If you are, like me, a relative newcomer to science writing, then you may find Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s “Naming Nature” the perfect introduction to a genre that may at first seem suited for those more scientifically minded. Far from esoteric, Yoon makes accessible the highly technical nature of her subject matter by focusing squarely on the story: whether it be the quest for finding “a scheme for ordering the entire living world”, as in Linnaeus’ case, or Sokal’s determination to create an objective, numerically based system of taxonomy, Yoon vividly dramatizes the stories of various scientists as they attempt to make scientific history.
Yoon describes the premise of the book thusly: “Inside each person is the capacity for and the desire to order and name the living world. That capacity has influenced the history of science, and influenced how we interact with the living world in the past, present, and future.” Yoon attributes this impulse to the “umwelt”, which she describes as an instinctual perception of the natural world. According to Yoon, we have become so far removed from our umwelts that we risk losing our innate sense of nature, culminating in such scientific debacles as the cladist taxonomist’s claim that fish should be not be considered a separate species.
Yoon’s approach to writing is quirky and humorous. At our interview, Yoon shows me the latest book she’s reading – “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which perfectly encapsulates Yoon’s sensibility as a writer. Many of the scientists she writes about are idiosyncratic in their own right, and Yoon portrays their eccentricities in a humorous light.
When asked about her beginnings as a scientist, she says: “I was supposed to go to medical school, but I don’t like sick people. But I really liked biology. Eventually I convinced my dad that I wanted to go to graduate school, which would result in my applying to medical school.”
Yoon started seriously writing just after she graduated from graduate school. “I ended up going to grad school. Just as I was finishing up, I started a class in fiction writing. I started writing for the New York Times as a clerk. I had no journalism experience and they hired me to be a clerk, which means you get coffee for people. I did that for about six months. It was hard to do, because I had worked six years to get my Ph.D.”
Regarding her writing process, Yoon describes it as an agonizing procedure. Like many writers, for Yoon the initial stages of writing are most important. “I have a really ugly writing process. I read, read, read, then I wait forever. Then I spend a long time flipping out. I spend months writing a first chapter. Once I actually get something down, then I can keep going. But it takes a long time to start.”
Yoon’s influences are varied and diverse. She recalls Darwin as the thinker who influenced her the most.
“I’ve read the most of Darwin,” says Yoon. “He is pleasant to read because you can tell he’s a nice and gentle person.” Indeed, Darwin is present throughout the book as a kind of vantage point from which to examine the different theories of taxonomy. Another influence is Deva Sobel “who wrote ‘Longitude’. It’s a really amazing how she turns obscure weird scientific story that is fun to read. I read that book a lot of times while reading ‘Naming Nature’.”
To conclude the interview, I ask Yoon how we should go about resolving the dilemma between science and the umwelt. She answers: “Science and the umwelt have different ways of looking at the living world, but science and the umwelt each have their own, separate roles to play in our lives. So if you’re a scientist, when you’re doing your science, you should order scientifically, by evolutionary relationships. But everyone else, all regular folks can, if they want to, ignore the scientific order. It might even be good if they ignore it and instead connect with the living world in a very powerful way by letting the umwelt that comes naturally to them show them the sometimes very nonscientific order in the living world.”
Written in a lucid, down to earth style, “Naming Nature” will prove to be a memorable read for not only science buffs but also for those interested in a compelling story about the history of science.