Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Folk taxonomies : naming nature

This post will serve as a springboard for several others on taxonomies, neurobiology, and philosophy.

I worked as an indexer for several years, and am very interested in taxonomies and their construction. I indexed articles from a wide variety of publications including military, legal, scientific and financial publications.

While reading updates in the New York Times science section ., I ran across a really intriguing article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon on folk taxonomies and the the loss of interest in the classification of living organisms. Yoon was the only student in a class in biological taxonomy that she took in graduate school She laments this loss of interest in taxonomy, as the ordering and naming of life is essential to an understanding of the world.

Every culture has a "folk" taxonomy for classifying living organisms, and these all bear a certain structural similarity to each other. All population groups have categories corresponding to mammals birds, fish, "crawling things", and various categories of plants, so recognizing, classifying and naming living things is a basic human trait. For example, binomials are the common way of identifying species, i.e.. rainbow trout. Studies of individuals who can no longer recognize living organisms due to brain damage show that they are totally lost in an incomprehensible world.

Yoon claims that the lost of focus on classification has led to an indifference towards the natural world and the ignoring of major problems such as extinction She believes that by rediscovering and refocusing on the naming and ordering of the living world, starting with a focus on a particular organism one can regain their sense of connection to it.

Yoon is also interested in "umwelt" - the idea that each organism - human and non-human - has its own model of the world.More about that in another post.

Yoon's article in the New York Times:

Comments on Yoon's book "Naming Nature"


  1. Oh Bobb, your blog is everything it should be! Haha, seriously though, it is random awesome greatness.