also appeared in Science, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Yoon has taught writing as a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University's John S. Knight Writing Program, working with professors to help teach critical thinking in biology classes. She has also served as a science education consultant to Microsoft. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.


Yoon, a New York Times science journalist, writes about the human need to name and classify living things in our perceived world-she uses the term umwelt (from the German Umwelt, enivronment) to describe our environment. Anthropologists have found that similar taxonomies are created no matter what culture, language, or age group is studied. This suggests that there is a part of the brain devoted to naming things, and Yoon describes studies showing that the part of the brain that names living things is different from the part of the brain that names inanimate or human-made objects. Yoon argues that as we move away from traditional taxonomies toward more scientific evolution or gene-based taxonomies, we begin to lose part of who we are. Verdict Rob R. Dunn's Every Living Thing also covers taxonomy, but as well as addressing Carl Linnaeus, it discusses new species and the people who classify and name them, rather than the human instinct to name species. Given the specialty of the topic, Yoon's work may attract educated lay readers interested in cognitive science, the origin of words, and natural history.-Margaret Henderson, Tompkins-McCaw Lib., Virginia Commonwealth Univ., Richmond Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

"A beautiful riddle of a book." -- Time Out New York
"Impossible to put down." -- Booklist
"Starred Review: Superb." -- Kirkus Reviews
"A sensuous delight to read." -- O, The Oprah Magazine
"Starred Review: Optimistic, exhilarating, and revolutionary." -- Publishers Weekly
"Bracing and brilliant." -- Boston Globe
"Ingenious . . . compelling." -- San Francisco Chronicle

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. (Aug.) Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

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