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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: It was probably a mistake of me to make this specific case so big a part of the discussion. Tried changing some of the wording to make it more about the larger issue of definitions and arguing semantics, and less about whether or not we were apes.

    Please let me know if you have any feedback on how I can improve the original post!
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      Mar 23 2012: I knew your description was more leading towards another issue, but very intriguing topic none-the-less. Thanks for changing the title, but it was pretty funny, which made me curious. =)
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        Mar 24 2012: Hehe, yeah. A specific issue is good for getting people interested, but when it's controversial, there's a risk it'll drown out the larger conversation (as, indeed, I'd argue the case is in the example; the controversial semantics issue drowns out the larger issue of the veracity, extent and fine details of evolution).

        Made another edit today and reduced emphasis on specific arguments against Kohlmayer's assertion that we're not apes; don't want to risk contaminating the discussion with too many of my own opinions on that specific matter.

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