Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins and Metaphor: Fit, Fitter, Fittest

Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins and Metaphor: Fit, Fitter, Fittest

Richard Dawkins is often at pains to separate coherent thought from its entanglement in unscientific metaphor, but his efforts are frequently confused by an inability to understand how metaphor works, and how inescapable it usually is. Thomas Sprat in his History of the Royal Society famously wished that natural philosophers like himself might escape what he called ‘this vicious abundance of phrase’, by which he meant primarily metaphor. But we can’t escape it, since that’s the way language works. All we can try to do is to be alert to the way in which metaphor shapes meaning and logic, often without us even noticing. We are always entitled to switch metaphors, but each metaphor will bring along a fresh set of problems in its metaphoric wake. Metaphor involves catachresis, the deforming of one figural shape into another; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, the deforming of two separate designations into one single figural mould that holds them both in a unitary shape, often involving some lively alterations to each individual component. The moon’s a balloon, we say, and our perception of both moon and balloon changes to some degree by the figuration. The moon for a moment appears to be floating out there, though we know it is actually orbiting the earth as a result of the universal law of attraction. Mandelstam in a late poem has photons balancing on an eyeball, as though the rays of light were the legs of a saltimbanque, and the eye the circus ball on which the young tumbler stands. For a single moment of perception the photons are personified, and an image from early Picasso becomes once more luminous.

Here is Dawkins in River Out of Eden:

If Nature were kind, she would at least make the minor concession of anesthetizing caterpillars before they are eaten alive from within. But Nature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering nor for it. Nature is not interested one way or the other in suffering, unless it affects the survival of DNA.

Here the fly is in amber: the more it thrashes about trying to escape, the more the viscous medium engulfs it. What has happened is that nature, distantly figured as Tellus Mater or Gaia, a mother devoted to the nurture and sustenance of her creatures, has been replaced by nature as a calculator, a scientific lab assistant, interested only in the mechanism of genetic engineering. The personification, we might note, is still feminine (as it was in Darwin), and capitalized, and the sense of an agency making decisions is still paramount. But this great personification ‘Nature’, in the shadow of Darwin’s discoveries, is a presiding agency that doesn’t actually exist at all. Darwin himself was aware that his term natural selection was misleading in precisely this way: it suggested a singular decision-maker, gathering data and making judgments, when what is actually happening is that an incalculably vast accrual of cells, flora, fauna and all their ceaselessly attenuating circumstances, between them contrive the survival of certain species, and the extinction of others. We can only speak of nature making any decisions at all here in a metaphor whose sense of singular agency misleads us with every entailed image generated. What Dawkins has done reminds one of the Grimms’ tale: the good mother having died, what’s now left is the wicked stepmother who is more than happy to leave us alone in the wood, where the hungry creatures roam. Meanwhile, she herself is off back home to count the money and check the larder.

Dawkins has invented his own metaphor and called it a meme, formed from the Greek word for imitation which also gives us mimesis. A meme is, as he puts it in his book Selfish Gene (the title is itself simultaneously a metaphor and a polemic): ‘…a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation…Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.’ And very famously, another example of a meme, a pernicious one according to Dawkins, is any notion of God in any religious tradition. Now it is hard to read that idea published in 1976 without also thinking of Rupert Sheldrake’s notion of morphic resonance, published subsequently. This also tried to follow the ways in which a new discovery amongst animals or humans passes with viral speed through the passages of communication, whether the subsequent developments be deemed good or bad.

Dawkins’ notion that pernicious memes move with viral speed through the minds and customs of humanity was anticipated three centuries before by Thomas Browne in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a work devoted to examining how false beliefs can exert an extraordinary force over human beings, by a variety of means. Dawkins revisits the same ground with his notion of the meme, and the viral transmission of deluded notions.

But he does often appear insensitive to the way in which any metaphor shapes and directs thought. His anthropomorphized gene in its miniature Hobbesian world, or his virally structured meme, are neither of them neutral or transparent ways of viewing reality; the reality being viewed here is constructed in language even as it comes into the field of vision. As Niels Bohr remarked many times, in regard to any scientific deduction and its transmission: ‘We are suspended in language.’ This suspension imposes its own conditions. Lewis Carroll had an acute sense of this shaping power of figuration in words. Take his passage in Alice in Wonderland where the White King asks Alice what she can see on the road, and she says she sees nobody. The king remarks on the astonishing eyesight of the girl, to be able to see nobody in such poor light, when he would be hard put even to see any actual people. Later the king speaks disparagingly of the messenger’s speed, and the messenger says: ‘Nobody is faster than I am.’ The king replies that this is patent nonsense. If nobody had been faster, then he would surely have got here before the messenger.

Despite the splendid whimsicality, there is a serious point being made here which seems often to escape Dawkins; it might also sometimes have escaped Freud when he stopped talking about unconscious processes and started talking instead about the Unconscious. ‘Nobody’ in Alice has become a metaphor of the infinite number of those who do not exist. And this nobody, this metaphor which is effectively the anti-matter of humanity, then becomes a subject strutting around in our sentences. Lewis Carroll is aware of this metaphoric substitution: ‘nobody’ ends up with a life of his own, this non-entity striding about in our language, demanding that a space open up in grammar to accommodate him, creating a slipstream in his own lexical wake.

