The Downside of Language


October 2012
Ivan Obolensky


Sometimes we see what we want to see. Even science can make this mistake.

In the mid-19th century, Gregor Mendel (Abbot of St. Thomas’s Abbey in Brno and the father of modern genetics) working with pea plants, noted that discrete traits were inherited from parent organisms. Offspring of his pea plants had either wrinkled or smooth pods, not a blending of both.

The biological entity responsible for these specific traits was later termed a “gene”.

At around the same time, the German biologist Walther Fleming investigated cell division in salamanders, using a microscope and various staining techniques. The dyes he used emphasized parts of the nucleus, some of which showed up as purple strands. In 1888 his colleague, Heinrich Waldeyer-Hartz, coined the term “chromosome” to give these filaments a name. The word comes from the Greek chromo, meaning color.

Later in 1902, Walter Sutton, an American geneticist, and Theodor Boveri, another German biologist (both working independently) discovered the Chromosome Theory of Inheritance which identified chromosomes as the carriers of genetic material, which still later was found to be made up of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.

In 1924 the American zoologist Theophilus Painter, observed and counted the number of human chromosomes. He counted twenty-four pairs. Others performed similar observations and counted twenty-four pairs as well. This number had to be correct because it was thought men and women contributed an equal number of chromosomes to each offspring. The idea that humans had twenty-four pairs of chromosomes remained an undisputed fact for thirty years until 1955, when Joe Hin Tjio (working in Sweden) and the Swedish biologist Albert Levan, co-authored a paper that conclusively showed that the number was actually twenty-three. The idea of twenty-four chromosome pairs had become so ingrained that some textbooks even stated there were twenty-four with accompanying photographs. Later examination of the same images showed clearly there were only twenty-three. 1

As if that wasn’t unsettling enough, in the early 1930s through the 1940s, measurements of the speed of light by accredited laboratories changed. Statistical error calculations for the cluster of measurements made between 1930 and 1940 show that the results were all significantly low and were not simply due to statistical fluctuations.2 I recall the head of the Physics Department at Kings College University of London explaining that this anomaly came to the fore only when newly developed radar-controlled guns (calibrated based on these figures) could not hit the broad side of a barn. He blamed the Americans.

These kinds of errors happen even though humans have extraordinary amounts neurons dedicated to perception.

One way to estimate how much brain power has been invested in areas like vision, balance, language, or memory is to assess how easy it is to use the function. The easier it is to use, the more neural resources have been developed and allocated toward it.

One of the many attributes of language is that we name things. In order to communicate about it, it is necessary to identify it using a name. We know that a large part of brain resources are allocated to this type of function because it is remarkably easy to do. Although highly developed, this ability can have unintended consequences in the area of biases, or in seeing only what we want to see.

Lest one thinks this applies only as a generality, seeing what is imaginary is something we do daily. The optic nerve plugs into the back of the eyeball. At this location there is a lack of photo receptor cells. This creates a blind spot, called a scotoma. The brain has to interpolate the area of no vision using surrounding detail as well as data from the other eye. The amount of resources used is large even to the point of having a thin film of neurons comparable to a small super computer processing the information. We make up a significant part of what we see all the time.3

A consequence of our language facility and its naming ability is that it is not often easy to tell the difference between what we imagine we see and what really exists because the facility is so automatic. A simple example is to look at two objects and see “two” objects. Does the universe recognize there are “two” objects? No. We do. We see “two” objects. The idea of “two” comes from us. See how easy that is?

We look at the world through vision of our own making and interpretation and not necessarily at what is intrinsic to the universe, itself. But finding out and acknowledging what is not open to interpretation is not always easy.

When Einstein was working on his General Relativity Theory, one of the questions he asked was: how is space curved? If the presence of mass curves space, how much curvature is intrinsic in space itself (for instance the curvature created by the presence of the sun alone) and how much is the result of an added mass curving the space around itself (as in the case of Mercury revolving around the sun)?

Secondly, how does one detect if there is any curvature of space in the first place?

One method is to imagine a universe like ours as a surface like that of an ocean.

If we are free to move outside a surface, we simply move farther and farther away until we can see that the surface is curved. If we are stuck inside a surface like we are in this one, we have to use other techniques. One is called parallel transport.

Imagine one is at a point where the equator and the Greenwich Meridian (zero degrees longitude) meet. For visualization, this point is somewhere off the West coast of Africa. One has a pointer that will remain parallel to the surface (as if it is stuck inside it just like us) but with the added characteristic of pointing in a single direction as much as possible; North in this case. Suppose we move up through London to the North Pole. At the pole, the pointer is parallel to the surface and pointing along the 180-degree meridian. If we were to continue the journey, we would intercept the Equator again but be pointing south at the opposite point to our start point. Instead we decide to move down the 90-degree meridian to our left while keeping the pointer pointing in the same direction we had at the North Pole until we intercept the equator. This will be somewhere off the west coast of South America. When we finish this movement our pointer is pointing west along the Equator. Next we decide to travel East until we intercept the point where we started. What is our pointer doing? It is still pointing West. Interestingly, our pointer has shifted 90 degrees counter clockwise from when we started.

The shifting of the arrow’s direction as we trace out a large triangle is due to the curvature of the Earth’s surface, an intrinsic part of the geometry of living on a sphere. It is independent of the viewer.4

Much of what we think we see and experience is not necessarily intrinsic to the world we live in but our own constructs. We consider them as real as those things that are intrinsic to the world that exists outside them.

Take economics. If we consider money and energy one and the same, we can see similarities but there are few other parallels between the real world and the one constructed under the framework of economics. This does not mean the constructs are any less real. Stock markets exist. Politics exists. So do government and taxes. But does the universe tax? Does it require elections? These ideas are to a large extent a consequence of our language facility and its neural resources harnessed to imagine, name, manipulate, and interpret. Is it any wonder that these areas are often those where we have the most trouble?

Much of what we consider to be education is simply our own interpretation and views of the world (or the enforced views of others) as to what should be considered useful or preparatory to life against a background of economics, markets, government, and acceptable social behavior.

Language, and our use of it, in this sense is both a blessing and a curse. We are able to create constructs out of our imagination. Our difficulty is that we believe them, say they define our realities and insist they behave like the physical world in which they seem to exist. They don’t always do so. Markets implode. Societies fracture. Our education leaves us ill prepared.

One has to be aware, on an ongoing basis, of the difference between what is intrinsic to the world in which we live and what interpretations we assign and specify, in order to be able to be truly successful. Living well is living and observing what is. It takes practice.


1 Ridley, M. (2000). Genome, the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. New York , NY: Harper Perennial
2 Kammen, D. M., & Hassenzahl D. M. (1999). Should We Risk It? Exploring Environmental, Health, and Technological Problem Solving. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
3 Hall, J. S. (2007). Beyond AI, Creating the Conscience of the Machine. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books
4 Jagerman, L. S. (2001). The Mathematics of Relativity for the Rest of Us. Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing

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© 2012 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

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