BOOKS: Naming Nature: The clash between instinct & science
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2010:
Naming Nature: The clash between instinct & science
by Carol Kaesuk Yoon
W.W. Norton & Co. (500 5th Ave., New York, NY 10110),
2009. 344 pages, hardcover. $27.95.
Taxonomy is the science of naming and cataloguing life forms.
What taxonomists do is order biological knowledge. The 18th century
botanist Carolus Linnaeus is widely recognized as the originator of
scientific taxonomy, but as Carol Kaesuk Yoon points out in Naming
Nature, Linnaeus’ contribution was chiefly that he found a means of
reconciling older taxonomic constructs to accommodate the findings of
the Age of Discovery.
Heraldic taxonomy, ranking species as “higher” and “lower”
according to recognized traits, had been recognized in various forms
throughout Europe, Asia, and much of Africa for thousands of years
Totemic taxonomy, even older, appears to have been
practiced wherever there are traces of human culture.
Taxonomic classification is implicit in Neolithic cave
paintings, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and even in the
structure of language. Yoon traces the taxonomic impulse all the way
back to the need of primitive animals to recognize threats, find
mates, and avoid eating their young. Babies often practice taxonomy
even before they speak, “naming” animals by mimicking their sounds.
Raised in environments where the opportunity to mentally
catalog nature is relatively restricted, children collect Pokemon
cards–or baseball cards, or any of myriad other objects that give
them practice in ordering the world in a taxonomic manner.
Taxonomy, according to Yoon, was the original and still the
most universal expression of the impulse to order. She pays
particular attention to the parallel evolution of what she terms
“folk taxonomies” worldwide.
Yoon discovers that experts in any given field are able to
hold in readily accessed memory about 600 definitions within each of
their spheres of expertise. This is, for instance, about the
number of baseball cards in each year’s most popular set. It is also
the number of stocks that a leading stock trader can track at a time,
and has many other correlatives, but the prototypical set of
definitions appears to be the number of species that experts in
hunter/gatherer cultures recognize.
As societies become more technologically sophisticated, the
uses of taxonomic systems change, for example to recognizing tools
and machine parts. Yet we still use similar organizing methods,
even in setting up computerized data bases.
Since Linnaeus, new approaches to ordering life have twice
challenged both folk taxonomy and science. The first was Charles
Darwin’s recognition of evolution. Introducing evolution to taxonomy
necessitated beginning to think of organization in three dimensions.
No longer could all of life, or anything else, be charted on a flat
plane. If everything living today could be placed on a flat plane,
there would still have to be dimensions above and below to represent
what the present evolved from and what it is evolving to become in
the future. The ongoing post-Darwinian socio-political tumult over
teaching evolution reflects the difficulty of learning to think in
multiple dimensions. A case can be made, however, that the rapid
progress made in almost every branch of science, technology, and
even moral and political philosophy since Darwin has resulted from
broad use of multiple dimensional thinking of a sort rarely
The Darwinian world view led eventually to the introduction
of cladistics. A clad is a biological grouping of an ancestral
species and all of its descendants. Cladistics are the study of
clads. Cladists are the people who do the studying. As simple and
logical as cladistics seem to be, as a method of organizing
evolutionary discovery, they cut diagonally through the approaches
of all previous taxonomy. For example, every folk taxonomy Yoon has
discovered has recognized “fish” as a unique grouping of animals who
live in an aquatic environment. Some taxonomies have included
shellfish and marine mammals among the “fish,” but despite the
seemingly obvious “errors” around the edges of “fish,” the existence
of “fish” as a natural taxonomic grouping appears to be self-evident.
To cladists, “fish” don’t exist, because they do not all
share common ancestors who were fish, and do not all have
descendants who are fish. As Yoon explains, lungfish are more
closely related to cows than to salmon. “Fish” may describe an
evolutionary phase, and a state of being, but is not a cladistic
That cladists no longer recognize “fish” as a grouping of
species, Yoon argues, does not invalidate “fish” as a useful
taxonomic concept. Understanding evolutionary taxonomy is essential
to much work in the life sciences, but other taxonomic approaches
are still more useful in day-to-day human pursuits.
Yoon touches only lightly in the 299 pages of Naming Nature
on the applications of taxonomy to animal adovacy. Yet humane work,
animal rights theory, and species conservation are all founded on
concepts of taxonomy, recognizing classes of beings who suffer as
result of mistreatment, and succeed or fail to the extent that
animal advocates are able to persuade others to accept or reject
adjustments in taxonomic definition, for instance in legally
distinguishing “pets” from “farm animals,” and “native” from
Efforts to establish rights for great apes, based on human
rights, proceed from taxonomic recognition that humans essentially
are great apes, but if the test for cultural and intellectual
likeness to humans crossed cladistic categories, pigs, dogs, and
several bird species might have a equal claim to rights.
Speciesism, in light of Yoon’s work, may be defined as
simply a matter of people self-interestedly accepting one taxonomic
approach over another, which might be every bit as logical but is
not as easily bent to human purpose.