A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, May 13, 2013

Bats in the Belfrey

Not a bird
Every now and then one stumbles upon comments about how the Stoopid Bible™, written by Bronze-Age [sic] goat-herders who didn't know Jack, somewhere or other seems to include bats among birds.  How droll!  Those sillies! 

Now when sometimes it is pointed out that the New Guinea highlanders likewise classify bats as birds, they will oft hesitate, reluctant to refer to certified Victims of Indonesian Western Imperialism as stoopid, but then, after a quick look around the room, will lower their voices and crow that this proves their very point.  Even though they did not have the Stoopid Bible™, the New Guineans were somehow also Backward and Very Confused about the True Nature of Birds.  This latter is also very droll, since these same people are often at great pains to deny the very existence of natures. 

Bird.  Yes, that's a horse in its beak.
All of this has to do with the categories of thought that people find useful.  The English word "bird" was originally bridd.  (English has a tendency to insert vowels between diphthongs.  So BRidd became BiRd, cenTRe became cenTeR, and nuCLear is in the process of shifting to nuCeLar; a process called metathesis.)  But bridd originally meant a "young bird, nestling," so should we accuse the Anglo-Saxons of stoopidly thinking all birds were young?  In fact, in Middle English, byrd was used for all sorts of young animals, including young humans.

Young girls are still called "chicks" and in homosexual slang young boys are "chickens."  

So what was the Old English word for "bird"?  It was fugol, which was the same as the German word Vogel, derived from Teut. fluga, "to fly" and connected with words like "flock" and "flight."  There was no word in the Teutonic languages that corresponded to the Latin word aves.    In like manner, the ancient Hebrew word 'owph is not accurately translated as "bird," but as "things that fly."  So a bat might not be a bird in the category of scientific biology, but it would be an 'owph or a fugol.  Why?  Because what mattered to them was that the critters could fly away before you could snare them.  They were not interested in bio-genetic relationships.  But the Late Modern expects scientific tracts to lurk within ancient texts.  In a word, they lack an appreciation for empirical fact as regards linguistics, translation, and literary criticism and prefer high-flown theories based on wild assumptions about primordial goat-herders. 

But we digress.

We should point out that just as fugols are not birds, water is not H2O.

Water Is Not H2O 

The general assumption, according to Michael Weisberg, is that "there is a straightforward connection between scientific kinds and the natural kinds recognized by ordinary language users.  For example, the claim that water is H2O assumes that the ordinary language kind water corresponds to a chemical kind, which contains all the molecules with molecular formula H2O as its members."  But like birds and bats, ordinary language depends on the categories of thought that the language users find useful.  Specialized users, like scientists, who have different uses in mind, will employ specialized meanings and terms.  Water and steam are both composed of H2O molecules, but if TOF asks for a drink of water, he would be displeased to have live steam squirted in his face.  

For one thing, water is wet, but H2O molecules are not.  The usual response is that wetness is an emergent property, which is the scientificalistic way of saying "then a miracle happens."  In Aristotelian categories, the powers of a thing stem from its form.  That is, sodium and chlorine atoms consist of the same parts, but their properties differ because of the number and arrangement of those parts.  The first thing to note is that a piece of water is not composed exclusively of H2O molecules.  

"It is simply false," says Brandon, "to say that the essence of water is H2O. In liquid water there are H3O+ and OH- ions, which are absent from water vapor; in water vapor there are H4O2 and other H2O polymers that are not always found in liquid water. The microstructure of water actually depends on the context."  And if we note further that an electron in a valence orbit behaves differently than a free electron, we realize that context matters.   

