March 28, 2009

Cyborgs and Metaphorology: Mapping Technology onto Biology

(Words: ~2802)
How is human cognition structured? One intriguing answer comes from the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In their two co-authored books, published in 1980 and 1999, Lakoff/Johnson argue that human cognition is metaphorical in structure--that is, most (but not all) thinking involves mapping concepts from more familiar domains of experience to less familiar ones. Such conceptual mappings are what Lakoff/Johnson call "conceptual metaphors," itself a metaphorical term. (Indeed, as Steven Pinker notes, this theory is based on a “metaphor metaphor” pleonasm.) Thus, the Lakoff /Johnson conception of metaphor contrasts with traditional accounts, which universally identify language as the locus of metaphor. On this “old” view, metaphors are false propositions, although they may prove fecund for the imagination, stimulating one to think about concepts in new and original ways. Rather than focusing on language, though, Lakoff/Johnson argue that metaphors in language are merely external manifestations of underlying cognitive phenomena. In other words, we speak metaphorically because we think metaphorically.

In fact, when one examines human speech--both colloquial and technical, in all languages around the world--one finds it saturated with metaphor, although not of the same type. Indeed Lakoff/Johnson distinguish between a number of different kinds of metaphors, such as: (i) metaphors that map an orientation onto a target domain, (ii) metaphors that confer entityhood to objects in a domain, and (iii) metaphors that map structure from one domain to another. These are, respectively, orientational metaphors, ontological metaphors, and structural metaphors. Now, consider the following quotidian statements, the metaphoricity of which few would normally notice:

--"They greeted me warmly" (based on AFFECTION IS WARMTH)
--"Tomorrow is a big day" (based on IMPORTANT IS BIG)
--"I'm feeling up today" (based on HAPPY IS UP)
--"We've been close for years, but we're beginning to drift apart" (based on INTIMACY IS CLOSENESS)
--"This movie stinks" (based on BAD IS STINKY)
--"She's weighed down by responsibilities" (based on DIFFICULTIES ARE BURDENS)
--"Prices are high" (based on MORE IS UP)
--"Are tomatoes in the fruit or vegetable category?" (based on CATEGORIES ARE CONTAINERS)
--"These colors aren't quite the same, but they're close" (based on SIMILARITY IS CLOSENESS)
--"John's intelligence goes way beyond Bill's" (based on LINEAR SCALES ARE PATHS)
--"How do the pieces of this theory fit together?" (based on ORGANIZATION IS PHYSICAL STRUCTURE)
--"Support your local charities" (based on HELP IS SUPPORT)
... and so on.

With such examples (Lakoff/Johnson give many more), the Necker cube begins to switch--in Kuhnian fashion--toward a new "way of seeing" human language and thought as fundamentally structured by metaphor. But this is just a synchronic look at metaphor and language (we examine language because language is our primary source of empirical evidence for the existence of conceptual metaphors); what about a diachronic perspective? What can history tell us about conceptual metaphor theory? As Lakoff/Johnson point out, a major source of corroborative evidence for their approach comes from distinct patterns of "historical semantic change." Indeed, in her dissertation--written under Lakoff at Berkeley and later published as a book in 1990--Eve Sweetser argues that human languages, stretching across cultural space and time, evince similar or identical etymological patterns. For example, words initially used to denote the activity of physical manipulation consistently acquired (usually through an intermediate stage of polysemy) meanings relating to mental manipulation. For example, when we "comprehend" a thought, we etymologically grasp it by the mind. The same goes for vision and mentation, the latter of which is often understood as a kind of seeing (thus, we have the words 'elucidate', 'obscure', 'enlighten', 'benighted', 'transparent', 'opaque', etc.). According to Sweetser, such repeated patterns of change in different parts of the world, and at different times throughout history, stand as further evidence that the Lakoff/Johnson theory is robust (to speak metaphorically, of course).

