Talking Blorx

I have referenced a number of times how the use of language gets in our way when we are trying to understand an issue. This is especially true of philosophers almost because of their commitment to rigour rather than in spite of it. There is nothing like artificially pinning down a word or concept for divorcing it from natural usage.

Recently in a discussion involving biology someone expressed difficulty with the concept of the ‘selfish’ gene. This was not because of the genuine issue of whether it is at the level of the gene or the organism in which genes inhere that matters in selection, but rather the application of a word with an ethical cast. How can a gene be selfish, since it has no behaviour instantiated within a moral framework?

The biological question is a fairly interesting one, but frankly without addressing the issue of language there is little point in questions or answers.

On one level, of course, we can say that the use of the word ‘selfish’ here is a marketing ploy. It sounds emotive, perhaps even disturbing. On a much more relevant level we can say, well, what else should we call it? If the whole idea is that genes propagate themselves, enduring vertically down generations, and elements of their structure and function select for that propagation, there is an obvious sense in which this is down for themselves, even in the absence of a self. I’m sure the author took it as axiomatic that a reader would be able to sense the element of mild metaphor in play (see previous for metaphor).

Here we will extrapolate a general point from the specific: in this example of biology, we are dealing with an area we are not evolved to deal with. Genes are microscopic; microscopes are mere hundreds of years old, our awareness of genes even younger. It is all very new to our mesoscopic perspective, and as such dealt with at a remove, intellectually and linguistically. How utterly astonishing would it be if it turned out that the random, natural language of the community we happened to grow up in possessed an intricate and exhaustive vocabulary and syntax for describing the nature of human genetics? How baffling is it that anyone would even posit that a random natural language would have the ideal granularity to cope which a world beyond that we experience directly?

Language and human cognition are very, very closely linked. Language is a powerful tool, or set of tools. It can be adapted for new uses, and often does so via metaphor. One could write a book called ‘The Blorx Gene’ where ‘blorx’ is defined as ‘an process evinced by entities possessing functions that serve to propagate themselves in some fashion in the absence of sentience’, but rarely are we so unwieldy or helpful. We adapt a current word or concept, we extend it, and live in hope that the workings of cognition outside of language possess enough intelligence to keep us from tripping over literalism.

At least, I do. Hence the disappointment.


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