Tuesday, August 11, 2009

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.


Blogger Pam Hart said...

That was a great article and the illustrations by Haeckle (sp?) were especially beautiful. I think Emerson said something to the effect that every new word is like a new idea, further "every word was once a poem." I'd like to read this book. Thanks for posting.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Keith Wilson said...

There are those of us who are actually upset about this in ourselves, but have no clue how to go about fixing the problem.

If no one else I know can tell apart any trees, birds, or insects, how am I to learn myself?

3:14 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

There's a little book, Great Lakes Nature by Mary Blocksma, in which she undertakes this as a personal task. I love this article, Greg.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Montgomery Maxton said...

I read this article last week, too. It peaked my attention.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Artful Lawyer said...

I will have to look for this - when I developed my love of bird watching I re-discovered how wonderful the names could be. Re- since I knew something about it once, long long ago.

Always a thrill to find a reading and writing lawyer out there. Keep the faith - the system does not have to consume us whole (though it sure does try).

10:39 AM  

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