Naming Nature

By Carol Kaesuk Yoon. W.W. Norton, $27.95.

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York/Issue 727 : Sep 3–9, 2009

All species have an idiosyncratic method—called an umwelt—of perceiving the world: For dogs, the earth is a riot of scents; for bees it is a seductive highway of ultraviolet light. The human umwelt predisposes us to find patterns. Just as Chomsky claimed that our brains are hardwired for grammar, so they are for taxonomy—we have an innate propensity to “perceive clusters” and hierarchical relationships. Even toddlers know how to distinguish a tiger from a tomato, and realize that both a German shepherd and a Chihuahua are dogs.


But as New York Times writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon points out in her fascinating new book, science has chipped away at our ability to harness our umwelt. Modern taxonomists have undermined the creative art of naming, moving it out of the realm of the senses and into the laboratory. An extreme example occurred in the 1980s, when a group known as the cladists claimed that fish didn’t exist, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to group together such genetically diverse organisms as tuna, salmon and lungfish.

Yoon’s history of how and why we order the world is presented with admirable charm, concision and clarity. Her theories for how our dethroned umwelt continues to quietly rule modern life are fearlessly iconoclastic—witness her treatment of the much-lamented research that revealed how many logos toddlers can identify. It’s to be expected, says Yoon; we now do our foraging in supermarkets.


Yoon occasionally falls prey to a Malcolm Gladwell moment of irrational exuberance and attempts to swaddle all human endeavor in the big blanket of her theory. She argues that we cling unfashionably to racial and gender differences because we are neurologically and evolutionarily predisposed to order things. But even if umwelt cannot explain all of our behavior, it receives a thrilling paean in Yoon’s beautiful riddle of a book that valorizes human subjectivity over scientific unassailability.

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