When Biology Literature Uses Verbs and Nouns in Misleading Ways

The many biologists working to protect us from viral threats deserve our thanks and praise. But while the hands of biologists are often very useful, it seems that the pens and tongues of biologists sometimes err. Let us look at some of the cases in which mainstream biologists used verbs, nouns and adjectives in misleading ways.

The world is full of astonishingly fine-tuned organisms having mountainous degrees of organization and functional coherence. But the typical biologist maintains that all this appearance of design and purpose is just a collection of a million illusions, and that fine-tuned biological organisms appeared merely because of what they call "natural selection." Such a claim seems odd when we consider that what is called "natural selection" never occurs in regard to a biological innovation until after that innovation appears -- and you don't explain something by referring to something that happened after that thing appeared. 

Presumably the term “natural selection” refers to something that sometimes occurs in the world: the fact that sometimes fit organisms survive longer and reproduce more. We do not at all know whether "fit organisms" (in the sense of more complex and sophisticated organisms) generally tend to reproduce more than less fit organisms defined in such a way. Lowly bacteria reproduce a lot more often than complex mammals, which casts doubt on whether it is generally true that fit organisms reproduce more. Is the phrase “natural selection” an honest phrase to refer to a superior reproduction rate that more fit organisms sometimes have, or is this phrase a misleading term to refer to that thing?  

A simple and strong case can be made that the term “natural selection” is a misleading term that has no business being used in exact scientific discourse. The case can be based on the fact that strictly speaking, unconscious nature does not select things. Selection is something only done by conscious agents that make choices, and nature does no such thing. Strictly speaking, unconscious nature never chooses and never selects. 

Someone may object to the previous reasoning along these lines: “We must continue to use the term 'natural selection' so that we can have a convenient term for the fact that fit organisms reproduce more.” But such a rejoinder is not compelling, because there are two existing phrases other than “natural selection” for the claim  that fit things reproduce more. The first is the phrase “differential reproduction.” The second is the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which has long been used in an evolutionary context. So there is no need for the not-literally-correct term “natural selection,” when there are two other literally accurate phrases that express the same idea.

Let us imagine a man living in northern Canada, a man with a very dark and misanthropic attitude towards the fellow residents of his town. He tells his son that the people in his town are all bad people. But let us suppose that the man repeatedly wakes up to find that after a night of heavy snowfall depositing many inches of snow, the 10-meter stretch of sidewalk in front of his house has been shoveled. This would be an observation inconsistent with the man's opinions, for it would suggest some unseen benevolent power working for his benefit.

The man might come up with a hypothesis to try to reconcile such an observation with his dark view of his fellow man. He might claim that his front sidewalk only appeared to be shoveled, and that the effect was simply caused by a snowdrift differential: a random difference in the height of snow drifts. We can imagine the man trying this explanation on his son.

Son: Dad, look outside, it snowed all night, but our front sidewalk is all shoveled! Someone out there must like us.
Dad: No, son, that's just an example of what I call a snowdrift differential.
Son: Uh, okay, Dad … if you say so.

The son would be unlikely to believe this explanation, particularly if he woke up repeatedly to see his front sidewalk cleared after a night of heavy snowfall. But if the father wanted to sell his hypothesis in a misleading way, he might come up with a  deceptive term to describe it: the term “natural shoveling.” The father might say that wind blasts can create a digging effect that mimics shoveling, and he might call this “natural shoveling.”

We can imagine the man using this phrase on his son, and the result would probably be more successful.

Son: Dad, look outside, it snowed all night, but our front sidewalk is all shoveled! Someone out there must like us.
Dad: No, son, this is just another example of what I previously described, the effect I call “natural shoveling.”
Son: Okay, I'm sold. I guess if nature can shovel things, then our front sidewalk can get shoveled by nature.

By using this phrase “natural shoveling,” the father would probably be more successful in selling his very far-fetched idea of a natural removal of the snow piling up on his front sidewalk in the middle of a northern Canadian winter. But it would be misleading for him to use this phrase “natural shoveling,” for the simple reason that nature doesn't shovel things. Only people shovel things. A shovel is a tool used only by a human.

