Roughly speaking, this is a history of the field of taxonomy. This is not a scientific text, but it is a text about science, and science is done by people, and people are flawed biased stubborn creatures (also clever, so very clever). It is a delight to see how this problem of classification changed and coalesced over time, and all the drama and controversy that went with it. Scientists are as dysfunctional as everyone else, perhaps more so in some regards. Yoon shows us how messy progress is.
If there is one flaw to this book, it is Yoon’s treatment of her central thesis. The thesis itself is sound enough: many problems are a result of people feeling increasingly separated from nature. This relates to our improved understanding of the tree of life displacing our natural intuition: as scientists became the authorities in naming things “correctly”, so the every-person was discouraged from participating. This conflict between science and intuition is exemplified by the scientifically-sound pronouncement: “there is no such thing as a fish”. The problem with Yoon’s analysis is that there is more than one way to categorize things, and everyone knows it.
Just because some people are working out how organisms relate to each other evolutionarily doesn’t mean other people aren’t discussing how they relate behaviorally, or visually, or intuitively. Indeed they are. To put it simply, the naming of Dendrocygna does not preclude the existence of bottom-dwelling fish or flightless birds, or perhaps you’ve heard the terms scavengers, predators, burrowers, nocturnal, diurnal. Yoon’s failure to even acknowledge the existence and use of polyphyletic groups severely undermines her argument that monophyletic classification has ruined everything.
While her thesis is intruiging, Yoon’s analysis lacks rigor. She presents more correlation than causality, and neglects to even mention other possible explanations for the woes of modern humans. Wielding the umwelt like a proverbial hammer, she pounds on every problem like a proverbial nail. The result is thought-provoking but ultimately unsatisfying.
This book was listed as reference for Lulu Miller’s “Why Fish Don’t Exist”, and it is clear why; this is a superior history. However Soon’s deeper analysis of how that science has influenced modern life feels incomplete and shallow. This is a valuable read with a questionable premise.