The Umwelt Confounds Scientific Taxonomy

Don’t worry—the heading for today’s article will be made clear, thanks to the superlative writing and expertise of Carol Kaesuk Yoon, author of Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science.

First, the umwelt:

… a German word that means literally “the environment” or “the world around,” but scientists studying animal behavior use it to evoke something much more specific… (T)he umwelt signifies the perceived world, the world seen by an animal, a view idiosyncratic to each species, fueled by its particular sensory and cognitive powers and limited by its deficits.

Yoon discusses the significance of umwelt in animals, including the human animal, about which further below.

Scientific taxonomy is, most simply, how scientists classify living organisms and their relationships to each other.

So, the “confounding” arises from what our inborn umwelt tells us versus what the various scientific taxonomic schemes tell us about living things to help us resolve such questions as: is a mushroom more like a plant or more like an animal? You may be surprised by the (scientific) answer, your umwelt notwithstanding.

But which scientific answer? There at least four major schools of modern taxonomy (sometimes referred to as biological systematics, related but not identical concepts):

Evolutionary taxonomy, the system built on the work of Carl Linneaus and further refined by the findings and theories of Charles Darwin; Numerical taxonomy; Molecular taxonomy; and, Cladistics.

Author Yoon recites the colorful characteristics of, and differences and arguments between, adherents to the various schools, but the cladists seem to have seized the day, currently at least:

(The cladists) identified key weaknesses of the traditional old school evolutionary taxonomists, and glaring mistakes that numerical taxonomy could make… They… insisted, radically, loudly, and obnoxiously, that evolutionary relationships… should reign above all else in the work of taxonomy.

Most important, they (have) shaken taxonomy to its foundations, demanding its final, rational disconnection from the senses [i.e., from the human umwelt]. They… insisted that taxonomists begin looking at nature not as human beings with a sense of order (we) intuit…, but from nature’s own point of view, from the truth of aeons of evolutionary history.

So what’s the beef between our inborn umwelt and the wonderful work of cladists?

A lungfish is more closely related to a cow than to a salmon (Source:

Nature (with her helpmate, natural selection) has prepared us animals to recognize, in our earliest days, living things in the environment: the plants and animals that may be food, poison or enemies. Humans have the inborn ability to store the identifying information for around 600 plants and 600 animals. In pre-scientific times (and currently in pre-scientific peoples) distinct population groups created their own folk taxonomies, or folk genera, based on criteria not dissimilar to those used by Linnaeus. In fact, the method explicated by Linnaeus was powerful because it was largely aligned with the human umwelt, the ‘natural’ or intuitive way to organize plants and animals into groups and subgroups that were useful.

Time passed and we developed new tools of analysis, including especially the ability to map the genome of any living organism. Nature has more than 600 plants and animals to account for, and her scheme is in the genes, the DNA of every organism. As a result, one can reasonably design a scheme of genealogical relationships that renders the concept of “fish” obsolete! The author Carol Yoon does show us why this has happened, much to the distress of our inner umwelt. The fish example shows us why we, as taxonomists and observers of the natural world, are conflicted.

The cladists may currently have the upper hand, scientifically, but there is a natural resistance to believing what our senses tell is not quite right. So the tensions, and the battles, between competing schools of taxonomy, will continue.

But, this is not all. The idea of species is now coming into question. I will let your reading of the book tell you why the difference between “lumpers” and “splitters” is important. Related to the competing views of those who “lump” and those who “split” is the notion that in using taxonomic schemes, we are tying to parse into units something that is continuous: the flow of connected living things through time and space.

I have merely skimmed the major topics presented by the author. Please don’t think I’ve given you her observations and arguments in full.

Furthermore, the book is a delight to read. Yoon seems a natural born storyteller who earned her PhD in Biology, worked in the field of taxonomics and, upon becoming uncomfortable with the direction her field has recently been taking, decided to tell us about it in great style.

Check it out: Naming Nature, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon