by Carol Kaesuk Yoon
W.W. Norton & Co. (500 5th Ave., New York, NY 10110), 2009. 344 pages, hardcover. $27.95.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Though you may never have heard of either “taxonomy” or “cladistics,” the two central concepts in Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s 2009 opus Naming Nature, it remains a fascinating read for anyone who likes books and cares deeply about animals, and nine years after publication is now a steeply discounted holiday season bargain, if a bit too big to stuff comfortably into a stocking.
“Taxonomy” is the science of naming and cataloguing life forms. What taxonomists do is order biological knowledge, with surprisingly large consequences for practically everyone else.
The oldest science
The 18th century botanist Carolus Linnaeus is widely recognized as the originator of scientific taxonomy, but as Carol Kaesuk Yoon points out in Naming Nature, Linnaeus’ contribution was chiefly that he found a means of reconciling older taxonomic constructs to accommodate the findings of the Age of Discovery.
Heraldic taxonomy, ranking species as “higher” and “lower” according to recognized traits, had been recognized in various forms throughout Europe, Asia, and much of Africa for thousands of years before Linnaeus.
Totemic taxonomy, even older, appears to have been practiced wherever there are traces of human culture.
Taxonomic classification is implicit in Neolithic cave paintings, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and even in the structure of language. Yoon traces the taxonomic impulse all the way back to the need of primitive animals to recognize threats, find mates, and avoid eating their young. Babies often practice taxonomy even before they speak, naming animals by mimicking their sounds.
The urge to order
Prairie dog language researcher Con Slobodchikoff has discovered that even rodents practice taxonomy, to the extent of having specific whistles to denote each other species of concern to them. (See Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals.)
Raised in environments where the opportunity to mentally catalog nature is relatively restricted, children collect Pokemon cards or baseball cards, or any of myriad other objects that give them practice in ordering the world in a taxonomic manner.
Taxonomy, according to Yoon, was the original and still the most universal expression of the impulse to order. She pays particular attention to the parallel evolution of what she terms “folk taxonomies” worldwide.
Yoon discovers that experts in any given field are able to hold in readily accessed memory about 600 definitions within each of their spheres of expertise. This is, for instance, about the number of baseball cards in each year’s most popular set. It is also the number of stocks that a leading stock trader can track at a time, and has many other correlatives, but the prototypical set of definitions appears to be the number of species that experts in hunter/gatherer cultures recognize.
As societies become more technologically sophisticated, the uses of taxonomic systems change, for example to recognizing tools and machine parts. Yet we still use similar organizing methods, even in setting up computerized data bases.
Since Linnaeus, new approaches to ordering life have twice challenged both folk taxonomy and science. The first was Charles Darwin’s recognition of evolution.
Introducing evolution to taxonomy necessitated beginning to think of organization in three dimensions. No longer could all of life, or anything else, be charted on a flat plane. If everything living today could be placed on a flat plane, there would still have to be dimensions above and below to represent what the present evolved from and what it is evolving to become in the future.
The ongoing post-Darwinian socio-political tumult over teaching evolution reflects the difficulty of learning to think in multiple dimensions. A case can be made, however, that the rapid progress made in almost every branch of science, technology, and even moral and political philosophy since Darwin has resulted from broad use of multiple dimensional thinking of a sort rarely practiced––or taught––pre-Darwin.
The Darwinian world view led eventually to the introduction of cladistics. A clade is a biological grouping of an ancestral species and all of its descendants. Cladistics are the study of clades. Cladists are the people who do the studying.
As simple and logical as cladistics seem to be, as a method of organizing evolutionary discovery, they cut diagonally through the approaches of all previous taxonomy.
For example, every folk taxonomy Yoon has discovered has recognized “fish” as a unique grouping of animals who live in an aquatic environment. Some taxonomies have included shellfish and marine mammals among the “fish,” but despite the seemingly obvious errors around the edges of “fish,” the existence of “fish” as a natural taxonomic grouping appears to be self-evident.
“Fish” don’t exist
To cladists, “fish” don’t exist, because they do not all share common ancestors who were fish, and do not all have descendants who are fish. As Yoon explains, “lungfish are more closely related to cows than to salmon.”
“Fish” may describe an evolutionary phase, and a state of being, but is not a cladistic category.
That cladists no longer recognize “fish” as a grouping of species, Yoon argues, does not invalidate “fish” as a useful taxonomic concept. Understanding evolutionary taxonomy is essential to much work in the life sciences, but other taxonomic approaches are still more useful in day-to-day human pursuits.
Animal rights: a problem in taxonomy
Yoon touches only lightly in the 299 pages of Naming Nature on the applications of taxonomy to animal advocacy. Yet humane work, animal rights theory, and species conservation are all founded on concepts of taxonomy, recognizing classes of beings who suffer as result of mistreatment, and succeed or fail to the extent that animal advocates are able to persuade others to accept or reject adjustments in taxonomic definition––for instance, in legally distinguishing “pets” from “farm animals,” and “native” from “non-native” species.
Efforts to establish rights for great apes, based on human rights, proceed from taxonomic recognition that humans essentially are great apes, but if the test for cultural and intellectual likeness to humans crossed cladistic categories, pigs, dogs, elephants, and several bird species might have an equal claim to rights.
Indeed, the Nonhuman Rights Project on November 13, 2017 filed a lawsuit against the Commerford Zoo in Goshen, Connecticut, seeking to persuade the Torrington Superior Court to set aside cladistics and all other widely recognized taxonomies to establish a new legally recognized taxonomy called “personhood.”
This new taxonomy would include, in addition to all humans, the Commerford Zoo elephants Beulah, Karen, and Minnie, and, presumably, the various great apes who have previously been the subjects of failed lawsuits brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project based on similar theories.
Speciesism, in light of Yoon’s work, may be defined as simply a matter of people self-interestedly accepting one taxonomic approach over another, which might be every bit as logical but is not as easily bent to human purpose.