Darwinian Dissonance?

By Sally Morem
[Note to reader: I wrote the following short essay in response to Paul A. Dernavich's essay in which he criticized evolutionary biologists for using metaphors derived from words connotating deliberate design in the world in order to describe aspects of unplanned, unguided, evolutionary processes and their end-products--living organisms. Check out his essay here: http://iidb.infidels.org/vbb/showthread.php?t=89] I will be the first to admit that Darwinian language falls far short of what is needed to effectively convey the complex nuances of evolutionary theory to the general public. However, unlike Dernavich, I attribute most of the problem to the shortcomings of English--or, perhaps more accurately, to those of human language. Our ancestors had virtually no means of examining or parsing the wandering ways of self-organizing systems ("autopoesis," if Dernavich prefers) and this historical inexperience is reflected in our existing vocabulary. Take a pair of verbs, "design" and "evolve," and compare lists of synonyms. Here are some compiled in my copy of "Synonym Finder." Note the colorful variety of activities connotated by the former and the rather forced expressions foisted upon the latter: Design: Plan, plot, scheme, organize, arrange, contrive, devise, develop, fashion, fabricate, frame, make, effect, produce, shape, form, mold, forge, construct, build, rear, erect. (This list was derived from only one of many meanings of "design." There were many, many more evocative words listed under the other meanings.) Evolve: Develop, grow, become, turn into, become more complex, derive from, result, emerge, progress, go forward, increase, expand, snowball, produce, construct, formulate, build up, unroll, unfold, uncoil, open. We can see by comparing these lists that "design" had traditionally been used as a term for human action while "evolve" is used to describe natural tendencies. No wonder "design" gets the juicier synonyms. And even then, "evolve" is stuck with several bland terms for human action.

There is another problem with the word "evolve." In everyday language, it also means moral improvement in human beings. This meaning has nothing to do with biological evolution. For one thing, human beings are able to observe and report on claims of moral improvement in real time and form coherent opinions about them. No biologist, no matter how outré his metaphorical language, would consider doing the same in reference to biological evolution. Oh, by the way, "chaotic, self-organizing phenomena" refers to systems studied by chaos theoreticians, systems in which complex subsystems grow out of very simple rules, systems such as climate, stock market prices, respiratory systems, and river tributaries. Chaos theory provides us with some tantalizing clues as to ways in which biological evolution may work. So, commentators have to work with what they've got--which isn't a whole lot in the way of colorful, evocative words reserved to biological evolution with enough connotational potency to do the job. So they raid from the "design" list of synonyms with the resulting confusion noted by Dernavich. Perhaps as the "evolution of language" continues, scientists and writers will be able to come up with a better selection, permitting the reader to get a sense of evolution as a bundle of trends, tendencies, and emergent characteristics in organisms' lines of descent as they respond to changes in the environment. Or perhaps "design" will pick up connotations of "unplanned efficaciousness" from its continued use over a long period of time in describing evolutionary processes. Curiously enough, citizens of free societies are used to systems of unplanned efficaciousness--political, economic, and cultural systems which grow out of innumerable human actions, but little in the way of human design. Those who study cultural evolution have learned much from those who study the biological kind and may be able to contribute much in return. If so, terms such as "natural selection" will become better known for what it is, a term for the survival of the fittest lineages in a world in which "fittest" mush always change.