Speak It Into Life

DNA manHere in the grand city of Hotlanta, spring is come wildly upon us. While there is much yet to show (the azaleas and dogwoods are still planning the big party), the blooming has already reached an early level of intensity, and pink trees are all over city are trying to outshout one another.

I was sitting this week in my office looking out the window, or rather the entire outer wall is glass, so I was sitting looking through the wall. Very close to the building at that point are some low evergreen bushes. At the tips of the branches, which have been a severe dark green all winter, as if the bush were going to a funeral, there are now small points of pale greenery, looking like the branches have absorbed enough sunlight to begin to glow on the ends.

Of course me with my firmly scientific mind, I looked at those tiny green buds and thought about the fact that DNA was behind this process, and I thought “DNA wants to spread itself around”.

Now, strictly speaking, the way I might regard a human being or even a squirrel, I don’t believe DNA wants anything. It’s just an incredibly complicated molecule interacting with other molecules, making proteins, doing its job… No, wait, DNA doesn’t have a job. That’s the same as saying it wants something. What’s happening is that my language is expressing an underlying way of thinking, applying a metaphor of “will” or “desire” to an inanimate object. This metaphor assumes the object either wants or does not want something.

I find I do this constantly, that it seems to be an inherent aspect of how my mind sees the world. I also assume, without really knowing, that other people’s minds work the same. If a guy is working on his car and a bolt gets stuck, after a few frustrated attempts with the small wrench, he might say “You son of a bitch, I’ll get the other wrench and your ass is coming off.”

Just who is the “son of a bitch” that he’s talking to? The mechanic is applying the same metaphor to the bolt that I used for the DNA molecule, the idea that it’s alive and making decisions. Back before I acquired great wisdom, which happened a few years ago, if I went to hang up a shirt and the coat hanger fell on the floor, I’d grow angry at the hanger, as if it had deliberately decided to cause me trouble. Now I just pick it up without asking it “why? why?”

If my assumption about how people think is correct—and anyway, it is, so let’s go with that—then we see inanimate things as if they are not only animate, but somewhat conscious. Our language shows how often we’re using this kind of metaphor (pretty much any time we speak to things, as if they’re listening).

We do this with both objects and forces, and perhaps it’s starting from this deep metaphor that people began to invent other characteristics to go along with the idea that the thing was alive. So the ocean not only wants to sink a ship, or wants to let it sail safely, but the ocean also wants other things, and it has a name, and even has a personal history, and it’s name is Poseidon.

If this kind of metaphorical thinking helps explain why people thought of deities, it makes sense that in early cultures all over the world both objects and forces became associated with different gods—a god of corn, a goddess of childbirth, god of a river, spirit of a stream or tree. For thousands of years we have been seeing the inanimate world around us as “alive” in some ways.

Since our culture seems to have more and more people turning their backs on science, maybe some day we will sink back into medieval ignorance—and we have plenty of people working to make that happen (who needs vaccinations? what global warming? evolution?). If so, maybe new gods will arise, such as Isenhower, the god of ancient highways (this god might gradually lose power as the interstates crumble), or Jee-Im, the god of motors, whose wife, Eksan, gives him the power to live.

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