Friday, November 12, 2010

Apes and Wikipedians

In a previous post I said that I wouldn't be prepared to argue with a judge about the difference in semantic scope between the use in technical, legal and general contexts of the word 'murder'. The reason is that a judge is very unlikely to see that, beyond the highly charged and specific meaning that it has in his field, it might be used by other people at other times in a rather looser sense.

This is a very common problem, as can be seen from this comment thread on the Wikipedia article 'Ape'. It's very long and it all gets very confused, they start again several times and they still haven't reached any kind of conclusion after all these years. Note that nobody, at any point, is arguing about the taxonomy of Homo sapiens, the entire dispute is about the meaning of the word 'ape'. Most of the participants assume that the way they use it is the only correct one, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is a bit stupid. At different times a couple of reasonable people, who have seen the problem, try to explain it and to mediate. They are shouted down, lose their tempers themselves, and get banned.

The debate is complicated by the fact that many of the participants have a profound horror being seen to pander to creationsim, and so will not recognise that in general use people tend to mean non-human hominoidea when they speak of 'apes'. This is a simple matter of fact, but since most of the major contributors are involved in the field of hominid research they are used to using 'ape' in an inclusive sense, and do not realize that most people don't.* Add the fear of God and they come across as rather stupid, blinkered people.

As I said, the argument is not about what humans are; it is purely about the meaning of the word 'ape'. Few of the contributors appreciate that context is everything, and no attempt is made to establish what the context actually is. Such is the absurdity that the slanging match has reached that the more benighted of them have refused even to countenance a clarification in the introduction, explaining the sense in which the word is used in the body of the article, because to recognise that some people might understand it differently might be seen as pandering to fundamentalism. In other words, the inability to see beyond their own idiolect has led to an encyclopedia article refusing to define its own name.

Specialists often fall into this trap, of not appreciating that words which to them have a technical meaning are used by others in non-technical senses. This is true even of words that were coined for specialist fields and then leak into general use, and it is much truer of words that were taken from common language are applied in particular fields to clearly defined concepts.

No, I didn't get involved in the row. I saw immediately what the problem was and that no one was going to listen however carefully I explained it.

*Even this isn't true. I'm not an expert in any relevant field, but I am a very interested amateur in palaeoanthroplogy, and I read a lot of papers by experts and specialists, researchers and academics working in the field who are fully au fait with the state of our knowledge of the origin of Homo sapiens and have absolutely no religious axe to grind. On many occasions it is possible to read the phrase 'apes and humans', or to see 'ape' used when the context clearly shows that they are excluding humans. They are quite obviously not trying to suggest that woman was made from man's rib, they are just relaxed about the whole thing and only specify more precisely when there is a need to be unambiguous.


Vincent said...

The truth of your argument was demonstrated for me after a few seconds of following your Wikipedia link, when I discovered that Barbary apes are not apes but macaques, which are monkeys and therefore not apes.

I never knew that a human is an ape but a monkey isn't.

I have always found that Wittgenstein's view on the matter cuts through the dross like a hot knife through butter: "The meaning of a word is its use in the language."

Scientists set themselves apart from the rest of humanity when they use words in their own specialised ways. I am tempted to say that they try to distinguish themselves from the other apes, but fail; and thus make monkeys of themselves.

Vincent said...

More seriously though, I concur strongly with your wise decision, when you say "No, I didn't get involved in the row. I saw immediately what the problem was and that no one was going to listen however carefully I explained it."

I have discovered this over the years in discussions with another blogger, Paul Martin, at Original Faith. Despite having studied in theological college, or perhaps because of it, he can't get over one basic stumbling block. He goes on as if the existence of a word proves that there is something in the world which corresponds to it; and that it is our important task to discover that thing and agree on what it is. Since he likes to do this with words like "Love", "Faith" and "Evil", you can see what absurdities result.

CIngram said...

Many (most) people have a feeling that words must have an intrinsic meaning that can be 'discovered' by those clever enough. Sometimes they find this meaning in the etymology of the word, sometimes in an archaic or obscure use, sometimes in a technical use, as here, or simply in an idiosyncratic use of their own. It isn't true, of course. As you say, words mean what they used to mean, no more and no less.

We don't need to get Humpty Dumptyish about it, because it isn't a question, either, of dictating meaning, simply that words are used with different meanings in different contexts, and to pretend otherwise is not only pointless and rather stupid, but impedes communication, which is the main reason for having words in the first place.

Another argument that is heard in the same comment thread is 'I asked a couple of my mates and they agree with me'. This from people who call themselves scientists. On the other hand if you quote a good dictionary, which is the product of the research of lexicographers who may sweat for months searching out thousands of uses of a word to identify common and less common shades of meaning, you will be told that it doesn't count, or that they're just wrong.

And it's rather odd that the 'Ape' article includes mention of several animals commonly called apes which are not Hominoidea, but then pretends that the only correct use of ape is to refer to all members of that (super)family.

One thing is certain; apes don't have to worry about these things.

I am tempted to say that they try to distinguish themselves from the other apes, but fail; and thus make monkeys of themselves.

It's very tempting to drop that into the article's talk page, but I shall resist.

CIngram said...

...words mean what they are used to mean...