Friday, October 25, 2013

Agent de-emphasis and naturalism

In my previous post, I talked about three different ways in which English could be used to draw attention away from the subject of a verb - the agent that is carrying out a particular process. These are:
  • short passive verbs;
  • nominalisation;
  • ergative verbs.
I guess my aim in highlighting this is that I'd like to think that an awareness of this would become part of more people's critical thinking repertoire - "It was said..." By whom? "Research has shown..." Who did the research?

Naturalism is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, "the idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world." It says that everything in the universe is the outcome of time and chance - the universe itself has no designer; the contents of the universe (including animals and us) don't have a designer either. This is a little bit problematic, because lots of things in the universe look designed. Richard Dawkins coined the term "designoid" to refer to complex objects which are neither simple nor, he believes, designed - or rather not designed by an intelligent agent.

Another way of thinking about naturalism is to talk about telos - a word that comes from Greek, meaning "ultimate purpose or aim". The universe of the naturalist is atelic - it has no ultimate purpose or aim. Specifically, evolution, to a naturalist, is atelic. Any particular outcome of the evolutionary process - whether it's humans, multicellular life or antibiotic resistance - isn't designed, it just happens to arise.

This causes problems when it comes to language use in the context of evolutionary processes. The sort of processes that change stuff in the world are material processes. I listed the possible participants in material processes as being "actor, goal, scope, attribute, client, recipient" - with the key ones being the actor (the participant carrying out the process) and the goal (the participant affected by the process). So:
  • Sam (participant, actor) eats (process, material) some sushi (participant, goal).
But when we come to considering evolutionary processes, grammar really struggles. In Darwin's Doubt, Stephen Meyer gives examples of the way in which neo-Darwinist writers use a "word salad" to make up scientific-sounding phrases effectively as "just-so stories" to explain how evolution must have occurred. But it's worthwhile looking at these phrases from a grammar point of view as well.

Meyer gives examples of people talking about exons being "recruited" or "donated". These are short passives - remember above that the short passive is a form that allows agent de-emphasis. So, who or what is the actor associated with these processes? The same with "radical change in the structure" - here we have a nominalisation ("change") - again, the question that is begged is who or what has changed the structure? The actor can only really be "evolution":

  • exons (participant, goal) were recruited (process, material) (by evolution - participant, actor, de-emphasised)
But evolution is not allowed telos. In other contexts, people would squirm if we talked about evolution "doing" something - evolution just happens. And yet, through agent de-emphasis, we can slip in the concept of evolution as the actor in material processes.

The effect of this is that neo-Darwinism smuggles in the idea, and the categories, of purposeful, telic activity through agent de-emphasis. I would suggest that this is misleading - it is difficult to talk about evolutionary processes as being blind and purposeless: however, it's also wrong to use purposeful categories for something which has been defined as purposeless. If it is impossible to work on the basis that evolution is genuinely atelic, then maybe this belief was wrong in the first place.

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