Darwin and the Linguistic Image

(Another review that was published a few years back, in this case in Isis in 2001Alter’s book is still in print and still worth reading.)

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was written in a vivid style and, as such, is frequently studied as much as literature as scientific text. Particularly notable is Darwin’s use of analogy and metaphor. In the work under review, Stephen G. Alter focuses on two of Darwin’s literary devices – the metaphor of the tree and the analogy between languages and species – and in so doing demonstrates how both the supporters and opponents of transmutation used ideas and images from linguistics to present their case.

Central to this discussion is the analogy between the development of languages and that of species, one that was readily accepted by such Victorian scientists and philosophers as William Whewell, Charles Lyell and John F.W. Herschel. Prior to Darwin’s publication, it was widely held that one could study the past development of languages by accepting Lyellian actualism and Herschel’s vera causae. Thus, language development was seen as a slow process in which the present was indeed the key to the past, and researchers were able to clearly test retrodictions despite the presence of incomplete data. What was soon realized (by Darwin, among others) is that the widespread acceptance of such a naturalistic mechanism of language development allied with its clearly successful methodology, logically implied that people should accept a naturalistic mechanism of species formation.

As Alter documents, subsequent years – at least up until 1917 – saw naturalists using this analogy for support. Interestingly, this was a two-way street. The philologist Max Müller would, in 1861, speak of a “science of language,” and the obvious similarities between the goals of the philologists and naturalists allowed the former to use the analogy as a rhetorical tool while seeking to formalize their field. Even more explicit is the “networking” between both groups – specifically the interactions between the naturalists T.H. Huxley & E. Haeckel, and the philologists, F.W. Farrar, and A. Schleicher. Schleicher in particular felt that biology and philology were undergoing a form of convergence, and he explicitly highlighted the similarity between linguistic and phylogenetic trees, a message that was not lost on Haeckel. In 1863, Schleicher would write The Darwinian Theory and Linguistic Science, which Haeckel would apparently send to Huxley with the hope of it being encountered by Darwin. Clearly, the two groups were engaged in a symbiotic relationship.

It is interesting to note that in more recent times, philosopher of science Robert Pennock has used similar linguistic arguments in his work Tower of Babel (MIT Press, 1999). In this powerful and accessible critique of Intelligent Design as espoused by such critics of evolutionary thought as lawyer Phillip Johnson, Pennock shows how the arguments used over 150 years ago still hold strength in illustrating the strong, positive case for evolution by natural selection.

The above can only scratch the surface of this thought-provoking book – omitted, for example, is Alter’s extended discussions of the influence of polygenism on rejection of common linguistic descent. Alter has written a highly readable work that usefully demonstrates that the gap between the sciences and humanities was not always as wide as some people wish it to be. He is to be congratulated in writing a book that will prove enlightening to historians of biology and linguistics alike and this reviewer highly recommends it to both groups, if only because (as Alter shows) intellectual cross-pollination has many advantages.

Alter, Stephen G. Darwinism and the Linguistic Image: Language, Race, and Natural Theology in the Nineteenth Century. (New Studies in American Intellectual and Cultural History.) xvi + 193 pp., illus., figs., bibl., index. Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. $39. [Pbk, $25, 2002; link]

About John M. Lynch

teacher, historian, biologist, beer snob. not necessarily in that order.
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