In addition, both hydrogen and oxygen come in a variety of isomers.  There is hydrogen (H), heavy hydrogen (D) which has an extra neutron, and super-veavy hydrogen (T) which has two.  Oxygen comes in 16-, 17-, and 18- neutron isomers which for typographical reasons we will refer to as O, O*, and O**, resp.  
If we look at enough samples of enough water, we will find H2O*, H2O**, HDO, D2O*, T2O**, etc., in addition to H2O. In fact, natural samples of water almost always contain a mixture of these other isomers. In figuring out how to individuate the kind water, then, we need to ask several questions: Is pure H2O a chemical kind? How about pure D2O? In normal, terrestrial samples that are mostly H2O, how much tolerance of isotopic variation is allowed? If the substances described in all these other questions are chemical kinds, how do we decide which one corresponds to the ordinary language kind water?
-- Michael Weisberg, "Water is Not H2O"
Water is actually a complex "society" of interacting molecules, and takes its properties from those interactions (form) rather than from its molecules (matter) as such.  
An individual molecule of H2O doesn’t have any of the observable properties we associate with water. A glass of water, pure as water can be, is better understood as containing H2O, OH–, H3O+ and other related but less common ions, and even this is a vast oversimplification (if we could get truly pure water, which we cannot). Our current best understanding of the electron transfers that give water the properties we observe is a statistical average of ever changing interactions so complex as to be quite literally unthinkable. Indeed, the problem is “not that we are unsure which (distribution of types of) microstructure is the correct one. The point is that there is no one correct microstructure, because the microstructure depends as much on the context and functions just as another nominal essence would.”
-- Holly VandeWall, "Why Water Is Not H2O, and Other Critiques of Essentialist Ontology from the Philosophy of Chemistry," in Philosophy of Science vol. 74, no. 5 (December 2007), cited at Siris
So the complaint that the old Angles or the New Guinea highlanders lumped bats in with birds goes directly to the disconnect between the natural kinds of ordinary language and the scientific kinds or technical language.  There are times (hint: "doing science" is one of them) when the latter is important, but if it is impossible even in the "simple" case of water, it makes no sense to insist that they ought to be the same kinds.

  • Michael Weisberg, Water is Not H2O (PDF) 
  • J. van Brakel, "Chemistry as the Science of the Transformation of Substances," Synthese (1997) 111:253-282.  Summarized at Siris.  
  • Brandon Watson, Water is Not H2O


  1. Most impressively, I think, is the case of "fire." Having discovered that many forms of fire were oxidation, scientists decreed that all fire that burns is oxidation -- and when they discovered that suns do not oxidize, they tried to decree that they were not fire, nor did they burn.

    A prohibition that they themselves fail to observe, often, because there is no other word in English meaning to undergo a process consuming material and producing light and heat.

  2. Swwoping in from a slightly different flight-path:

    On an off day--on a day when they're off from work, that is--two GNUs are sitting on a bench having an old conversation while feeding the pigeons.

    1st GNU: I just finished reading a biography of Linnaeus.

    2nd GNU: Since when were you interested in Charlie Brown?

    1st GNU: Not Linus, you dope; Linnaeus.

    2nd GNU: Oh, him.

    1st GNU: Yeah, he's one cool dude. He's the guy who invented the system of scientific classification.

    2nd GNU: You mean kingdom, phylum, class...?

    1st GNU: Yup. And you know what?

    2nd GNU: No, what?

    1st GNU: There are lots of things wrong with the Bible, yes indeed. But thanks to Linnaeus, we know another thing that's wrong with it.

    2nd GNU: Really? Cool. What might that be?

    1st GNU: The Bible says that bats are birds. But thanks to Linnaeus and his classification scheme, we know they're really mammals, not birds.

    2nd GNU: Ha! The evidence just keep piling up, does it not?

    1st GNU: Sure does. Hey, not to change the subject, but I bought a book this morning for my sister's daughter. She turns 6 next Saturday.

    2nd GNU: What book did you buy?

    1st GNU: It's a collection of Aesop's Fables. I liked them when I was a kid.

    2nd GNU: Me too. Remember 'The Swallow and the Crow'? (The Swallow and the Crow had a contention about their plumage. The Crow put an end to the dispute by saying, "Your feathers are all very well in the spring, but mine protect me against the winter.")

    1st GNU: Yeah, that's a good one.

    2nd GNU: I liked it too. But you know what? I was a kid the, and as I got older it struck me as being kind of dumb.

    1st GNU (warily): Whadda you mean?

    2nd GNU: Well, everyone knows that swallows and crows can't talk, right? So what's the point?

    1st GNU: What's the point? Are you serious? The point isn't about talking birds. Of course not. Like you said, everyone knows swallows and crows don't talk.

    2nd GNU: Well, then, what's the point?

    1st GNU: The story conveys a moral. In this case, the moral is "Fair weather friends are not worth much."

    2nd GNU: Really? Gee, why didn't they just say so? Why gussy it up with all that nonsense about talking birds?

    1st GNU (after a pause (and with a frown)): What kind of bird-brain are you, anyway? Sheesh...

    2nd GNU: Hey! That's not nice, and I reject your insult. Besides, according to Linnaeus I'm a mammal-brain.

  3. The British press had a field day when the European Union decided that carrots should be classified as fruit *for purposes of making jam*. Just leave that last bit off and you can see how stupid bureaucrats are. Thankfully we have journalists to tell us so.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Calvin gets it:

  6. Total nit-pick, but it's isotopes, not isomers!


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