Darwin himself was deeply troubled by the potency of metaphor in his writings, in a way that Dawkins himself seems often not to be. The former kept fiddling with his formulations between editions of The Origin of Species, as Gillian Beer has shown by a detailed analysis in Darwin’s Plots. In the third edition Darwin troubles himself over natural selection: ‘In the literal sense of the word, no doubt, natural selection is a misnomer…’ Which is to say that its effect in his scientific prose needs to be understood as that of a metaphor, which conjures out of a mountain of statistics a single informed agency making intelligent decisions. We seem to have displaced God, only to smuggle in the goddess of natural selection in his place. In the first edition Darwin speaks of natural selection ‘...daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest…’ Troubled subsequently by how misleading this personification is, he points out in a later edition that this should obviously be read as a metaphor.

Those who are fittest for survival escape extinction. That was the burden of Darwin’s observations, over many decades. Nature is extravagant in its production of life (and there is a constant tension in Darwin between the words production and creation), and that extravagance is curtailed, cut down, ordered into the fierce logic of a universal competition for resources, by the unsentimental operation of natural selection. Language (to employ another personification) promptly seized upon the word fit, and found new forms of linguistic survival for it. One usage of the word fit meant, and still means today, a paroxysm. This usage is summed up neatly by Johnson: ‘the hysterical disorders of women.’ And this sense appears to be toyed with by Lewis Carroll in The Hunting of the Snark, a poem which is presented to us ‘in eight fits’. But the other main usage of the word presented itself to Darwin as something appropriate, properly shaped, the sense we still retain in the phrase ‘a good fit’ or ‘that fits the bill’; the precise opposite of a square peg in a round hole. Far in the background lies the verb fitten, to be suitable. So the fitness of a species to survive translates into its ability to fit into its environmental possibilities with the greatest adaptive success. Nature, meaning all the conditions of life and all the available resources, knocks the species into shape; the image Darwin frequently employs in his work to convey this battering into survival mode is the wedge. Since the wedges seem usually to be made of wood, they can be put together as a portmanteau word to form the maiden name of his wife, Emma Wedgwood.

And so from fit to fittest. The phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’ does not appear in the first edition of The Origin in 1859. It is Herbert Spencer’s coinage for the operations of natural selection in his book Principles of Biology published five years later; then Darwin accepted the phrase and included it in the fifth edition of The Origin in 1869.

From this, relatively quickly, we have the usage by the end of the nineteenth century that if you are fit, then you are healthy. The Darwinian meaning has opened up a new tributary, from the sense of ‘fitting in to the scheme of survival’, to the notion of being in rude health. This has some curious effects. The phrase ‘fit as a fiddle’ goes back to the sixteenth century, and presumably meant then: exactly right, snugly appropriate, fitting the bill the way a violin fits under the fiddler’s chin. Post-Darwin, however, the phrase now starts to mean ‘exceptionally healthy’. So on we go, romping through the joyous pastures of physical well-being: fit as a flea; fit to kill. Then we have the notion of a woman being fit, which is to say well-endowed regarding her feminine attributes. This leads up to this late linguistic delight (listed in the OED): ‘I would choose Gillian Anderson from The X-Files, because she’s dead fit.’ What survives in this Darwinian linguistic schema isn’t always stylistic grace. Inside their tracksuits men and women are this very day working out, so as to be trim, well-toned, fit.

The shaping of language shapes thought, as it is in turn shaped by it. This we might call the ultimate burden of that shift in philosophical thinking called the linguistic turn. This mutual shaping was the great preoccupation of much of the later writings of Wittgenstein. In the Brown Book he looks at Augustine’s thoughts on time in The Confessions and points out how all of his seeming dilemmas arise from his unconscious metaphoric assumption that time is a river, bearing things towards us and then taking them away again. Nietzsche was convinced that we continue to believe in God because of grammar: all our statements have a subject commanding the predicate, and so God must presumably be the transcendent subject of every predicated life. A more richly ambiguous way of putting the matter comes from Blake on Dante’s Inferno. The place is real, said Blake, not despite the fact that it is imagined, but precisely because it is imagined. Nothing can ever be fully real that is not imagined. We cannot dispense with metaphor, but we have an obligation to be constantly alert to its force. It was also Blake who named the theological equivalent of Alice’s nobody: the great fabrication, up there in his heaven, whom the poet called Nobodaddy.

(This is an extract from Obstupefaction Etc., which is appearing in a variety of periodicals at present, including The Reader and Paraxis. More of the book can be read on Alan Wall’s website at

-- Alan Wall (30/09/2011)

Readers Comments

  1. Richard Carter, FCD says... Tuesday 10 January 2012

    I am no fan of Dawkins's 'memes', which began life as a simple analogy but, rather appropriately, got out of hand. But to compare what Dawkins says about memes with Rupert Sheldrake’s frankly ridiculous notion of 'morphic resonance' is to take things too far. Dawkins's memes require physical cultural interactions (speaking, teaching, preaching, the written word) to spread; Sheldrake's morphic resonance requires phenomena (telepathy, etc.) for which there is absolutely no evidence in the physical universe.

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