Friday, September 16, 2005


It’s been a great time for me and my siblings. The other day I dropped the n-bomb on my sister. No, not that n-bomb, the Nazi-bomb. Calling an American liberal a Nazi is one of the worst things you can do. I didn’t really call her a Nazi. I just pointed out that the Nazis held the same view she does. It’s a great argument technique—guilt by association. And the Nazis are the best boogey man. Any position Nazis held, no matter how benign is now suspect. Did you know the Nazis were vegetarians? Did you know they were nudists?

Anyway, my sister is having her landscape redone with “native” plants. She’s having all the “exotics” pulled out. So I pointed her toward An Evolutionary Perspective on the Concept of Native Plants by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould points out the ideological connection between nativism in botany and Nazi ideas of race and purity.

But his main point is to dissemble two arguments for native plants that are based on bad interpretations of evolutionary theory. The first argument is that native plants are the best plants adapted to their native environment. And they are naturally good where they are. The second argument is that native plants grow where they do because these environments are best suited for them. I’ll let you read Gould on why these are arguments are bad.

My sister, of course, had a different argument: We have to protect native plants that are having their environments overrun by exotics. (This argument too has echoes in the Nazi calls for Lebensraum!) Gould ends up here too.

Cherishing native plants does allow us to defend and preserve a maximal amount of local variety.
Oddly Gould doesn’t see this as a utilitarian argument. He sees preserving local variety as an esthetic goal. But you could argue that the more variety of species, the better for botanists.

In linguistics, there is a similar issue with endangered languages. Many languages are disappearing because of the dominance of “exotic” languages like English and Spanish. Linguists are keen to preserve these languages where possible and to record them where not. And often you hear the utilitarian argument. We must do this because each language can give us insight into how human languages work.

An important question in linguistics is whether there are restrictions on what are possible human languages. Some linguists used to believe that languages could differ in unlimited ways. But now it really looks like there are restrictions. Unfortunately there are only about 5,000 or so human languages in existence. And we have no idea what the range of possible human languages is. So it’s really important to test proposed universals against as many languages we can. Losing a couple hundred languages can really suck.

I’m guessing that since there are about a half a million species of beetles makes the utility argument less pressing in ecology.


emmy-loo-hoo said...
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emmy-loo-hoo said...

First, you're naughty. :)
Second, I find the argument of preservation of certain things such as languages a difficult one. Doesn't language change out of necessity? Was there a word for fire before fire was discovered? What about the wheel, or philosophy, or thermodynamics? Do we need to make sure we preserve, for instance, Latin so that we don't lose another language, when only a handful of people in the world still speak it, and it is not their first language? Change isn't all bad, right? The frantic need to keep everything as it is can tend to decay people who are not as concerned with living as they should be. That's a general "people" by the way; it's not just the fault of linguists...
Or is it?

P.S. I chose Latin because I couldn't think of any other language that is still hanging around but isn't really "in use" anymore. I do not under any circumstances believe we should get rid of Latin...I <3 Latin!

liberal elite said...

You make a good point emmy. I think we need to make a distinction between languages that essentially change into new languages (as was the case with Latin) and languages that die out due to genocide or linguistic imperialism. In the former case linguists generally don't care. But many prescriptivists do. It's that latter case that linguists and others I think are justified in being concerned.

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