Monday, February 28, 2011

Naming Nature : The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a book review

Naming Nature caught my attention primarily because I have just recently started working on learning some of the scientific names for various creatures around the neighborhood, and I was curious about the "clash" mentioned in the title.

The book turned out to be a moderately interesting discussion of the history of scientific naming and categorization coupled with the argument that, at some point (pretty much with the combination of cladistics and computers), most people decided that "nature" was something best left to scientists and let themselves be distanced from experiencing themselves.

Yoon is earnest, almost painfully so. There were plenty of new things to learn from the book, but little sense of excitement or wonder; I am glad I read it because I personally wanted to know more about categorization, and I definitely wanted to know more about cladistics (not that it turns out to be anything I'll likely use myself; Yoon is right; that particular method of categorization is well outside the amateur's range), but I'm disinclined to recommend it to other people for casual reading.

I don't entirely buy her premise, either; I'd say that city life--which she does mention--and increasing busyness have more to do with the disconnect than whether or not science is currently recognizing fish.

One thing that really did bother me was the way endnotes were handled: There were endnotes, but in-text, there was no indication that they were there. That is, in the back, the first few words of whatever sentence would be listed, and then the note would follow--but in the chapter itself, absolutely nothing indicated that there might be a relevant comment in back. Not good.

All of which winds up with me giving it a lukewarm recommendation: Naming Nature is not a book I hated, but it's a book I might not have finished if I had had other books left in the library bag at the time.

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