The biologist who uses the term “natural selection” is using language as misleading as the “natural shoveling” language used by the father in this example. Just as it is misleading to talk about “natural shoveling,” for the reason that nature never uses a shovel, it is misleading to use the phrase “natural selection,” for the reason  that unconscious nature does not select things. Only living or conscious beings (or computer programs) select things.

I may note that there are several reasons why the father in this case is quite similar to the biologist evoking “natural selection” to try to explain away the fine-tuning in biological organisms. Specifically:

  1. In both cases we have an interpretation of an observational result that is being driven or motivated by a preconceived opinion (in the father's case, that the people in his town are all bad, and in the biologist's case, that nature must be purposeless and that there cannot be some unobserved designer acting for our benefit).
  2. In both cases an inadequate idea is introduced to explain away a result strongly resembling the product of design or intentional action.
  3. In both cases, a misleading term is used to sell such a hypothesis more forcefully, “natural shoveling” being a less accurate but more forceful term than “snowdrift differentials,” and “natural selection” being a less accurate but more forceful term than “differential reproduction” or "survival of the fittest."

Observational reality The biological world is full of organisms with mountainous levels of organization and a host of fine-tuned features, resembling the products of design A man in a snowy climate repeatedly observes that his front sidewalk is mysteriously cleared of snow after a heavy snowfall
Type of person who might be irritated by the observational reality Someone wishing to believe that mankind and other species are merely the product of blind, accidental forces A grumpy  man who thinks all the people in his town are bad, and who doesn't want to believe one of them is nice enough to be repeatedly shoveling his front sidewalk
Phrase such a person might use to try to explain away the observational reality “Natural selection” “Natural shoveling”
Is it misleading to be using this phrase? Yes, because unconscious nature doesn't select things; only conscious agents (or computer programs written by conscious agents) select things Yes, because nature doesn't use shovels
What honest phrase might express a similar idea? Reproduction rate differentials, survival-of-the-fittest Snowdrift differentials

Precision is a key part of good science. A good scientist uses precise and strictly accurate terms, not terms apt to create wrong impressions. Imagine if some scientist were to be frequently referring to “black inferiority,” and were to try to justify this language use by saying that blacks do actually have an economically inferior position in American society. This “black inferiority” phrase would be a bad case of misleading phraseology, since the phrase “black inferiority” is liable to give someone the incorrect idea that blacks are morally or intellectually inferior. Just as we should scold the scientist using so misleading a phrase as “black inferiority,” we should scold the scientist using so misleading a phrase as “natural selection,” creating the incorrect impression that blind nature selects designs. If you want to refer to the lower economic status of blacks in America, use a precise phrase such as “black economic disadvantage”; and if you want to refer to the alleged superior reproduction rate of fitter organisms, use a precise phrase such as “survival of the fittest” or “differential reproduction,” rather than a phrase suggesting nature can do something (choosing) that only conscious beings can do. 

The fact that "natural selection" does not actually describe a choice or selection is why Charles Darwin wrote in 1869,  "In the literal sense of the word, no doubt, natural selection is a false term." So what on earth is such a "false term" doing at the center of biologists' speech about biological origins? 

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this about Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-founder of the theory of evolution: "Alfred Russel Wallace regularly urged Darwin to jettison the term ‘selection’ as misleadingly anthropomorphic, and substitute Herbert Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest.' " Note well the word "misleadingly" in that sentence. In the same article in that source, we read the following: "In the 1970s a number of biologists working in the fields of paleontology and systematics challenged the Neo-Darwinian dogma that you could account for ‘macro-evolution’ by means of long term extrapolation from micro-evolution."

The misleading phrase "natural selection" is only one example of the many ways in which mainstream biologists use verbs in misleading ways. Another extremely common example is that such biologists frequently make very inappropriate use of mindful-sounding actions words such as "control" and "regulate" and "coordinate" and "drive" when referring to mindless low-level chemical and physical factors, when they should be using much humbler words such as "affect" and "influence" and "limit." 

An example is the widespread use of the very inappropriate phrase "gene regulatory network." The term "regulate" means to control something. Because they are mindless low-level chemicals, genes do not control or regulate anything. Instead, genes merely influence and affect various aspects of human biology.  

