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HereSince1628 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 11:56 AM
Original message
Need some help from Humanities/Language lovers with a retirement project
Edited on Thu Apr-07-11 12:02 PM by HereSince1628
I spent my career teaching undergraduate biology courses. Now that part of my life is over and I'd like to keep my brain alive. So, Ive decided to educate myself by developing a series of outlines/essays on a topic that haunted me during my teaching yet I didn't have time to pursue: Biology As Illuminated By The Humanities. Thats a fairly ambitious topic, I know. One that a former professor at liberal arts colleges acknowledges he's not well informed enough to knock off without much additional study--but that study IS the point of this.

To get started Id like to investigate questions about language and its use in biology. I have thought of a few questions that repeatedly came up during my teaching career (shown below). If you have any suggestions for reading, or additional questions or topics that could provide humanities insights into the use of language in the science of life, I'd appreciate it your replies.

Thanks for your consideration.


Questions about biology and language that Ive thought about:

1a Is biological nomenclature natural or constructed language?

1b Is the apparent bias in biological nomenclature toward classical (Latin and Greek) and european languages (English French, and German) real or imagined?

1c Is this bias an accident or a purposeful intrusion of Western politics or other chauvinism?

1d Are sentences in 'biologese' different than standard English? Is this a response to inherent difficulties of the conceptualizations expressed or a balance to esoteric word choice?

2 Is 'Biologese' just a unique advanced vocabulary or is it the language of a unique subculture complete with social organization, accepted beliefs and taboos?

3a Is there such a thing as a biological argument/rhetoric?
3b Are there 'gold' standards that can be used to judge 'good' biological rhetoric.

4a Does an empirical biology have relevance to post-modernists?
4b Do species exist in nature, can we know?

5 Are the categories of biological hierarchies simply human constructions?

6 Is it possible to read the story of LIFE?
6b Is there such a thing as biological narratives?
6c Do these narratives have patterns in thesis or plot?
6d Are the expected narratives of biology enforced by members of the discipline?
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Jim__ Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-12-11 04:30 PM
Response to Original message
1. I don't know enough to answer your questions, and I don't know how much research you've done.
But, if you're just starting, wiki has some information that might be helpful.
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HereSince1628 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Apr-16-11 09:00 AM
Response to Reply #1
2. About whether biologese is a natural language, or not...
Edited on Sat Apr-16-11 09:10 AM by HereSince1628
Typically, constructed languages are often seen to be associated with mathematics and logic.

Natural language, aka 'ordinary' language, is language that arises without premeditation, and is used in ordinary communication as speech or writing.

Many of the sciences have formal review panels for taxonomic nomenclature...which are actually boards of review for correcting problems with names of organisms. Many technical problems can arise and these panels meet once or twice a decade to resolve issues such as one animal that has two or more scientific names, or an animal for which there is a name but no evidence of existence (known as the problem nomem nudem). They have created formal rules of how names can and cannot be formed. There is one for Botany, Zoology, and Microbiology.

The question I'm interested in from a Humanities point of view is whether the growth of Biologese (whether it be names of organisms or names of parts or even processes) fits into natural language, or if it is constructed.

The terminology is after all used in communication within a native tongue. Despite all arguments to the contrary, although scientific names of organisms are universal in biology, other terminology--such as names of anatomical parts--is _not_. These terms and phrases often reflect both the dominant language of biology (currently English, but once arguably French and Latin) and the native language when the communication was made.

In any language, Biologese is clearly a deliberately constructed and is derived from previous language. I think Everyone would accept that it is at least academically advanced language. But does it move beyond 'ordinary' language? Terms are 'coined' with great regularity, and in English version of Biologese, there has frequently been premeditated use of Latin and Greek word roots and stems to create these words (consider for example the adjective allochthanous). This construction of words from classical word stems isn't completely universal or shared in all fields of biology--in molecular biology and ultrastructure you can have 'hairpin' DNA and 'bottle brush' chromosomes.

Does this coining amount to construction, or is the need to create words to communicate special ideas natural thing? Words in biologese are ruled by empirical realities and can only take on certain verbs and modifiers. These uses constrain the language to conform to what is percieved to be part of the arguably knowable realities that biologist think of as an objectively available empirical biotic realm? Do the constraints on word choice and word associations move Biologese toward logic rules more typical of constructed language?

I know, not a very practical question. Certainly a question about linguistics that has a humanities bend that would not be taken up by the field of biology per se.

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