Monday, July 13, 2015

What Language is for

I am sure most of us are tired of hearing about the silliness of fundamentalists insisting upon a literal interpretation of the Bible. Like you, I have no interest in revisiting this topic. It is quite clear from reading the Bible itself that the Bible does not use literalistic language. The only people who do not know this are probably the fundamentalists who have not actually read the Bible, but have just listened to fundamentalist preachers. This may be most fundamentalists.

What is interesting to me is that fundamentalist insistence on literalistic language is based on a misunderstanding of what language is for. And it is a misunderstanding that also plagues many scientists. Both creationists and scientists often believe that the purpose of language is to convey information; and that language is better when it conveys information more accurately or precisely or correctly. (Accuracy, precision, and correctness are three different things.) A creationist gets all bent out of shape if someone suggests that “day” in Genesis 1 is not a 24-hour time period, or even a time period at all. And some of my fellow botanists get all bent out of shape if an amateur calls a dandelion a “flower.” See? That amateur called a dandelion a flower—that shows how much he knows. In reality, a dandelion of a whole bunch of flowers crammed together, each with its own petals and reproductive naughty-bits. It is a composite inflorescence. I teach about composites because once you see that a dandelion is a bunch of flowers, your eyes are opened to new evolutionary possibilities: new adaptations can arise from previously separate components merging together. But I don’t get bothered by an amateur calling a dandelion a flower. Matter of fact, “amateur” is not a derogatory term; it comes from the Latin for love. An amateur is someone who does something because he or she loves it.

Scientists are generally OK with similes, but generally reject metaphors, unless said metaphor has become incorporated into a standard set of scientific phrases (such as “seed bank”). But when I teach or write for a wider audience, I use metaphors all the time, and say some downright wrong things if they get the main idea across or (perhaps more importantly) get the listener to appreciate and enjoy the world more. (With apologies to Will Rogers, I could say I never metaphor I didn’t like.)

Language did not evolve primarily as a way of communicating information, although this was one of its functions. It evolved as a medium of relationship. The use of imprecise, colorful, sometimes factually incorrect statements helped to negotiate relationships between individuals within a tribe, or between tribes—and it still does. One of the best mediums for this is humor. What little bit of culture I have inherited from my Native American ancestors helps me to understand this. Native Americans don’t worship Trickster Coyote. It is a set of humorous stories that helps us make sense out of an otherwise chaotic universe. A lot of God-talk among tribal peoples is to be understood as metaphor or simile, a human way of picturing something otherwise incomprehensible. As one Anishinabe speaker said, “When we talk about the holiness of a tree, we don’t mean that the tree is a god. We’re not stupid. We mean that the divine represents itself, among other ways, as a tree.”

Even fundamentalists cannot resist using imprecise language. They might say something like, I was just flying down the highway. Does this mean that they have wings, or were in a hang glider skimming too low to the ground? Or flapping their arms as they ran? My guess would be no. And they will say things like, He knocked me over when he said that. Really? If that is literally true, you’d better file assault and battery charges. Especially when, as a fundamentalist might say, he literally knocked me over when he said that. Fundamentalists will use figurative language themselves, but forbid God to do so. But why would a fundamentalist, or anyone else, use such language? Imprecise language usually occurs in little conversational groups in which altruistic relationships are being built, often using humor as a thickener. (I’m not sure that metaphor worked.)

At least scientists have a reason for insisting on literally precise language. We need it in order to understand the actual mechanisms that are occurring in nature. But once we have done this, why don’t we relax a little?

So when fundamentalists insist on literalistic Biblical language, or scientists insist on precise language even after hours, all I can say is, go ahead and enjoy the flowers, even the ones in the family Asteraceae that aren’t really flowers.

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