Humans are purpose seeking beings. Such a fact is nowhere more apparent than in our language. Some scientists argue that this tendency is a cause of confusion in their subject, especially when it comes to descriptions of evolution. The teleological turn of phrase is so tempting because of how much easier it is to read and understand than a dry purposeless, but more accurate, expression. ‘Wings evolved for flight’ isn’t quite right but we understand the message. I remember my chemistry teacher’s classes were replete with teleology, ions wanted to gain or lose electrons so they could balance their charge. But of course, none of us believed for a second that the atoms intended to do this. All there was to it were the blind forces of the atomic world. So it goes for evolution as our current understanding of the process is teleology free.
Richard Dawkins, who was put on this Earth to popularize evolution, is always quick to correct himself when his tongue slips to purpose. But I would argue that our linguistic short-cuts are not the primary cause of the public misunderstanding of evolution. It was Eugenie Scott who said for many people the problem behind evolution is not one of confusion, rather it’s a full understanding and disgust at the implications of it. Some of us don’t like the idea of being a ‘mere’ animal. Of course language matters but it would be a shame for us to avoid using language which can convey an idea so succinctly when it’s not to blame. Perhaps I’m being overly naïve here and we’re adding to the confusion with our lack of precision. So I’m open to debate on this one. What do you think?
Adam Kane: kanead[at]tcd.ie