“That innocent little word ‘to'”

It seems the editor-in-chief of the review journal BioEssays shares my concerns about using teleological language when discussing evolution. He calls it anthropomorphic rather than teleological, which is probably a better way of putting it – likely, the reason we think of evolution in teleological terms in the first place is because we do things for purposes, and we are biased to think of everything as if it had a human mind. The word “anthropomorphism”, I think, gets to the root of the problem.

In his short opinion piece “We need a new language for evolution… everywhere” (BioEssays 33:237), Andrew Moore discusses how language (including “that innocent little word”) can subtly lure scientist and layperson alike into this dangerous trap.

I especially like this bit:

Another concept that arises from the ‘anthropomorphisation’ of evolution is the ‘problem’: in other words, an organism or system evolves towards what we, retrospectively, identify as a barrier, or ‘problem’ that had to be ‘solved’, and we wonder how it was overcome. Nature doesn’t solve anything.

(It’s a point I’ve never quite articulated to myself, so these remarks were something of a lightbulb moment for me.)

Moore doesn’t just tear down the old language. He provides a table listing some common turns of phrase that give entirely the wrong impression – and offers alternatives that, for the most part, aren’t clumsy at all. (I’ve got to say, though, that calling the alternatives “new-speak” is a tad ironic in an article about using the wrong language, IMO.) Interestingly, one of his “replacements” still sounds teleological/anthropomorphic to me. Instead of “innovation of evolution”, he suggests using “product”, and my first thought upon hearing that word tends to involve factories. Just goes to show how difficult it is to get rid of deeply ingrained thought patterns.

Still, kudos to Moore. For bringing the problem to the fore, and for suggesting specific ways of solving it.


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