Now, a second diachronic perspective concerns biological evolution. This angle too supports Lakoff/Johnson's thesis that human cognition is metaphorically structured. Consider, for example, the following passage from Richard Dawkins:

The way we see the world, and the reason why we find some things intuitively easy to grasp and others hard, is that our brains are themselves evolved organs: on-board computers, evolved to help us survive in a world--I shall use the name Middle World--where the objects that mattered to our survival were neither very large nor very small; a world where things either stood still or moved slowly compared with the speed of light; and where the very improbable could safely be treated as impossible.

Thus, on the Lakoff/Johnson view, humans evolved cognitive mapping mechanisms that allow(ed) us to understand less familiar, abstract or poorly delineated domains of thought/experience in terms of more familiar, concrete, or better delineated domains. In other words, we evolved to our highly circumscribed, mesoscopic "Middle World," and yet we succeed in understanding abstracta at the most micro- and macro-scopic levels of reality. Indeed, as this suggests, metaphor does not just structure our thinking about ordinary, quotidian matters, but the most abstruse, theoretical issues as well. It is of course true that humans use the same brains for both activities. Thus, following Lakoff/Johnson, Theodore Brown argues that Lakoff/Johnson-style metaphors form the conceptual foundations of science. For example, Brown claims that modern chemistry is based (in part) on the metaphor that ATOMS ARE CLOUDS OF NEGATIVE CHARGE SURROUNDING A POSITIVE CENTER. And, similarly, the cognitive metaphorologist Geraldine Van Rijn-van Tongeren argues that modern genetics is based on the metaphor GENOMES ARE TEXTS, given the systematic multiplicity of polysemous textual terms in the lexis of genetics--e.g., 'transcribe', 'translate', 'palindrome', 'reading frame', 'primer', etc.

Now, let's examine the extent to which our modern thinking, both inside and outside of academic biology, is structured by the metaphor ORGANISMS ARE ARTIFACTS. The hypothesis here considered--that the metaphorical mapping of ARTIFACT ORGANISM lies at the conceptual foundations of modern biology, and even informs our pre-theoretic conception of living mater--constitutes nothing more than incipient theorization. Thus, I do not necessarily accept the conclusions arrived at, and indeed there is much to be ambivalent (and excited) about in Lakoff/Johnson's cognitivist metaphorology. Still, looking at biology from this particular angle, I believe, is a worthwhile intellectual endeavor.

To begin, philosophers and biologists have long noted a persistent and rather common metaphorization of organisms as artifacts in modern evolutionary biology. Tim Lewens, for example, uses the term “artifact analogy” to denote this mapping; but Lewens' account treats the analogy (or metaphor) as a purely linguistic, rather than cognitive, phenomenon. (He explicitly adopts Donald Davidson's conception of metaphor.) Indeed, no philosopher has yet provided a detailed interpretation of this organism/artifacts metaphor using Lakoff/Johnson's apparatus, although some, like Michael Ruse, do mention it. This is precisely what I want to do. Now, as alluded to above, there are several distinct phenomena, along both the synchronic and diachronic axis, that one could examine for evidence for/against hypotheses about particular conceptual mappings. In the following paragraphs, I will (i) consider historical semantic change; (ii) examine terminological polysemy and identify other metaphors in biology that systematically cohere with the ORGANISMS ARE ORGANISMS mapping; and finally (iii) I will suggest a possible link between this metaphor and other phenomena discussed outside of biology, such as Langdon Winner's notion of "reverse adaptation" and the medicalization of "deviance" and "natural life processes." (Some transhumanists actually advocate "mak[ing] 'healthy' people feel bad about themselves.")

(i) One can hardly find a more central concept in modern biology than that of the organism. Now, the term 'organism' derives from 'organ', which gives rise to a myriad of important terms in the biological sciences, such as 'organelle', 'organic', 'organization', 'superorganism', etc. But what is the etymology of 'organ'? Following Sweetser's lead, the "hidden" semantic history of this term might provide clues about underlying conceptual mappings. Indeed, 'organ' has both Latin (organum) and Greek (organon) etyma, both of which mean something like "mechanical device, tool, instrument." It appears that humans, at some point, began to see biological entities as human-made artifacts, and this conceptualization manifested itself through the semantic change of 'organ' and (eventually) 'organism', which now means "a living being." (Thus, the sentence 'organisms are artifacts' is, from the etymological point-of-view, almost an analytic truth.)

