Please note that this blog no longer accepts comments (there was
too much spam coming in!). If you're reading this blog and want to
respond then please use the contact form on the site.
You can also follow me on twitter.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on
metaphors and analogies:
Monkeys can reason by using analogy, it seems. In an experiment
recently reported in the journal Psychological Science, baboons in
a lab proved capable of realizing that a pair of oval shapes is
"like" a pair of square shapes and "unlike" a pair made of two
different shapes. This finding suggests that you can have analogy
The experiment, run on 29 baboons by Joel Fagot of the
University of Provence and Roger Thompson of Marshall College,
found that the monkeys could ignore the fact that some symbols were
more familiar from previous sessions and stick with the task of
selecting those that came in pairs, and that they still partly
recalled the skill after a year.
Down goes another claim of human uniqueness. It had been argued
that only human beings could reason by analogy because only human
beings use grammatical language. Indeed, language is suffused with
analogy, comprehensively infiltrated with metaphor-analogy's
sibling-to the point that we no longer notice it. (In the previous
sentence, for instance, consider that "suffused," "infiltrated,"
etc. are all metaphors.)
I've always been especially intrigued by the way that old
technologies live on as metaphors: "the horse before the cart,"
"sailing close to the wind," "the wheat from the chaff," the
hourglass that tells you a computer is thinking. We revel (ha,
another one) in medieval clichés.
Does metaphor tell us something about how we reason as well as
how we speak? The linguist George Lakoff has long argued that it
does, that reasoning is almost a form of metaphorical thinking,
that our conceptual system is primarily metaphorical. Like the
baboons, we generalize by reading analogies into new
Mr. Lakoff points out that certain metaphors are universal, as
if reflecting shared human patterns of thought. We always compare
argument to war, for instance-with words like win, lose, demolish,
indefensible and attack. We relate time to money: spending,
wasting, borrowing. Health, happiness and virtue are all associated
with up; their opposites are down.
In his new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (reviewed on
page C7), Steven Pinker points out that, for centuries,
perpetrators of genocides have described their victims in
biological terms laced with disgust: as rats, snakes, maggots, lice
or diseases. This presumably helps them justify to their followers
the inhuman acts they commit. Metaphors possess considerable power
to move us.
Certainly, analogies can generate insights. I am fond of using
one from the works of Shakespeare to explain how a mouse and a
human can have mostly the same genes and yet be very different. In
his plays, the bard used a vocabulary of about 20,000 words (not
counting inflections like plurals), just as a mammal has about
20,000 genes. The difference between two Shakespeare plays lies not
so much in the vocabulary as in the order of the words. Indeed, the
six most frequent words in "Othello," "Lear" and "Hamlet" are the
same: the, and, to, of, I and you. So it is with genes: the
difference between a mouse and a man is in the order and pattern of
expression of the genes, not in having different genes.
Some argue that such analogical reasoning is dangerous, that
your allegories can bite you if you get too close to them. Others,
such as John Sowa of VivoMind Intelligence, argue that computers
need to have better algorithms for finding analogies if they are
ever to rival our intelligence. Analogical reasoning is good for
coping with messy data, he suggests.
The 13th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya was an early
champion of such reasoning and considered it just as certain as
Aristotelian syllogisms. He noted, for example, that the Koran
outlaws grape wine but not date wine. Grape wine is prohibited
because it is intoxicating; date wine is also intoxicating;
therefore, by analogy, date wine is also prohibited.
So here, metaphorically, is a (nonalcoholic) toast to
metaphor and analogy.