Naming is a way of knowing something. When fifth and sixth graders come here to the Schoodic Education and Research Center they learn, among other things, how to recognize spruce trees. If you say “Ouch!” when you shake hands with the tree, it’s a spruce.
Knowing that a tree is a spruce, and that another is a balsam, and yet another is a birch, and a fourth is a maple — rather than all just being plain old “trees” — gives a child a way of seeing a forest differently. Naming creates connection. (It is probably one reason that farmers raising pigs for slaughter generally call them “Pig” rather than “Charlie.”)
Carol Kaesuk Yoon, who has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Cornell and who writes for Science Times for the New York Times, has written a new book about our human impulse to order the world by naming it. It has the title Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (W.W. Norton, 2009).
I hesitate to say that this book is a history of taxonomy. Saying that seems too likely to ensure that no one will read it.
Well … it is a history of taxonomy. And it is an absorbing, entertaining read.
It has not always been the case that taxonomy — the task of naming all living things and organizing them according to what things are alike and what things are different from each other — was considered dull and dusty. A few hundred years ago, as western Europeans began to expand across the world and bring back wonderful new examples of plants and animals, there was great intellectual excitement around the effort to figure out how all of these specimens fit into the great scheme of life. Even middle class people assembled their own collections of flowers, insects, birds, and other specimens. Learning all about this suddenly expanded world, understanding it by naming it, was among the highest kinds of scientific work — and it was work pursued by enthusiastic amateurs as well as by professionals.
Yoon shows us how all of this changed over the past couple hundred years, finally reaching a point where taxonomy was judged to be hardly science at all. Then, even worse, a new kind of taxonomy emerged that seems to make no sense, asserting that people are more closely related to fungi than to plants, and that there is no meaningful grouping of things that we call “fish.”
Here’s the problem: humans living and naming things in the day-to-day world see species as fixed, definite, and unchanging — and try to describe what is alike and what is different in terms of what we can see — in terms of morphology. Contemporary scientists, on the other hand, see species as evolving over time and think of similarity in terms of DNA — which is sometimes strangely disconnected from morphology.
Yoon is a scientist, and values the new understanding emerging from molecular taxonomy. But the problem, as she sees it, is that by telling us that our natural perceptions are all wrong — and that what is really RIGHT is stuff that makes little sense to us as human animals — science has caused many of us to shrug our shoulders and write off the whole business of naming and understanding the world around us. She suggests that our giving up on naming and knowing is part of the reason why nobody seems to notice or care that species are disappearing at an alarming rate.
The National Park Service is committed to preserving biodiversity and to cataloging the species that we have in parks. At SERC we host an annual “bioblitz” — this past year we actually hosted two of them — on on minor orders of insects and a second on mushrooms. Our sister Research Learning Center in Great Smoky Mountain National Park – the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center – has built much of its program around biodiversity inventories.
Yoon’s book puts this whole effort — the work on engaging people in seeing and naming — in perspective. It is a valuable, very readable, even entertaining contribution to the conversation about how and why we should be engaged in classifying and naming nature.