But when did this occur? Obviously, Rene Descartes proposed a mechanistic conception of the cosmos in the seventeenth century, postulating animals (which have no "mind" substance) as nothing more than machines. Laplace's "clockwork universe" concept is another example of artifactually metaphorizing the world. Later, the natural theologians--most notably William Paley--explicitly understood the universe to be an artifact, namely God's artifact, according to their "Platonic" conception of teleology. But, as Ruse and other philosopher-historians have noted, it was Charles Darwin who pushed the organism/artifact metaphor "further than anyone." That is to say, Darwin understood--in a fundamental way--"nature's parts as machines, as mechanisms, as contrivances" (to quote Ruse again).

Now, the question "When?" is important because its answer may have some bearing on the cogency of Lakoff/Johnson's metaphorology. Consider, for example, the metaphors TIME IS MONEY and TIME IS A RESOURCE. These are not universally held metaphors, by any means. Rather, they are spatiotemporally peculiar--that is, one finds them primarily in the West (space), and they first appeared with the emergence of industrial capitalism (time). And this makes sense, since Lakoff/Johnson claim only that conceptual mappings proceed unidirectionally from more to less familiar domains. Thus, as human familiarity with certain domains increases or decreases, the metaphors we use to understand abstracta will correspondingly change. In the case of ORGANISMS ARE ARTIFACTS, one finds this metaphor becoming foundational to biology right around the time of the English Industrial Revolution. That is to say, the term 'organism' acquired its modern signification circa the early nineteenth century, when the environment in which biologists were theorizing about transmutation and other evolutionary phenomena was becoming increasingly mechanized, industrialized, and cluttered with human-made artifacts. (The term 'organ' appears to have come into use slightly earlier, beginning circa Descartes' time.) Given our cognitive architecture, then, it was only natural to metaphorize organisms (not so familiar domain) as artifacts (increasingly familiar domain).

There are, indeed, many examples in Darwin's work that suggest an external--that is, extra-scientific--influence on this scientific ideas. For example, Darwin talked about "division of labor" in biology, he borrowed from Thomas Malthus' theory of population growth and, as historian Peter Bowler observes, his overall conception of nature "was more in tune with the aggressive worldview of industrial capitalism." Thus, as the source domain from which Darwin (and others) extended conceptual metaphors became increasingly "technologized," the terms 'organ' and 'organism' offered themselves as metaphorically coherent designations for biological entities. Indeed, as further evidence of the newness of 'organism' in nineteenth century biology, Darwin felt compelled to actually define it in his Glossary (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Darwin's definition of 'organism' from On the Origin of Species.

(ii) A glance through an evolutionary biology textbook reveals numerous terms that are consistent with the ORGANISMS ARE ARTIFACTS metaphor. Consider, for example, the terms 'function' and 'mechanism'. Both of these terms are associated with human-made artifacts, as technical devices have functions (in virtue of some agential intention) and are generally composed of mechanisms (which often work according to "laws" or "invariant generalizations"). But the significance of these terms in biology goes deeper than the mere terminological; indeed, the primary modes of explanation used by biologists are properly termed functional and mechanistic. In a functional explanation, one explains why a particular organismal trait is there--that is, why it exists in the first place. For example, a functional explanation of the heart involves specifying its evolutionary history, i.e., what it was naturally selected (in "modern history") to do. In contrast, in a mechanistic explanation, one explains how an aggregate of appropriately organized entities and activities act and interact to produce a phenomenon (the explanandum). For example, the phenomenon of blood circulation is mechanistically explained by the ventricles and atria, their diastolic and systolic activities, etc. (Indeed, the leading theorists of the "new mechanical philosophy" call the phenomena of mechanisms "products," and instead of discussing "causation" they prefer to talk about "productivity.")

