October 18, 2005

scientific semantics

my evolution class is giving me problems. the first two weeks of lecture were spent describing fossil formation and geologic forces, which, frankly, bore me. somehow interspersed with that, though, were intriguing examples of speciation - complelling proofs of evolution that i wished we would study more in depth, but was unsure whether i should be taking notes on. conscequently, most of my time spent in that class has been in one way or another mostly unconscious of what is being said by the lecturer, re. sleep or complete absorbtion in a book. the other aspect of the class, a discussion section that meets once a week is also mildly consternating. we read two articles before the discussion and are expected to have thought-provoking questions about them that we will all socratically discuss. i have no objection to discussion, frankly, i am one of the more voluble people in the room, but i can't say i am terribly patient with others' opinions, when, to me they seem uninformed. and in preparation for my next discussion, tomorrow, as it may be, i am reading two articles on adaptive theories. what irritates me is not so much what the authors are saying, but how much of their arguments seem to be based on semantics. or rather, the words we use to describe phenomena perhaps hindering our understanding of such phenomena.

i will, for example, take one of richard lewonton's points in the paper adaptation and turn it to my own purposes. the word "niche" is defined as an organism's interactions with both it's organic and inorganic surroundings. it is colloquially defined as an organism's environmental "role," however. this second and more lingering definition in a way poisions our impression of the character of niches. we begin to speak of niches as occuring independantly of the organisms that fill them. such as "the niche was opportunistically filled by the xxx, which found it vacant." as if niches were rather like apartments, occupied and vacated by various species, being created or becoming extinct at intervals, and occasionally being sublet. this view is erroneous, however, as it implies that the niches are static and well-defined. but by adding new, random parameters, a creative or perverse enough mind could name dozens of unfilled niches and wonder why no organism has evolved to fill them. organisms would over the years evolve to better fit their niches, though by evolving inherently change their behavior and traits. it is pointless, then, to define a niche as an entity separate from the organism itself, or as the organism's "role," as this leads to consternating circular reasoning. describing a niche as an organism's "role" has the doubly upsetting consequence of inviting the use of a whole new set of language to adaption. organisms "evolve to fill a niche" (a phrase often encountered, unfortunately) and suddenly have self-determined fates. natural selection is suddenly given the awkward trait of sentience, as if it had an endgame in mind, suiting the species to fit in its square or round peg.

since both articles i'm reading for tomorrow introduce the potential for that sort of ambiguity of language, i'm pretty sure i'll be grinding my teeth at some point. that, and there is one girl who, in both (?) of the previous discussions, has irritated me in some way by making an irritatingly narrow-minded point. the kind of thing that makes some people go, "hmmm, yes, i wonder..." and me go, "but that's completely irrelevant to everything as it exists now!" i try very hard not to be contentious, but sometimes, that is difficult. so, my class seems like it will be full of fascinating information, that i must sift through detritus and crap to get to. but at least i sort of enjoy arguing.

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