The Umwelt Confounds Scientific Taxonomy

falkDon’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:

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.

Please click on the image

Please click on the image

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

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Science & the Sciences and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Umwelt Confounds Scientific Taxonomy

  1. Pingback: Seintific taxonomy | 557w12th

  2. Pingback: A Milestone for this Magazine « The Pavellas Perspective

  3. If I find a copy of it at the library, I’ll check out that book.

    I am already familiar with the term ‘umwelt’. It’s a great word. But I often forget about it, as it doesn’t come up often. I should keep it in mind as it fits with much of my writing.

    Some other terms I’ve grown fond of are habitus, mazeway, affordance, etc. I always enjoy a nifty word that describes or explains something that otherwise is hard to identify.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Thanks for the new words!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mazeway is a word I came across online. I mostly just like the way it sounds. I learned of habitus from the writings on addiction by Johann Hari, about which I have a number of blog posts. He has great insight on addiction.

      The term affordance is a more recent intellectual acquisition, as I maybe first came across it last year and am presently reading about it in a book by Ian Hodder. Another fun term I like is ‘gesture’, having learned it from Anke Snoek in “Agamben’s Joyful Kafka”.

      “The core of [J.J.] Gibson’s theory of perception is that we don’t perceive objects and don’t operate cognitively in terms of representations. What we perceive, what any animal perceives, are what Gibson terms affordances.

      “Squirrels don’t see trees, represent them internally, and calculate how to climb them. What they see is something more immediate and more action-oriented than that. They see a way up. That way up, the thing Gibson says they really see, isn’t an object, but an affordance.

      “We don’t see a door hinge to the right, a knob, and calculate that we can get out of the room by turning the knob. We see something much more immediate and much more action-oriented than that. We see a way out. That way out isn’t an object, but an affordance. For Gibson, a mind in the world operates in terms of those performances…”

      “An example of a gesture is the student who faced down a tank on Tiananmen Square. He had no clear goal, he did not shout any slogans, he simply stood there alone in front of the tank. Physically he could never have stopped a tank, so his act had a different meaning . And this gesture confused the political power. This image, which travelled over the whole world, is somewhat more anonymous than, for example , the revolutionary icon Che Guevara. This image has no author, no proclamations.

      “For Agamben, gesture plays an important role in the dismantling of sovereign power. Gesture is an opportunity for life to throw sand into the cogs of the machinery of law and politics. Crucial to understanding gesture, it is important to realize that in Agamben this ‘throwing sand’ is gestural and hence is not at all a matter of political activism, of overthrowing power – which always threatens to become stuck in the same structure as that which it fights. Nor is it a matter of using the law or sovereign power in the right way. Rather, it is a matter of playing with the law, confusing it in a way that renders it inoperative.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.