Suggesting that biologists are using language inappropriately, the biologist Denis Noble has stated, "The language of neo-Darwinism and 20th century biology reflects highly reductionist philosophical and scientific viewpoints, the concepts of which are not required by the scientific discoveries themselves." The quote below in a biologist's essay suggests that there is a massive problem of biologists using verbs in an inappropriate way when describing genes:

In scientific, as well as popular descriptions today, genes 'act,' 'behave,' 'direct,' 'control,' 'design,' 'influence,' have 'effects,' are “responsible for,' are 'selfish,' and so on, as if minds of their own with designs and intentions. But at the same time, a counter-narrative is building, not from the media but from inside science itself."

Similar nonsense is spouted by biologists who attempt to attribute the embryonic development of a human being to mechanical or physical forces.  Below is some misleading language on a page selling something called "mechanobiology":
  • “In the earliest stages of development, when the tissues are still taking shape, the physical properties of the microenvironment can direct cell differentiation, and initiate the coordinated movement of groups of cells to establish the patterns that will define how the body is arranged.” This is baloney. The verbs “direct”, “initiate” and “establish” here are utterly inappropriate. The mystery of how generic stem cells differentiate to become one of 200 types of human cells is a profound unanswered mystery of biology. We know of nothing in some “physical properties of the microenvironment” that can explain any such differentiation. As “physical properties of the microenvironment” would be a mindless thing not even storing instructional information, they would have no capability to “direct,” “initiate” or establish the vast organizational arrangements needed to form specific cell types. It is all the more ludicrous to suggest that some "physical properties of the microenvironment" have some magical ability to "establish the patterns that will define how the body is arranged," an organization feat more complex than building a skyscraper (since the overall complexity of a human body is vastly greater than a skyscraper).
  • "In multicellular organisms, the developmental programs originating within a small group of cells are coordinated across entire tissues or organs through mechanical connections between neighboring cells."  We do not know of any developmental programs that can explain the progression of a human being from a fertilized egg to a large baby.  The often-made claim that DNA stores such a program (or recipe or blueprint) is false, and DNA only stores low-level chemical information. If such a fantastically complex program existed, it would be inappropriate to claim that it is "coordinated" by "mechanical connections between neighboring cells." At best we should say that development was influenced by such connections. 
  • Mechanical signals arising from the ECM directly regulate cellular functions such as proliferation, differentiation, and survival.” More baloney. "Mechanical signals" would be mindless things lacking in information, and would not have any power to regulate anything. The simple word "differentiation" in this case refers to miracles of organization (the appearance of 200 types of human cells, many being super-complex arrangements of matter that make an automobile look very simple in comparison). Such miracles of organization could not be "regulated" by mere "mechanical signals." 
The mystery of how a human is able to progress from the speck-like simplicity of a tiny fertilized egg to become a large walking talking individual is a mystery 100 miles over the heads of our biologists.  Mainstream biologists have always used the same silly trick to try to fool us into thinking they have some understanding of such a miracle of organization. Their trick is simply to take some microscopic thing (whether it be DNA or "mechanical force" or "the microenvironment") and to misleadingly use all kinds of action verbs in relation to such things, telling us that this or that microscopic thing "controls" or "regulates" or "coordinates" or "drives" this or that wonder of biological organization. Such biologists do not justify their use of such verbs, which are profoundly misleading. We know of nothing in such microscopic things that should cause us to be using such mindful-sounding words about them. 

Then we have the very frequent inaccurate claims that certain brain regions "light up" during particular mental activities, which is not at all correct. Brain regions basically do not look any different when you think or imagine or remember. The difference in signal strength under fMRI scans is typically less than 1% from one brain region to another during different types of mental activity, except for sensory cortex regions that are more actively involved when sensory activity occurs.  Such a difference is about what we would expect from random variations, like the small random variations in temperature between different organs or different parts of an organ. What happens is that neuroscientists make diagrams in which they make it look like some brain region was far more involved than some other region during some mental activity (such as representing in bright red a brain region with a less than 1% difference in signal strength), a misleading technique I have called "lying with colors."  

