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Evolution and Conservation of Meaning

kbrandall's picture

Evolution and Conservation of Meaning

by Katie Randall

In the popular science book Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Daniel C. Dennett examines the concept of evolution and its important role in biology and other seemingly unrelated fields. One topic that interested me, and that could not be fully explored in one chapter, was the evolution of meaning. In Chapter 14, Dennett argues that meaning arises through an evolutionary process. As with other sections, he makes his point through analogies and examples. The chapter mainly deals with the meanings of actions; an example related to language appears only at the end of the section. What I was most curious about, however, was the evolution of the meanings of words. Do words evolve in meaning as actions do, according to Dennett? How does this process compare to biological evolution? What are its implications?

First I had to look more closely at Dennett's theory of the evolution of meaning. I focused mostly on Dennett's second example, since his first (dealing with the “meaning” of a vending machine accepting currency) was meant only to lead up to the second example, and his third example (a thought experiment) does not have as clear a conclusion and is not as closely linked to the concept of biological evolution. In this second example, Dennett tackles the intention behind a frog's reflex to snap small moving objects (generally flies) out of the air. He proposes a hypothetical change of environment: a group of frogs is brought into a laboratory, and feed off of small food pellets flung through the air. In both cases the reflex is the same, but the result is subtly different: in the first case the frogs are seeing and eating flies, in the other food pellets. He goes on to argue that if many generations of frogs were bred in this artificial environment, frogs which could more reliably detect the pellets would be selected for. The mechanism does not change, but in the new context its trigger (its meaning) does. He claims this as part of a reoccurring theme of evolution, since “as Darwin was careful to remind us, the reuse of machinery for new purposes is one of the secrets of Mother Nature's success” (Dennett, 408). The change in function (in other words, meaning) occurs over time in response to a changed environment.

I wanted to see if this process held true for the evolution of the meaning of a word among a group of people. The Oxford English Dictionary defines connotation as “The signifying in addition; inclusion of something in the meaning of a word besides what it primarily denotes; implication.” What I wanted was to track was the changing of a word's connotation in a certain context, namely our class this term. Dennett, with his enthusiasm for analogies, invested many terms with new connotations. Some of them we found useful and kept coming back to in our discussions, but the way in which we used these terms was far from fixed.

Chapter 3 includes the first appearance of the analogy of skyhooks and cranes, which had continuing importance to our discussions. This analogy describes different ways to explain the causes of a phenomenon-- one type of explanation is classed as a skyhook, another as a crane. When Dennett first introduces the term skyhook in this analogy he gives us the dictionary definition “skyhook, orig. Aeronaut. An imaginary contrivance for attachment to the sky, an imaginary means of suspension in the sky. [Oxford English Dictionary.]” (Dennett, 74). This definition is clear and concise, but not enough for his purpose. Why? Because when Dennett uses the term “skyhook” thereafter, he is using it in a different sense-- as a stand-in for a more complicated idea. On the following page he instructs his readers “Let us understand that a skyhook is a “mind-first” force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design, and apparent design, is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless mechanicity,” (Dennett 76). Dennett is deliberately investing the term with a new connotation, and has to clarify it. This is the first step in the evolution of the connotation of “skyhook.” He can then redefine “crane” as the opposite of a skyhook, building meaning on meaning.

Our class forum for Week 5 was full of skyhooks and cranes. Students were processing the definitions, sometimes expanding on them, and using them to explore Dennett's analogy and create new ones. Could skyhooks and cranes be the same in some cases? (epeck01) Could subjectivity be seen as a crane and objectivity as a skyhook? (Jackie M.) When could the two trade places? (eawhite) The idea of a skyhook received more attention than that of crane, and was already beginning to evolve beyond Dennett's set definition. Students saw it as a more fluid category than he had intended, and perhaps as a possible or useful (rather than imaginary) construction. Our discussion and blog, like the frog's laboratory, had provided a new and different environment for this term.

