Know What I Mean?

A few weeks back there was an interesting article by Natalie Angier in the science section of the Times, about a familiar word whose meaning, as it turns out, is not at all clear.

The word is “behavior”; specifically the sense of the word that applies to what living creatures do. Although there are entire academic fields that have the word in their names, it appears that just what constitutes “behavior” is rather a difficult question for even the boffins themselves to answer.

The question was brought to the floor by Daniel Levitis, a teaching assistant at Berkeley. We read:

Daniel Levitis was working as a teaching assistant for an animal behavior course at the University of California in Berkeley, and on the first day of class, the professor explained that the shorthand definition of a “behavior” is “what animals do.”

O.K., that’s the freshman-friendly definition, Mr. Levitis thought. Now how about the unabridged, professional version? What is the point-by-point definition of a behavior that behavioral biologists use when judging whether a particular facet of the natural world falls under their purview? After all, animals digest food and grow fur, yet few behavioral researchers would count such physiological and anatomical doings as behaviors.

Mr. Levitis asked the professor for the full definition of a behavior. She referred him to their textbook, with its promising title, “Animal Behavior.” To his surprise, neither that textbook nor any other reference he consulted bothered to spell it out. “It was assumed that everyone knew what the word meant,” said Mr. Levitis, who is completing his doctorate at Berkeley.

His interest piqued, Mr. Levitis investigated with a survey of professionals:

To perform their linguistic investigation, the researchers composed an online survey with two basic parts. In the first, they presented 13 “potentially diagnostic” statements about behavior, compiled from their sweep through the scientific literature, with which respondents could either concur or not. “Behavior always involves movement,” for example, and “is always an action, rather than a lack of action.” Or, “behaviors are always the actions of individuals, not groups” and “something whole individuals do, not organs or parts that make up an individual.” Or, “a developmental change is not a behavior.”

In the second part, Mr. Levitis and his co-workers offered 20 instances of natural phenomena and asked, Behavior, yea, nay or can’t say? “A sponge pumps water to gather food,” for example, or “a plant bends its leaves toward a light source” or “a beetle is swept away by a strong current.” Does a flock of geese flying in V formation count as a behavior? How about when a person decides not to do anything tomorrow in the event of rain, or when a female ant that is physiologically capable of laying eggs doesn’t do so because she’s not a queen? (If you’d like to take the survey and see how your responses compare with scientists’ and other readers’, please go to nytimes.com/science. Warning, spoilers ahead.)

Nearly all of the items were designed as borderline cases that tested the validity of one or more statements in the first half of the survey. “Flocks of geese fly in V formation,” for instance, contradicted the notion that behaviors are the actions of individuals rather than of groups. A person deciding on inactivity in the event of rain and an ant forgoing reproduction because she’s not royalty both flouted the premise that a behavior is always an action. One offering, “a spider builds a web,” contradicted none of the 13 stipulations about behavior and thus served as an experimental control.

The results showed little, if any, agreement amongst those who participated, and often evoked inconsistencies even amongst answers given by a single respondent.

If this vagueness and inconsistency of meaning is possible even with a familiar term used by professional scientists to refer to the very subject of their expertise, it seems naively optimistic to imagine that very much of human discourse consists of a meaning in one interlocutor’s mind being faithfully transferred to, and subsequently represented in, another’s.

Indeed, Mr. Levitis’s project points out that the problem runs far deeper than the failure of language to provide a reliable channel for transferring precise meanings from one mind to another; it reminds us that even within ourselves the labels and concepts that, taken together, provide the scaffolding upon which our world-picture is erected are not the solid objects, the sturdy posts and beams, we imagine them to be, but are, rather, nothing more than diffuse and amorphous nebulae of associations. Though we often imagine that language is essential to the organization of our storehouse of concepts and ideas — indeed, it is hard for us to imagine how we could have meaningful concepts at all without language to give them definite form — it begins to seem that what we have instead is a collection of familiar terms, like “behavior”, that point not to anything solid, but into a mass of clouds. And although we humans can easily — blithely, glibly — share the words, each of has his own personal cloudscape, unique and irremediably private, and available even for our own introspection only with sustained and quite unnatural effort. We do not know ourselves; we do not understand most of the things we think we know; and to imagine that we really understand anyone else must surely be little more than a comforting fantasy. We roll words around in our minds, and pass them around amongst ourselves, but really we are far more alone than we imagine.

Read the article here.

3 Comments

  1. “Know What I Mean?” No, not really . . . could you show me?

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted August 15, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, there’s the rub, of course.

    But I didn’t mean to give the impression that we can’t muddle by; obviously we do rather well — if you exclude politics, religion, much of law, most of philosophy, lovers’ quarrels, most blog posts & comments, etc.

    The problem with erratically low-fidelity media is that you never know to what extent you can rely on them, if you get what I’m saying.

    Posted August 15, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  3. It was actually a very interesting article. I read it about a week ago in the International Herald Tribune and was surprised to learn that so many scientists for so many years had been using an ill-defined term.

    But science made advances anyway, which is perhaps also an interesting point to reflect upon.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted August 15, 2009 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

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