Essays on Science and SocietyPERCEPTIONS OF SCIENCE

Natural Enemies--Metaphor or Misconception?

Science  04 Jul 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5629, pp. 52-53
DOI: 10.1126/science.1085274

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Summary

When two northern snakeheads, a carnivorous Asian fish, were discovered with their progeny in a Maryland pond in 2002, the state produced an "unwanted" poster, and biologists publicly declared the fish to be an imminent danger to East Coast aquatic ecosystems. It was "the baddest bunny in the bush." Such metaphorical statements are ubiquitous even in science, largely because of their simplicity and intuitive appeal. In their essay, Chew and Laubichler argue that metaphors can cause serious problems. For example, the term "natural enemies" is widely used in the ecology literature, including many papers in Science and Nature. These papers describe well-defined specific ecological processes, and hence the term "natural enemies" persists merely as a rhetorical device. The problem is that metaphorical abstractions all too easily turn familiar human experiences into normative statements about nature. Using bellicose and unnecessary terms like "enemy" therefore carries both real and conceptual risks.

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