Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Naming Nature: the clash between instinct and science

by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

I found this book very frustrating, and I actually didn't finish it. I skimmed parts, but I was still committed to seeing it through — and then I just couldn't stand it any more and gave up about 10 pages from the end. I was hoping the book would have more info on the ways different cultures name, classify and organize the living world. Although that was part of the author's original concept, it apparently fell by the wayside when she picked up the science vs. instinct theme.

The history of scientific classification of the living world is interesting enough for a nerd such as myself, and for sure there are some intriguing connections and conclusions to be drawn from the comparison of functional, pragmatic, amateur, "natural" or "native" classification to the increasingly abstract-seeming minutiae of truly scientific evolutionary classification based on genetics and molecular biology. It is my opinion, however, that the author is exaggerating both the violence and importance of this supposed clash of worldviews. Even to use the word clash is perhaps overblown. And the whole thing about fish not existing is pure claptrap.

I look at it as being a bit like language: anyone, given the right education, can operate in at least two modes of speaking, formal and informal; lean too far to one side, and the other may suffer for that individual, but it hardly rocks the very foundations of language or imperils our aggregate ability to communicate. Scientists may insist that "fish" isn't, in some technical way, a valid evolutionary category, but the rest of us (even those of us who know what the scientists are saying) have a perfectly functional idea of "fish" and suffer no doubts about it; put all your roe in one broodpouch and maybe the other will suffer, but, in the vast majority of situations an ordinary person is likely to encounter, the two can co-exist quite peacefully.

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