Thus, modern biologists apply to biological explananda the exact same modes of explanation used for technological phenomena. And from this we can formulate the following two conceptual metaphors, which follow deductively from the ARTIFACT ORGANISM mapping:


One finds many more such conceptual mappings, both explicit and tacit, in the biological and philosophical literature. For example, in addition to the two metaphors above, the following metaphors appear to be rather common in biology:

...and so on.

On the present view, then, the terminology and metaphoricity of modern biology are the external, observable manifestations of a deeper underlying conceptual mapping from technology to biology. Incidentally, much of the transhumanist program is based on the notion that organisms (recall here the term's etymology) are no more metaphysically than complex artifacts, designed and engineered by the "blind watchmaker." As Dennett (who is not a transhumanist) boldly argues, evolutionists ought to accept Paley's premise that nature exhibits design; our naturalism, though, impels us to replace God with an ersatz "designer," such as natural selection. Furthermore, the view that humans can fill themselves with (e.g.) nanobots, such as "respirocytes," to carry oxygen to various organs, or that humans can "upload" their minds to a computer, is crucially based on the ORGANISMS ARE ARTIFACTS metaphor. Strong AI, for example, puts forth the artifactual metaphors that BRAINS ARE COMPUTER HARDWARE and MINDS ARE COMPUTER SOFTWARE. Thus, Strong AI reasons that just as computer software is "multiply realizable," so too are minds--the particular physical substrate is irrelevant, as long as it exhibits the proper functional organization. (Note that Jaron Lanier's critique of "cybernetic totalism" ties directly into the present discussion.) In conclusion, then, this points to the connection between cyborgs and metaphorology.

(iii) But there is also a connection, I believe, between phenomena like "reverse adaptation" and the ORGANISMS ARE ARTIFACTS metaphor. To begin, let's look at what reverse adaptation is. In Langdon Winner's words:

A subtle but comprehensive alteration takes place in the form and substance of [he] thinking and motivation [of modern humans]. Efficiency, speed, precise measurement, rationality, productivity, and technical improvement become ends in themselves applied obsessively to areas of life in which they would previously have been rejected as inappropriate.

Without a doubt, it is precisely these qualities that transhumanists identify as the properties that humans ought to possess; indeed, the entire motivation behind "enhancement" technologies is to overcome innate human limits on efficiency, speed, productivity, etc. For example, Nick Bostrom sees as undesirable "the impossibility for us current humans to visualize an [sic] 200-dimensional hypersphere or to read, with perfect recollection and understanding, every book in the Library of Congress." And the futurist Ray Kurzweil complains about (to compile a rather random list of passages that gesture at the point):

--"the very slow speed of human knowledge-sharing through language"
--our inability "to download skills and knowledge"
--the slow rate of "about one hundred meters per second for the electrochemical signals used in biological mammalian brains"
--our failure to "master all [the knowledge of our human-machine civilization]"
--the "fleeting and unreliable" ability of human beings to maintain intimate interpersonal relations (e.g., love)
--the "slow speed of our interneuronal connections [and our] fixed skull size"
--our "protein-based mechanisms [that lack] in strength and speed"
--the "profoundly limited" plasticity of the brain
...and so on.

In other words, the human organism is a technological artifact, and as such it ought to behave like one. It is no wonder, then, that behaviors and thought patterns that deviate from (what we might call) a "technological norm" are considered, through the process of medicalization, "pathological." Just as computers are expected to sit on one's desk and perform specific tasks on command, so too the corporate employee is expected to sit at one's desk and perform specific tasks on command. Psychiatry is not a value-neutral field, and the values applied to humans are, one might argue, often derived from technology.

This is my tentative thesis linking the cyborg and metaphorology. More theoretical work is required, as many of these points can be significantly elaborated. But, after all, I am only human--at least for now.