Besides using verbs in such misleading ways, biologists sometimes use nouns and adjectives in misleading ways. A chief example is utterly misleading sentences in which genomes or DNA are called a blueprint for the human body or a recipe for the human body. Neither genomes nor genes nor DNA are any such thing.  DNA merely contains low-level chemical information, such as the information on how to make a chemical sequence called a polypeptide chain.  As explained here and here, there is no specification in DNA or genomes or genes of how to make a human body or any organ of the body, nor do such things even have a specification of how to make any of the 200 types of cells in the human body. 

"DNA cannot be seen as the 'blueprint' for life," says Antony Jose, associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland, who says. "It is at best an overlapping and potentially scrambled list of ingredients that is used differently by different cells at different times."  That's the latest of a dozen similar quotes by biologists I have collected in this post. But I could easily make a list three times greater of biologists who have made gigantically false claims that DNA is a blueprint or recipe for making a human.  The person who tells you such a lie has misled you in a way far worse than the person who tells you that your father is someone you never met. You will not be pointed in the wrong philosophical direction if you are deluded into thinking your father was someone you never met, but you will be pointed in the wrong philosophical direction if you think you arose from a reading of a blueprint of your body stored in DNA. 

Then there are frequent claims by biologists that brains are "hard-wired" for particular behavior.  Hard-wiring is an electronics term referring to an inalterable programming. No one has discovered any type of programming in the human brain. No complex mental behavior is hard-wired in the human brain.  The term hard-wiring refers to something like the wiring in an old-fashioned TV which guaranteed that a particular movement of the dial would switch the TV to a particular channel. There is nothing in the brain that guarantees any particular complex behavior or particular complex mental states given some particular input or stimulus. 

When discussing fossils, biologists are fond of using the term "series" to refer to some set of fossils they may list to suggest some idea.  Almost always, the "series" referred to is no such thing at all. Typically the supposed "series" will be some list of fossils cherry-picked from countless thousands of fossils spanning a range of millions of years, and gathered from scattered locations across the world.  A series is a set of things coming one after the other, such as the baseball games in the World Series.  

Our biologists may also use the term "cousin" to refer to morphologically different organisms, perhaps organisms believed to have a common ancestor millions of years ago. Such language is misleading. Your cousin of the same gender is someone with the same body plan as yours, roughly the same mental capabilities, and  a recent common ancestor (you having a grandfather in common).  It is misleading indeed to be using the word "cousin" to refer to organisms with very different body plans and vastly different mental capabilities believed to have a common ancestor only in the very distant past.  But doing something such as calling chimps and humans "cousins" is only one of a host of gigantically misleading statements biologists have sometimes made trying to persuade you (for ideological reasons) that "you're just an animal" or that "animals are just like you."  A man who believes such absurd ideas may be more likely to kill someone, thinking "he's just an animal" as he pulls the trigger. 

A very common use of misleading language by biologists is to use the word "human" in reference to pre-human species that were not actually human.  For example, a recent press account uses the term "extinct human species" in refering to Homo erectus, a species which was not at all human.  The use of Homo in a species name is no justification for such a thing, such a thing being merely an arbitrary designation applied by scientists.  A species that did not use language and did not use symbols and did not make buildings cannot reasonably be referred to as "human."  

Biologists may also use the term "ancestor" in a misleading way. This week the web site of Smithsonian Magazine had an article referring to Homo naledi, a tiny-brained species dating from about 250,000 years ago. The discussion of a Homo naledi is preceded with a section header saying, "Meet our new ancestors." But Homo naledi had a brain size less than half the size of the human brain, along with some characteristics of organisms from two million years ago. So Homo naledi could not possibly have been an ancestor of humans. 

Biologists have also countless times over the past 70 years made an improper use of the term "building blocks of life."  The building blocks of organisms are cells, and the building blocks of such cells are proteins. But innumerable times low-level chemicals such as amino acids have been called "building blocks of life" in biological literature, even though such things are merely the building blocks of the building blocks (proteins) of the building blocks (cells) of organisms.  In today's science news I see that some nitrogen-bearing compounds that are unrelated to living things (and not components of any living thing) are being called "building blocks of life," which is a particularly egregious abuse of such a term.

It would seem that because of ideological motivations quite a few of our biologists are sometimes unreliable and careless in their speech, so unreliable and careless that we should subject all of the pronouncements of biologists to careful critical scrutiny, the same critical scrutiny we should apply to the words of politicians.