Saturday, 26 January 2013

Word games

As a linguist, and an admirer of semioticians like Umberto Eco and Jakob von Uexküll especially, I have a healthy appreciation of the power of words insofar as to their ability to make or break ideas. Right off I want to say that I believe in the basic notions of Darwin's theory of evolution but I think there is much room for improvement. I find it unfortunate that the great man chose the words he did to convey his great masterpiece.

Firstly, he spoke mainly of the mechanisms of evolution and had very little if anything to say about how animals actually behave. This is rather like Aristotelian logic:

Socrates is a man;
all men are mortal;
Socrates is mortal

in that it says very little about the man, Socrates, and yet the formula has a tendency to be interpreted as the whole of the content and context of the man (especially when Socrates the man is long dead and unable to defend himself). Darwin's ideas are likewise taken to occur and exist in the same formula. That the ideas are couched in violence and militaristic terms compounds the problem of logic of the whole thing. Though evolution itself as a whole is undeniable, it does invite great discomfiture which makes the theory vulnerable to attack. But let's not be so hasty in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I believe had Darwin been a hunter and knew something of the behaviours of animals, his theory would have been rather more impeccable. All things being equal, he'd have realized at once that 'survival of the fittest' is a flimsy gambit at best to forward an argument as complex as a theory of evolution because the way animals behave is largely determined by aesthetics rather than violence. Aesthetically pleasing forms are a sign of health and vigor (ironically, animals with these characteristics are preferred by human hunters as much as they are preferred by potential mates). 'Natural selection' is less about violence than a matter of preference.

Before people start wondering if 'aesthetics' refers only to the visual realm, it can also refer to indicator chemicals (pheromones, pH levels, what-have-yous), seasonal and tidal cues, territorial features, even unto the amount of solar radiation. You get the idea.

Seen and interpreted 'semiotically' the Darwinian theory of evolution becomes immediately something deeper and more elegant (in a sense of Occam's razor) than what a man of European (Victorian) sensibilities would come up with. The psychological dimension has been recognized and broadened the theory. I think it was Uexküll who came up with a beautifully powerful image of a pond: to the human mind the pond is something entirely different than it is to a dragonfly which in turn is something entirely different to a frog, let's say.

Reframed in semiotics it has become an ecological argument with no need to bring up religiosity of any sort while leaving room for the 'spiritual' dimension insofar as the animal is concerned. Rather than opening up the theory to theological/sociological argumentation, it has made such things rather more unnecessary, and given it back to the psychologies of the animals themselves.

I have a deep suspicion and extreme leeriness of rightwing ideologies. That these ignorant people pervert such a great piece of scientific inquiry (that is not even completed yet) for such short-sighted and nefarious ends does not help lessen their folly in any way. Neo-nazis and amateurish neoliberal economists/sociologists have built themselves castles in the sky based on words they have no appreciation of let alone comprehend; and, for that I resent them greatly for intruding unbidden and playing upon my pity.

The tragic figure of the aging Darwin is all that much more potent. He, least of all, deserve the sadness that came to poison his great mind. In my estimation, he is a man of greatness precisely because he and Wallace udumbrated the science that was to come; their only hint of hubris was to assume the wrong terminologies.

Jay

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