February 1, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Metaphors of Evolution

If Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like, science never metaphor it didn’t force.  The history of science is replete with examples of metaphors not only trying to explain phenomena, but actually driving scientific research.  Many times thoughtless metaphors have said more about current social values than science.
    So argued Mary Midgley, a “a freelance philosopher, specialising in moral philosophy,” in an article on New Scientist:

The trouble with metaphors is that they don’t just mirror scientific beliefs, they also shape them.  Our imagery is never just surface paint, it expresses, advertises and strengthens our preferred interpretations.  It also usually carries unconscious bias from the age we live in – and this can be tricky to ditch no matter how faulty, unless we ask ourselves how and why things go wrong, and start to talk publicly about how we should understand metaphor.

The article was developed from her book, The Solitary Self.  But did her conclusion learn the lessons of history?  Here is a short list of metaphors she found in science over the centuries:

  • Nature, the clock:  Scientists in Newton’s day envisioned the world as a mechanical clock wound up by God.
  • Nature, the billiard game:  Early atomists interpreted everything as colliding billiard-ball atoms.  Rousseau applied this to “social atomism.”
  • Nature, the war of all against all:  Thomas Hobbes’ metaphor of a war of individuals “accidentally launched a wider revolt against the notion of citizenship,” Midgley said.  “The slogan made it possible to argue later that there is no such thing as society, that we owe one another nothing.”
  • Nature, the capitalist:  Laissez-faire capitalism, Midgley argued, is an application of atomism to economics.
  • Nature, the competitor:  Spencer and Darwin used the metaphor of competition to interpret nature, although Midgley asserts that “Charles Darwin actually hated much of it, flatly rejecting the crude, direct application of natural selection to social policies.”  Whether or not his emotions against competition were derived from science or from his cultural milieu is another question.
  • Nature as selfish genes:  “Evolution has been the most glaring example of the thoughtless use of metaphor over the past 30 years, with the selfish/war metaphors dominating and defining the landscape so completely it becomes hard to admit there are other ways of conceiving it,” Midgley complained.
  • Nature as self-organization:  D’Arcy Thompson, Brian Goodwin, Steven Rose and Simon Conway Morris have worked on the metaphor of unfolding organic forms, “a kind of self-organisation within each species, which has its own logic.”  Contrary to the long-held view of nature red in tooth and claw, Goodwin has written that humans are “every bit as co-operative as we are competitive; as altruistic as we are selfish.”

So did Midgley argue that we need to rid science of metaphors?  No; she proposed new and better ones suitable for the 21st century – the language of integrated systems:

Now the old metaphors of evolution need to give way to new ones founded on integrative thinking – reasoning based on systems thinking.  This way, the work of evolution can be seen as intelligible and constructive, not as a gamble driven randomly by the forces of competition.  And if non-competitive imagery is needed, systems biologist Denis Noble has a good go at it in The Music Of Life, where he points out how natural development, not being a car, needs no single “driver” to direct it.  Symphonies, he remarks, are not caused only by a single dominant instrument nor, indeed, solely by their composer.  And developing organisms do not even need a composer: they grow, as wholes, out of vast and ancient systems which are themselves parts of nature.

She did not reveal whether she is an admirer of John Cage’s “chance music,” but his kind of music seems to be the only kind that emerges without a composer.  All other symphonies are usually composed and performed by intelligent design.  It could be argued, though, that even John Cage purposefully chose to produce his works in certain directed ways.  He had to choose to sit at a piano, for instance, and decide not to play for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, turning pages at pre-designed “movements.”  For the metaphor to work, Cage would have had to step aside and do absolutely nothing – but even that would be a choice.

Metaphors bewitch you (07/04/2003).  If Mary Midgley wants to criticize earlier scientists for imposing their social values (like competition) on nature, then how can she avoid being criticized for imagining nature to be a self-organizing system?  The next philosopher in future years could just as easily sneer at Midgley’s own misguided conceptions of nature, just as she sneered at evolutionists for being guilty of the most thoughtless uses of metaphor.
    Is it even possible for humans to perceive nature without metaphors?  If you look at the list, all of the suggested metaphors have presupposed intelligent agency: clocks, billiards, warfare, competition, selfish genes, symphonies.  Intelligence in the atomistic view is a little harder to spot, until you recognize that colliding atoms presuppose natural laws: spherical shapes, and consistent physics of collisions.  Theists draw on the metaphor of a Creator as Architect, Designer, Maker, and Overseer.  That is how God describes himself.  So if every other metaphor already presupposes intelligent agency, then theism must be the most accurate one.  Metaphors, therefore, can be true.
    If metaphors are inescapable, the symphony one is a good one.  God becomes the composer and conductor, His creatures the obedient yet skilled musicians, the instruments the capabilities, skills and talents he has endowed on his works.  The music is extended in time, with moments of tension and relaxation, periods where the listener is uncertain where the work is headed, but all working toward a planned finale.
    Remove the sheet music and the conductor, though, and you get nothing but endless tuning exercises that all sound alike.  Eventually the musicians leave and the music stops, having gone nowhere.  John Cage might be happy, but not the rest of us, who know design when we see it and hear it.  The fact that audiences vastly prefer Mozart to John Cage just might reveal something about reality.

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