On the Origin of Taxonomy

Kristin Johnson in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_03 Feb. 05 10.58 Our ambivalent responses to the rise of modern science and technology are among the most fascinating things to study in the history of science. From Margaret Cavendish’s criticism of the experimental method in the 17th century to the rebellion of the so-called Romantics against the notion of objectivity, our culture has had a complex love-hate relationship with science. Champions of feeling, emotion and subjective knowledge as a path toward understanding the natural world have proved especially persistent critics of science.

Naming Nature, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, is a thought-provoking text that plays a new and fascinating tune on the old theme of objectivity versus subjectivity. Its subject is the history of biological systematics—the description, ordering and explanation of biological diversity.

In Yoon’s rendition, subjectivity is rooted firmly in our instinct. She explains that neuroscience, anthropology and evolutionary biology now tell us that we are born with the remnants of an instinctive perspective on the living world, which she calls the “human umwelt,” a vision “molded during our species’ days as hunter-gatherers.” This vision of a natural order is “thoroughly sensuous and wildly subjective,” Yoon says, and she maintains that the history of scientific taxonomy is really a “two-hundred-year-long battle against the human umwelt.” In modern times, we have given up this instinctive perception of the order of nature in favor of letting scientists find a more objective, evolutionary order, with the result that we are now disconnected from nature: “We are so used to someone else being in charge of the living world that we have begun not to even see the life around us.”

More here.