??? left a long comment on whether it might be possible to discuss evolutionary processes without resort to metaphor. I decided to inflict my response on the front page of 3B rather than leave it in comments. And yeah, it’s pretty much as wonky as it sounds.
I wonder if biology, or at least some sub-discipline within biology, could ever get to the point where metaphor is no longer used, even when explaining the science to someone unfamiliar with the field?
Metaphor has been thrown out in some pursuits, with out apology. I think mathematics is the prime example, closely followed by modern physics.
Mathematics is sort of weird in this sense. From one direction, it could be argued that mathematics is precisely the attempt to say the kinds of things that can be said without metaphor, but on the other hand, it could also be argued that mathematics is nothing but metaphor, a pile of abstractions that stands in for possible concrete relations.
The difference probably depends on how Platonically real one takes the objects of mathematics to be.
At this point, we can probably say that in the brain mathematics is necessarily metaphorical since that’s how the brain works, i.e. whatever mathematics itself “is”, what mathematicians work with is metaphor.
I suppose one could try to reconcile some of this by saying that mathematics is an attempt to strip metaphor of what usually makes metaphor imprecise and unreliable — especially those aspects arising from the nature of human language. Sort of a metaphor where all the moving parts have been accounted for.
I’m a bit puzzled as to why you say that the more usual kind of metaphor is not used to describe mathematics and fundamental physics “even when explaining the science to someone unfamiliar with the field”. As far as I’m aware, a significant part of the effort of those who write non-technical treatments of such subjects is to devise metaphors that are robust enough to convey many of the complications of the science without reference to the full, formal systematization use by the scientists themselves.
In modern quantum physics the origin of electromagnetic radiation are emission events, when an electron changes from a high energy state to a lower energy state (although there are also such changes that do not emit radiation). There is an equation that defines the probability of an emission event, in a defined field over a defined amount of time. But that is it, no metaphor, nothing intuitive there – just a probability equation.
It’s not so much that there’s no metaphor there, it’s more that physicists have long been stumped over what an accurate metaphor might be. Quantum mechanics just doesn’t work like we expect macroscopic objects to work, and many physicists have long held that eschewing metaphor is the only way to understand what we can understand about QM. Nevertheless, the metaphors are still there. The Schrödinger equation involves a “wave function”. However, this function describes the dynamics of a probability distribution. A response to this that I recall reading somewhere is, “What’s waving?”
Jump to the future–> What is the driving force of evolution? If you want to know what ‘drives’ evolution, you are screwed. It just happens, and here is the probability equation – end of story, nothing more to think about.
The thing is, evolution is pretty much a classical process. In principle, all the forces can be sorted out. It’s just that there are vast numbers of the them and individually they are usually very weak. With QM there’s a point beyond where even in principle we appear to be stuck with probability.
However, the metaphors of evolutionary biology can have a predictive force, even without an exact quantitative formula. While the adaptationist paradigm seems to have had its virtues over-hyped, I don’t think anyone has ever denied that it has provided useful heuristics for some of the characteristics organisms might be expected to have under specified conditions.
In general, I don’t think metaphor per se is the problem. As I understand it, metaphor is the main engine of how the human mind thinks and provides both the strengths and flaws of human reasoning. So we’re “stuck” with metaphor, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only bad if one expects the human mind to conform to some kind of ideal of pure reason (which has never shown much sign of happening…).
I don’t think I’m really saying much more than was in the Lewontin quote from my earlier post. Perhaps, it could be summarized: it’s not necessary (or perhaps even possible) to avoid metaphor, but rather the struggle is to be vigilant about the uses to which metaphor is put.