Naming Nature

LIKE MANY SCIENCES, the history of taxonomy, the practice of naming life on Earth, describes a tumultuous surrender of human instinct to refined technology. Humans are born with an exacting ability to identify and distinguish life forms. Nearly all babies’ first words are for living beings. This compulsion to name, a function of a specific region of our brain, has been given to us through eons of surviving the evolutionary battle. Unfortunately, for many it has fallen into disuse. Naming Nature is a fascinating exploration of both brilliant and fruitless attempts to bring organization to the chaos of nature.

Taxonomy began in the early 1700s, a golden age of natural history when life was celebrated. The naming of animals, vegetables, and minerals was guided by a residing fascination and a sense of discovery. Many people displayed a collection of plants, birds, and butterflies in their parlor. Carl Linnaeus won the day by mastering the art of distinguishing and grouping known species. Remarkably, his system of classification is still in place today, although his “whales are fish” distinction would not last, and the what-appears-alike-is-alike approach to taxonomy would eventually crumble, leaving us to make distinctions like “whales are not fish.”

In the 1840s, while attempting to distinguish between types of barnacles, Charles Darwin became frustrated at finding only blurred margins between species where he thought distinct boundaries should exist. What followed was a discovery that forever altered our perception of species: they change. Today subtle differences are probed at the cellular level through DNA and protein sequencing. These discoveries help us to better understand individual species. For example, cutting-edge genetic techniques that have delineated the endangered red wolf (Canis rufus) from the coyote (Canis latrans), and shown that the latter is the largest threat to red wolf viability through hybridization.

In some ways taxonomy’s progress parallels society’s increasing isolation from nature. Today our natural inclinations toward naming nature are vastly understimulated, as is our inborn fascination with the natural world. Worse, these abilities may have been co-opted to identify and discriminate among brands, logos, and purchasable goods. Shopping and surfing the web are simply extravagant versions of hunting and gathering. Goods and services are today’s units of survival to which our instincts are brought to bear. Yet Yoon suggests one’s natural ability to identify and name life is a lost art of the human spirit — one that yearns for renewal.

In a plea to humanity to save biodiversity on Earth, today’s conservation champions, like E. O. Wilson, have begun cataloguing all known species in the Encyclopedia of Life project. Inherent in the challenge is the charge to cultivate the individual’s once-savvy ability to convene with nature — we should all be amateur taxonomists, for it’s our true nature.