Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: Naming Nature.

My graduate adviser recently loaned me a copy of Carol Yoon's Naming Nature: the clash between science and instinct. Booklist's review stated it's "impossible to put down", which I found to be the case. I finished Naming Nature in one evening, finding it simultaneously inspiring and infuriating, and therefore deeply engaging. The next day I suggested it to all of my colleagues, calling it the best popular science book on systematics ever written.

Yoon's main premise is there exists an innate human tendency to order and classify the natural world in distinct and evolutionarily conserved categories. She calls this the umwelt (prouounced oom-velt), from the german word meaning "the environment" or "the surrounding world". Psychologists use this term to refer to the collective phenomenon in the environment capable of effecting an organism or individual. In ecology it has been used to refer to phenomenon that individuals within a particular species are able to recognize. Yoon suggests there is an umwelt for every species, and that the human umwelt consists of a set of conserved categories and a instinctual need to classify the natural world in consistent ways. The evidence she uses to support the concept is varied but intuitive. I finally now have a word to put on this concept which has been floating around my head for several years, which was as I said, inspiring.

However, as I continued to read, I became increasingly frustrated with her conclusions. The human umwelt is very local in time and space, applying to what an individual sees on a daily basis and qualified by what matters most in terms of survival or aesthetics. This is in contrast to the deeply non-local scientific understanding of life, which extends across the entire planet and backwards in time billions of years. Humans are not generally prepared to drop their biologically and culturally grounded categories for something much more immense, so there is a conflict. Yoon's conclusion is that scientific discoveries (including progress in systematics from Linnaeus to evolutionary taxonomy all the way to Cladistics) have alienated humans from their own umwelten, and her solution is to return to the classic categories, going as so far as to call a whale a fish in the final chapter of the book. All the while she complains about how those nasty cladists (myself included) have "killed the fish", "Fish" not being a monophyletic taxon including a common ancestor and all descendents, therefore invalid as a taxonomic grouping under the rules of Cladistics. Yoon claims that our new categories have made people alienated and apathetic, and therefore caused the extinction of many species.

After providing this exquisite description of the human umwelt as revealed by science, this was all so backwards. Modern systematics through cladistics has added so much to our understanding of Life and our own evolutionary heritage. The many species we know of today were only revealed by the very methods that Yoon claims to be the cause of their demise. And it's very clear that we haven't lost our abilities or we would be as lost as the brain damaged people she describes who cannot tell a lion from a raven. Even those systematists which work with molecules still retain this capacity, although their skills are not as strong as the classic morphological systematist. It seems her ire is misplaced.

The conclusion I have come to is very different. The human umwelt seems indeed to exist, and is conflict with science in it's classic form and categories. However, this conflict is not irreconcilable, nor is it ultimately the cause of species extinctions or human apathy. There are many other causes for these things, which are the subject of an entirely different discussion. The route to reconciliation is retraining of the umwelt to include evolutionarily real categories, which takes great time and effort but is entirely doable. The umwelt consists of a series of gestalten (singular: gestalt; German for "shape or form") which are the snapshots that allow immediate sensory identification of a living thing. Changing of the umwelt consists of training ones gestaltenspeicher ("gestalt-memory") until the categories fall in line with science.

And from personal experience, I can say that I understand and accept these modern categories and do not feel any alienation from the natural world. In fact, my understanding has brought me closer to life. As Eliezer Yudowsky the AI researcher and rationalist has stated on several occasions, "If we cannot take joy in the merely real, our lives will be empty indeed". I strongly suggest reading Yoon's book for the bits about umwalt and some insight into the history of systematics, but not to take her conclusions to heart. Instead, embrace the evolutionary understanding of life and train your own gestaltenspeicher; such things bring so much more joy than any foolish return to ignorance might grant over the short term.

Naming Nature at

More on umwelt from a biosemiotics perspective

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