What's in a Name?

A wonder of insights to God.

Michael Ohl’s The Art of Naming is a delightful and challenging book. He tells the story of how the various living creatures come to be named, that is, how they are incorporated into the taxonomy of living creatures. His book is a work of history and science, as well as a most entertaining and informative story.

I was drawn to this book because I believe our penchant for naming things is part of the divine image. We name things – and this is especially true in the sciences – because we want to understand, appreciate, and make use of them – to exercise dominion over them, as God intends.

It’s not surprising that three Christians – John Ray, Carl Linnaeus, and Johann Joosten van Musshenbroek – were leaders in the effort to create a system for identifying living things. Linnaeus actually created the taxonomical framework still in use today, and which is regulated in the addition of new creatures by a strict code. Dr. Ohl tells the story of how living creatures are named scientifically, personally, and winsomely. I didn’t think I’d gain much from reading this book, but I was wrong. I found The Art of Naming to be at once informative and entertaining; and more, it has served to stretch my vision of God and of the wonders of His work in creation.

Animals are given scientific names using a strict code and template, but with flexibility in how the names are actually given them. Physical descriptions play a large role, but so do sounds, habitats, and even those who are the discoverers of particular animals. Some fun and games also goes into the work of taxonomy, and not a little corruption, and Dr. Ohl has plenty of interesting and humorous stories to relate.

I have three takeaways from this book. First, the harder we work at learning names, the more we will appreciate and understand the things – or people – named. This applies to our environment, and the ecologies that comprise it, as well as the people around us, the tools and protocols of our work, and such everyday activities as language, foods, and table manners. If Christians worked as hard as taxonomists to name their world, we might have more impact for the Kingdom of God.

Second, naming things is hard work. The amount of effort, thought, and attention to details they who work in this field must be devoted to should put many of us to shame.

Finally, the fact that more than 19,000 new species of animals are discovered each year, and that perhaps as many as several million more remain yet to be discovered, reminds us that God has made ours a planet that teems with life. And with that teeming life, no end of wonders to explore, discover, and learn about in order to give Him increasing thanks and praise.

By learning and using the names of the people and things in our environment, we can make our world a livelier and more sacramental place. The Art of Naming has challenged me to be more diligent about this task.