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Linguistic threats associated with metaphors about evolution

Martie Sanders

This article deals with several problems associated with metaphors commonly used for scientific concepts associated with the topic of evolution. First, a pragmatic linguistic approach is used to clarify the relationship between analogies and metaphors, about which many authors in the science-education literature express uncertainty. A “razor-wire” metaphor is then applied to discuss the linguistic risks of several metaphors describing aspects of evolution. The razor-wire metaphor expands the metaphor of the “double-edged sword”—used to describe the benefits and risks of analogies in the teaching of science—to a multi-dimensional metaphor which includes three additional linguistic problems: “paradoxical jargon” terms in science; anthropomorphism; and teleology. Thirdly, the use of metaphors by two different groups of people in the sciences (scientists and science educators) for two different purposes (scientific clarification and pedagogical clarification) is discussed, and used to illustrate that even the metaphors used by Darwin (which made his work easy reading for laypeople) were misinterpreted by some of his scientific readers. Finally, likely links between metaphors and common misconceptions about evolution are discussed in terms of two alternative frameworks identified in the research about evolution, based on the metaphors “survival of the fittest” and “adapt or die”.

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