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2007-11-20 1:02 PM
Coining New Words
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I'm on the chapter in The Stuff of Thought where Pinker talks about coining new words. In the previous chapter, on metaphor, he talked about George Lakoff and framing, pointing out the problems with boiling all thought down to metaphor and rightly mocking Orwellian proposals of Lakoff's such as renaming taxes as "membership fees".
This swath of the book got me back to thinking about a central issue with concept of evolution, and how, even though Darwin and Wallace advanced the ideas of differential survival based on particular features of the individual, our language hasn't caught up to the concepts.
I remember last semester talking to a fellow student about a book I was reading, and I mentioned something about "how the brain was designed". He immediately stopped and scolded me for talking as if the brain had been "designed". So instead of actually talking about the contents of the book, we backpedaled to a semantic discussion and I had to assure him that I meant it in a colloquial way, not implying that there had been a designer.
Basically, we are in dire need of a word, specifically a verb, which should denote the process by which the structure and order of a given entity increases by a process which doesn't not involve an agent. This doesn't just involve the products of evolution, but any change in which the structure increases and the entropy decreases. I have previously used the examples of snowflakes and beaches. Snowflakes are formed by a combination of physical forces that do not involve agency. On beaches, the motion of the water acts as a sorting algorithm to redistribute sediment based on size. In both cases, structure has increased, and no agency was involved.
I just used variants of the words "form" and "sort", but both of these have a connotation of agency. The word "emergence" is a possible candidate, but seems vague and poorly fit to the concept at hand.
Even the term "selection" evokes the presence of a selector, as in "natural selection", as if the environment has agency. The term "artificial selection" actually works reasonably well, since it refers to the process of differential survival and reproduction based on the choices of an agent, such as a farmer.
In a previous entry, I used the words "intentional structure" and "non-intentional structure" to describe the end products of each type of process, but didn't attempt to coin a verb. In the absence of a word which clearly embodies the concept of increasing structure without intent, the actual conceptualization is not only more difficult, but is more difficult to talk about, especially with people unfamiliar with the idea.
I think it is one of the reasons why Paley's shop-worn analogy of the watch on the beach has such strong appeal. I just watched the Nova special Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, which was quite good, but in it, ID proponent Steve Fuller writes the words "John Loves Mary" in the sand, and simply reiterates Paley's old argument. If you came across such a configuration, what would you estimate the likelihood of it having arisen by chance as opposed to being created by an agent?
The problem is, critics of evolution are confusing chance with lawful physical processes. Snowflakes, diamonds, galaxies, beaches, eyes, and wings don't exhibit the structure they do because of chance. Very specific non-random forces, not involving an agent of any kind, acted upon them to bring about that structure. Problem is, we don't have a good lexical element to talk about such a process.
Ideally, we should have a word that fits equally well into the following constructions:
The snowflakes xxx-ed.
The beach xxx-ed.
Wings xxx-ed to produce lift.
Mammalian brains xxx-ed to encode statistical regularities in spatio-temporal patterns.
You might say "evolve" fits just fine into the last two sentences, but the problem with using that word is that it is virtually equivalent with change. Actually, as individuals evolve, they can either increase or decrease in complexity, so in some cases there is actually not an increase in structure, but the opposite.
"Complexify" then might become a candidate, but there is nothing inherent in the word that keeps it from being used in the context of an agent-driven increase in complexity, such as "Mary complexified the experiment by adding more variables."
I'm not sure an existing construction can actually do justice to the concept, although my linguistic knowledge is pretty limited. I wonder if there are words that might capture the concept better in other language, even dead ones. If so, it might be nice to borrow such a word. If not, we probably need one, and we could come up with an entirely new construction, like "vurp" ("The snowflakes vurped" or "Human eyes vurped to perceive color").
In such a case, unlike the silly attempt to rebrand something distasteful like taxes with a nicer sounding name, we're actually trying to fill a big, gaping hole in our lexicon.
So if you want something to do over the holidays, submit ideas here. Or you can try to slip in the word "vurp" over turkey and cranberry sauce.
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