On Tuesday of Week 6 we discussed the skyhook idea again, since it had clearly been selected as important and was not understood in the same way by everyone who had used it. We came up with the class definition(s) of “any element of a foundationalist story” or “any element taken as fixed, given, or eternal” or “any element that is not rooted in experience.” This was nowhere near the dictionary definition-- instead, we were pinning down the connotation that Dennett had given us. In the process, this connotation had changed. One very obvious way in which it had evolved beyond Dennett's original meaning was in the inclusion of “foundationalism,” a term which he had never used but which we knew from previous discussions.

In our last class before break we saw one final major example of how our use of “skyhook” had shifted from Dennett's. In this class, our last discussion on Dennett's ideas, (and how to move past them) we were introduced to the concept that “the brain is a crane but is capable of conceiving things that are not fully accounted for by history and acting to try and create them; it is therefore also a skyhook” (Paul Grobstein). We debated this point in the discussions on Thursday, and doubtless will continue to do so, but even addressing this argument shows that the term skyhook has moved far past its original meaning in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. This skyhook can be a crane at the same time, which Dennett would have found impossible. It is not imaginary; it is a real causal factor.

The meaning of the term skyhook definitely evolved in its new context, as in the frog example that Dennett gave. But when and why does this evolution occur? Here lies the main difference between evolving connotations and evolving uses of biological traits. The shift in meaning of the word “skyhook” was not a blind, random process. We as a class were the selective environment, but we selected with a purpose. We selected a meaning or meanings that interested us and that furthered our ongoing discussion. There were many words that we used in class, confidently and frequently, without subjecting them to this kind of definition and redefinition. The concept of a crane, for instance, was frequently invoked but barely changed at all. Why?

My theory is that the only terms which will undergo this kind of evolution are those that can be used in different ways. This also accords with the frog analogy: the shift in “meaning” of the frog's action is possible because the reflex can accomplish different results. Because of the flexibility of some words they are more likely to shift in meaning, or acquire new nuances. For instance, our class did not spend as much time testing and experimenting with the crane analogy as with the skyhook. The word “crane” conjures up a definite image in our heads. It is, by nature, a less flexible image. Additionally, words which acquire new and shifting connotations deal with a complicated and interesting idea. Because every person will have a different take on an idea (and what makes it worth discussing) words will evolve differently in every group.

That partly explains how words evolve, and which words evolve, but not why. If we had wanted to, we could easily have come up with brand new words, nonsense words, to express “something like Dennett's skyhook, but non-imaginary and more fluid.” Why recycle old terms to express changing ideas? These shifts in meaning align with Dennett's ideas about evolution in one more way. They allow us to preserve the old words and the design work that went into them in the first place, rather than coming up with something completely new. This is less work for the thinkers, and has an advantage in that the old connotations of a word (like the unused traits of a species) do not disappear overnight. If, later, we want to resurrect one of Dennett's ideas about skyhooks, it will be easy to do so. Nothing is thrown away.

Works Cited:

“connotation” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press.

Dennett. Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.


Anne Dalke's picture



this paper takes a nice “turn” from your last one, which highlighted Darwin’s careful empiricism, his “refusal to speculate groundlessly” beyond the evidence available to him, saying nothing beyond what his data “speaks.” Here you take as your explicit target that “beyond,” the additional “connotations” and implications of words, as they evolve through the selective use of humans like those in this class.

It’s a delight to see the careful way in which you spell out this process, as it applies first to the “trigger” and “function” of meaning in Dennett’s example of the feeding frog, and then in our own evolving understanding of “skyhooks.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, and writing, about the evolution of meaning. If you are interested in thinking some more about the larger implications of this sort of emergent process—which I understand as the very condition of language, of communication--that we never, EVER understand exactly what another is saying; our representations are always inexact (and since that’s what keeps the conversation going, I think it’s a good thing!), see Why Words Arise...