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.

This review contains spoilers. For a biography. Of a man who died in 1931. You have been warned.

I don’t have a proper name for this sort of story, perhaps a sub- or sibling genre of gonzo journalism. I’m going to content myself by calling it kin to “Sita Sings the Blues”. Miller interleaves a biography of David Starr Jordan with the events of her own life while writing said biography. Miller’s half of the story recounts a low point in her life. In that time she leans into her research on Jordan, who spent a lifetime classifying fish, trying to reconstruct the tree of life (for a broader view on this part of the story, see Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon). His dedication to this cause despite catastrophic setbacks was a source of inspiration to her. So in her darkest days, she clung to the idea of this steadfast scientist; trying to understand how he did it. And then she learns that he was implicated in a murder, supported compulsory sterilization, and was more than a little racist. This is a strong beat narratively, but comes off a bit contrived. It only takes a few minutes of research to learn about the more controversial parts of Jordan’s life. To be working on a biography of a person in such a granular way so as to know the details of their early life without knowing the first thing about their adult self seems… implausible. Also, using a surprise reveal in a biography of someone who died in 1931 is questionable.

This ultimately results in a book that feels a little padded, a little forced. The biography of Jordan is strong, but the sudden reveal of his dark side is unnecessarily dramatic. Miller’s own tragedies are lamentable, but the weave with the rise and fall of Jordan’s life adds little. “Here is a biography of an amazing scientist who turns out not to have been such a great guy after all and by the way I was depressed when I wrote this.”