On the Importance of Naming
There is a wonderful article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon in the Science Times section of this morning's New York Times, titled "The Lost Art of Naming the World." The brilliant painting of hummingbirds from Ernst Haekel's Kunstformen der Natur (1900), of course, immediately attracted my attention.
The article is adapted from Yoon's Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (W.W. Norton, 2009) which is now on my list of must-read books.
Here is a passage that links to the entire article:
Today few people are proficient in the ordering and naming of life. There are the dwindling professional taxonomists, and fast-declining peoples like the Tzeltal Maya of Mexico, among whom a 2-year-old can name more than 30 different plants and whose 4-year-olds can recognize nearly 100. Things were different once. In Linnaeus’s day, it was a matter of aristocratic pride to have a wonderful and wonderfully curated collection of wild organisms, both dead and alive. Darwin (who gained fame first as the world’s foremost barnacle taxonomist) might have expected any dinner-party conversation to turn taxonomic, after an afternoon of beetle-hunting or wildflower study. Most of us claim and enjoy no such expertise.
We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life. We are willfully becoming poor J.B.R., losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world.