Oops! I Wrote as Though Blogging, to a National Magazine

November 1, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

I’ve gotten used to the world of email and blogging. Back in October I read a (typically good) short article in Smithsonian Magazine about Regional American Dialects entitled “Say What?” by Ulrich Boser.
The last line quotes University of Pennsylvania linguist Bill Labov commenting on linguistic drift:

“But it’s not really like biological evolution. No linguist believes that language gets better as it changes.”

To which my mind immediately snapped: “Say What?!?” I typed a quick reply commenting on the misapplied value judgment attributed to the course of biological evolution. I got an email this week advising me that the editors will print my “letter” in the December 2006 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Oops.

My e-missive may be edited for style and content, but not as savagely as my pro-science letters to the local paper used to be, before I gave up that quixotic activity back in the 1990’s. As you may have noticed, I write in a fairly terse and compact style. Their removing words and clauses to make my letters fit a unit of column-inches did obscure — or even reverse — the meaning of almost every letter I sent them.

If you’re not bored, yet, here’s what I wrote to the editors of Smithsonian Magazine:

To: Smithsonian Editor, Letters to
Subject: Say What?

The last line of the Ulrich Boser column about American dialects, “… it’s not really like biological evolution. No linguist believes that language gets better as it changes,” had me exclaiming, “Say what!?”

Biologists don’t believe that evolution is toward something “better”. This is one of the dangerous misconceptions about evolution theories that gives Creationists strength. Language (memes) and biology (genes) both drift in arbitrary directions, then attrition or a crisis eliminates those variations that are weaker under those local circumstances.

Are blind cave lizards better than their sighted ancestors? Is “yall” better than “youse” as a replacement for the ancestral Germanic plural-you “Euch” that was completely lost in British English? Hind-sighted value judgments can be made, but the process is not toward “better” in either field.

It’s possible that this letter might pump people into DangerousIntersection.org, if readers Google me by name, especially with “evolution”. I really didn’t expect them to publish my little rant.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Evolution, Writing

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (2)

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  1. JohnJB says:

    Good point, though. Teleological language often slips almost unnoticed into descriptions of biological evolution, and it should be called out every time.

    I especially like your point that errors like that yield ground to creationists.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    You've just put your finger on why many people resist the idea of evolution. They think that evolutionists are claiming that nature "tries" to develop new "better" plants and animals without any planning, "by accident." They think that evolutionists are claiming that plants and animals simply get "better" and more complix as a matter of accident, no explanation necessary. Given that they think this, no WONDER they resist evolution.

    Yep, you're right. Organisms don't strive to improve themselves. Instead, they spray lots of variations about and some of them survive, the ones that are better adapted to do so.  It only looks like nature is has some ghostly intent to "improve" and/or become more complex.

    You post reminds me of why so many people hate evolution–it's because they don't understand it. As Richard Dawkins often says, they need to go read a good book on evolution, there are plenty of them.

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