Scientific Metaphor

In our life, we employ metaphors most often to get across complex ideas in shorthand. Say that someone is sulking like Achilles in his tent, and you have, with very few words, conveyed the image of someone who is capable making an overblown fuss about a small injury to the detriment of his larger community. But metaphors can also be expansive, complex ideas paired with other complex ideas so that we can understand the first within a framework that is perhaps more familiar to us. Thus do we speak of languages “evolving.” It’s a great metaphor to denote shifts in word/gene frequency across the generations, but it’s not exactly a one-to-one correspondence, unless we want to get into the details of comparing languages to bacteria, which can assume the words/genes of other bacteria, but then that kind of messes with our metaphors, for language “evolution” is not solely about taking loan words or the mutations that bring about new words, for there are larger structures and patterns of thought at work, too, that tend to change over longer periods of time (and how much longer will we have a subjunctive appendix?).

Scientific metaphors do not offer perfect correspondences, and indeed can be misused to drastic effect (c.f. eugenics). However, I often find myself more and more these days, as I dabble now and then with books are blogs devoted to laymen like me, employing a bit of scientific metaphor, or sometimes even rank speculation, in my thinking about the human condition. And if my habits are occasionally ill-informed, I think that my metaphors might come closer to shedding some light on certain issues than any run of biblical references (c.f. the endless recitation of Cain and Abel comparisons applied to situations of ethnic conflict).

For example, I have been contemplating our so-called liberal/conservative divide quite a lot recently, and I think it makes more sense to see these political positions as strategies for survival. Let’s imagine a specialist, a conservative animal that exploits precisely one food source. That is a survival strategy. We may well believe that it would be better if our conservative animal had a wider diet, but if this one food source is enough to maintain its population and has never proven unreliable, then it is right to maintain its eating habits and even pass them on to its offspring. The downside lies when that food source disappears for whatever reason—at that point, the animal is doomed. By contrast, let’s imagine a more liberal animal that is cosmopolitan in its own diet. This animal tries new things and is regularly rewarded, thus becoming able to expand its range. However, it is also occasionally poisoned.

So if we see these as survival strategies, then we can see that a population that manages to cultivate both habits would be one capable of surviving in the long term—that these habits constitute a dialectic. In ideal conditions, both populations of this organism will survive and thrive, but changing conditions may favor one group over the other. For example, take away the one reliable food source, and the more liberal subset of the population will still be able to subsist on other materials. Granted, exacerbate the situation enough, and speciation may well occur, with the two populations branching off into different groups, but so long as that does not happen, our species can exhibit a range of behaviors that ensures its survival, as a species, well into the future.

And here is where I apply this metaphor to our current situation, because the problem is that these are both valid survival strategies contingent upon circumstances, but they have been metamorphosed in our culture into implacable ideologies. In certain conditions, there could well be validity to that idea that you cannot trust outsiders, or that some cohesive set of shared values and cultural traits is necessary to group survival, but these strategies become condition-independent in the political realm and thus transformed into tireless truths valid for now and all time (the Third Reich was to be the eternal Reich). Likewise can the belief that we must abandon all that has come before and venture forth into a new society and new ways of living take us down some dark paths, as 30 million dead Chinese in Maoist China could testify.

So how would our politics look if we acknowledged that our political divide is actually predicated upon a range of survival strategies that are valid for a range of conditions—and thus could debate whether or not present conditions warrant a return to certain tried-and-true methods, or whether we must now experiment a bit?

Of course, this would be a politics predicated upon a preference for fact, as you would need an accurate assessment of your present conditions in order to debate the direction of your social evolution. Thus, I don’t have a lot of hope for that at the moment, given that at least one ideological wing here in the United States has absolutely abandoned any pretense of fact-based politics. But it would be much more exciting, I think, to treat politics as an ongoing negotiation for our very survival as a species—because that is exactly what we are doing, whether we acknowledge it or not. And that’s not metaphorical.


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