Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon W.W. Norton HK$136 In 18th-century Europe, it was all the rage to collect new discoveries from the natural world, from butterflies and beetles to plants and fish. But how to name these creatures, flooding into Europe in ships returning from far longitudes? With no standard naming system, things got chaotic: one collector made up a 30-word name for a single species of plant. Imagine studying a textbook full of those. Into this chaos, history delivered the right man at the right time. He was Carolus Linnaeus, a remarkable Swede with 'turbocharged perceptions' of the natural world - as author Carol Kaesuk Yoon writes in her highly readable Naming Nature. Linnaeus could look at a new plant or animal, refer quickly to his astonishing memory, and rapidly catalogue the item on one of the myriad branches of the tree of life that he invented in his 20s - giving it one of the two-word 'Latin binomial' names we still use today: Homo sapiens (Genus-species). By the time Yoon gets to this stage in Naming Nature, she has the reader's full attention. Yoon, a New York Times writer with a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology, has a masterful eye for colour, story and structure, and an ear for fun. Humans, she argues, have a natural need to name plants and animals, to make sense of the world we live in - 'one of the ... irrepressible functions of being a human being, of being alive'. This is driven by our umwelt, a German term used in biology to denote how an animal perceives the world: dogs by smell, bees by ultraviolet light, humans mainly by eyesight. So Linnaeus' gift, and the early history of taxonomy, was 'a celebration of the sensed world' - the human umwelt. But dark days lay ahead: Darwin said there was no such thing as a species and that the tree of life should show underlying evolutionary relationships between living creatures, which no Linnaeun senses could detect, however turbocharged. His torch was picked up in the late 19th and 20th centuries by science-based approaches that took the senses out of the process - first was numerical taxonomy, based on numbers and statistics. They were followed by molecular biologists working with haemoglobin and DNA, who finally achieved Darwin's goal of evolution-based taxonomy. Much of the book is taken up with the factional disputes that pushed the science into fascinatingly extreme positions. If there's a flaw in Yoon's work, it is a slight tendency towards repeating material and belabouring the metaphor. But that is a quibble: her gusto and eye for a good yarn make this a delightful read.