In a perspective article published in the July 4, 2003 issue of the journal Science, Arizona State University biologists and historians of science Matthew Chew and Manfred Laubichler discuss a fundamental problem in the science of ecology – its use of metaphorical language.
In the process, they are asking a question that has even greater consequences: can the way scientists communicate their findings warp or even dangerously mislead our perspective on science's meaning?
Chew and Laubichler argue that scientists' pervasive use of metaphors to encapsulate and express scientific ideas (for example, the use of literary metaphors such as "translation," "editing," "reading" for describing molecular processes), while necessary and powerful, also can carry with it the danger of adding false or misleading connotations to the concepts. The article, entitled "Natural Enemies – Metaphor or Misconception?" focuses in particular on ecological science and its use of war and conflict metaphors to describe ecological dynamics involving introduced species.
In particular, the authors were struck by the pervasive and often casual use of the metaphorical phrase "natural enemies" to describe predator/prey and other similar inter-species ecological relationships. Though the metaphor is limited in its accuracy and carries with it unscientific connotations of conflict and antagonism, Laubichler notes that it is heavily used in ecological literature, often without explanation or definition.
"Though we didn't expect the term to be common, in the last four years we found about 60 references to 'natural enemies' in Science and Nature alone," Laubichler said. "It's a use of language that I find highly problematic. A scientist first uses 'natural enemies' as a metaphor for a particular ecological interaction but then it gets used in a different context and it doesn't take long for the idea to take hold that the category "natural enemy" actually exists out there in nature, which is utterly nonsense."
"Scientists claim that they are continually misunderstood, but we should examine how much they contribute to potential misunderstanding. Using this as an example, it seems disingenuous for them to complain."
In the article, the authors note that ecology is filled with terms derived from human social interaction: "many, if not most ecological concepts reflected familiar cultural experience. Terms such as alien, assembly, cascade, colonize, community, competition, consumption, contest, defense, disturbance, efficiency, enemy, equilibrium, flow, founder, gradient, hierarchy, interaction, invasive, native, niche, node, productivity, sink, source, stability, succession, territory, web are all commonly used to define and communicate ecological ideas among specialists. They have gained at least tacit acceptance by authors, reviewers, editors, and readers of the scientific literature, who no longer question their metaphorical origins…"
In particular, Laubichler objects to the overly rhetorical use of metaphors of human conflict because they add a strong bias to scientific discussions.
"When ecology uses metaphors that are drawn particularly from the social experiences of warfare and strife and conflict, it becomes problematic. In some cases the rhetoric in ecology is such that if you translate some of the speeches of Goebbels – where he was being general and not talking just about Jews -- you could almost publish it as an ecological treatise and everyone would agree that it is a very reasonable statement about the problem of invasive species. The metaphors are rhetorical to that level, and it is very frightening to me," he said.
Weighted down by descriptive metaphors laden with such emotional connotations, the language of ecology has become culturally biased and is drawing scientists and the public towards views that may be at odds with fundamental biological principles.
"The kind of rhetoric that is used in the context of invasive species is completely ghastly. No one thinks very much about what all the metaphors mean. Haven't species moved around the globe all the time? Isn't it a prime example of evolution at work when a 'invasive' species comes in and actually out-competes a so-called 'native' species? Isn't this the competition that we teach everyone about in introductory biology that leads to adaptation?" Laubichler said. "Yet the metaphors lead us to assume that this is 'unnatural.' This can easily turn into something that gets completely out of hand."
Laubichler recognizes that the article's argument may be challenging to many ecologists, but he hopes it will spark a debate and an examination of the influence that metaphors and their cultural context have had on all of science.
"Looking at scientific metaphors is an interesting way to demonstrate how tightly interwoven the connections between science and culture are," he said. "What kind of metaphors get chosen depends heavily on current cultural and political climate. This is a serious issue that all the sciences should examine," he said.
"In this particular context it is especially interesting that one finds almost no references to 'natural allies' in the literature, yet symbiosis is also a very common ecological phenomenon. Have we become so fixated on war, that we can only perceive nature through that lens?" Laubichler and Chew wonder.
Materials provided by Arizona State University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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