Finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science and Technology: the surprising, untold story about the poetic and deeply human (cognitive) capacity to name the natural world.
Carol Kaesuk Youn wants to puzzle out an important question: How did science, a discipline rooted in human hunger to make sense of the known and felt natural universe, paradoxically make ordinary people feel more distant from it? Her search for an answer takes her deep into the history of Western scientific classification, and beyond, into various cultures' strategies for naming, classifying, and therefore knowing the natural world around them. Beginning with Linnaeus, and moving toward Darwin, she ends in a world where a group of evolutionary biologists called cladists have made a genomically correct, but socially abstruse discovery -- that what we lay-people have known and called fish for centuries -- do not in fact exist as an evolutionarily intact group. How did we get here? asks Youn. Is this -- scientifically accurate but surely inaccessible wisdom -- helpful in a world in which need to reinstate rather than further disrupt what connections to nature we do have? In a delightful, ruminative romp through the seemingly dry field of taxonomy, Youn explains the evolution of western taxonomical systems and also points out non-Western ones, trying to show the key ways that humans have always lived alongside, reached out toward, and made sense of their time on earth among plants, bugs, birds, and beasts. She argues that our need to connect to plants and animals is more similar across cultures than separate, and she wants us to reconnect with the living world now -- in ways scientific, and also in ways purely joyful -- which may or may not, at different moments, feel the same. To name is to know is to love is to steward -- and with mass extinctions of everything from wild beasts to songbirds, Youn urges us to know, in whatever direct ways we can, the animals around us, and to care for them, as directly as possible, now. --Tess Taylor