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Felix Malmenbeck

Student , Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, Sweden


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Where does arguing semantics get us?

[EDIT: Changed things a bit to direct the conversation towards semantics, not apes.]

SUMMARY: Who really decides what words mean?
If I say humans are animals, and my friend says they're not, we're probably just relying on separate definitions of the word "animals". Who are we to say that one definition is more correct that the other?
What authorities can we appeal to? Do definitions become more or less correct by virtue of their usefulness, or by majority opinion, or by some other virtue?

The issue came up recently in an article by Vasko Kohlmayer: "Is Richard Dawkins an ape?"

In this article, Kohlmayer asserts that "Richard Dawkins is certainly is no African ape.", and proceeds to list traits that he thinks separates humans from apes.
[He actually goes a bit further than that, posing it as an argument as evolution, but that's not what I intend for this discussion to be about.]

It's not difficult to come up with counter-arguments, and indeed the discussion went on in the comments section:

"Humans are apes because A."
"No they're not because B."
"B is irrelevant."
"It's just as valid as A, because C."
"No, it's not, because D."

Several arguments were put forth, some appealing to taxonomical definitions, others appealing to authority, some appealing to emotion, some appealing to semantic relativism and some simply amounting to "I don't agree."

What I'd like to understand is... Do such discussions actually get us anywhere?
Even if one side were to convince the other, would we actually be better off as a species? When can one definition ever be said to be more "correct" than others?


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    Mar 23 2012: The only motivation for anyone to argue that humans are not apes (or animals in general) is a religious one.
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      Mar 23 2012: That certainly seems to be the case in Kohlmayer's article, but I'm sure there are many who would disagree with you. For example, anthropology professor John Hawks: http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/phylogeny/taxonomy/humans-arent-apes-2012.html

      Another person writes in a comment related to Hawks' entry:
      "I’m an organismal biologist and I am all about the monophyly of formal taxa.
      On the other hand, I think it’s kind of arrogant of biologists to insist on redefining centuries-old vernacular terms for groups of organisms to match recent advances in phylogenetic taxonomy."

      That being said, even if it were the case that the only reasons to argue against calling apes are religious, the question remains:

      Are we spending too much energy on discussing semantics?
      Are we too obsessed, perhaps, with words being used "correctly"?

      What impact do semantics really have on an argument, so long as one is conscious that there are different definitions in play?

      Certainly, there are cases where a semantic misunderstanding can lead to an erroneous argument. For example:

      "The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy - which is a fancy word for "disorder" - of a closed system will always increase over time. But I just cleaned my room with the door and windows were closed! In order words, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is wrong."

      In these cases, we need to point out to the person that the definitions they're using to make their argument don't match those which are used to state the Second Law of Thermodynamics which he uses as a starting point, and therefore his argument is not necessarily valid (and, in fact, in this case it's just plain wrong).

      The same pretty much goes for Kohlmayer's article, but the argument we should have then is not whether or not his definition is correct, but rather its significance for the conclusion he draws.
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        Mar 23 2012: OK. Let me refine my response a bit.

        Whether or not humans are apes is principally a semantic proposition. Define “ape” and “human” properly and with sufficient knowledge of our genetic ancestry we should be able to agree one way or another.

        The fact that people get so wound up with the question is due to the religious implications. Whether John Hawks’ insistence on teaching his children that we are NOT apes is based on his personal religious beliefs, I don’t know. But I do assert that he is able to make a big deal out of nothing because of the religious implications.

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