When scientific concepts become metaphors, nuances of meaning often get lost. Some such errors are benign. In the vernacular, “quantum leap” has come to mean tremendous change. This misrepresents the physics, but usually without serious implications. There is no philosophy embedded in the metaphor that lends its misuse a particular power.
Yet errors in translation are not always so neutral. As a popular metaphor, the concept “evolve” gets conflated with progress. Evolved means better, as if natural law normally dictates constant improvement over time. In translating progress from species evolution to the metaphor of evolve, the significance of dynamic relationship to a specific environment gets lost. Through natural selection, species become more equipped to survive in their distinct environment. In a different environment, they may find themselves vulnerable. Divorced from context, their measure of progress breaks down. The popular metaphor of evolve misses this crucial point. Evolve often connotes progress without reference to context. Friends playfully tease that they need to evolve. Businesses boast that they have evolved. In such usage, evolved means essentially better, more sophisticated, more developed. As evolving occurs over time, the past is by definition inferior, a lower rung on the linear ladder to the future. Rapid changes in technology magnify the disconnect between present and past. Even the recent past appears more primitive, bearing little relevance to contemporary life.
A keen awareness of history is vital to intelligent decision making today. Used accurately in its scientific sense, a metaphor of evolve would encourage historical acumen by emphasizing the significance of specific context. Evolve in its common usage actually obscures the importance of context, undermining interest in connections with the past. This erasure of relationships bears serious implications. Species evolve in complex non-linear ecosystems. Evolve as the metaphor extracts the measure of progress from a multifaceted historical environment, linking it instead to a simple position in linear time. Recognizing present global challenges demands a different vision, one that acknowledges history and context. Climate change denial does not rise from a deep appreciation of complex dynamic relationships. In simplistic linear paradigms, it thrives.
The popular usage of “evolve” reflects a symptom rather than a cause. The metaphor did not create disinterest in specific complicated conditions. Rather, a widespread preference for simplicity and essentialism over complexity and connections shaped the metaphor. Now it perpetuates that outlook, when all signs point to an urgent need for more accurate apprehensions of reality.
Today we face problems much more daunting than the distortion of scientific concepts in popular metaphors. It’s tempting to consider such misappropriations merely as annoyances. However, they reflect an issue informing many of our greater challenges: a failure to educate about how the sciences relate to humanities, social sciences and fine arts. Without such integrated education, scientific concepts dangerously mutate as non-specialists apply them outside the sciences. When these misunderstandings infiltrate popular language and thought, demand for realistic approaches to global problem-solving suffers.