Here’s some news that amazed me recently, and also got me to asking myself a lot of troublesome questions. Working gears have been discovered in an insect. Scientific American’s video of these gears in action is pretty breathtaking to watch. The story broke just a couple of months ago …
The juvenile Issus—a plant-hopping insect found in gardens across Europe—has hind-leg joints with curved cog-like strips of opposing “teeth” that intermesh, rotating like mechanical gears to synchronize the animal’s legs when it launches into a jump.
And so human hubris suffers another body blow from the inventiveness of natural selection. Until now, mechanical gears were believed to have a distinctly anthropocentric pedigree. They first appeared (or so it was said) in the “south-pointing chariot,” invented by the Chinese engineer Ma Jun back in the third century CE. But no, the juvenile Issus has been using gears for millions of years. In what seems almost a cosmic practical joke, nature invented gears millions of years before it bothered to invent their human “inventors.”
All this reminds me of the fictional psychiatrist Hector Glasco’s ill-fated and ill-advised meeting with the real-life New York superagent John Brockman in 1989. The oracular Mr. Brockman held forth about hearts and pumps and such …
- We talk about the heart as a pump. It isn’t like a pump. It is one.
Now this is a long-familiar example of nature beating human engineers to the punch. Artificial pumps date back to Ctesibius (no, I can’t pronounce it either), a Greek inventor of the third century BCE. But nature has been manufacturing pumps for as long as there have been hearts with two or more chambers, and hearts have been around for at least as long as there have been fish.
Similar cases abound. During World War II, for instance, around the time when the Allies were secretly developing sonar, scientists happened to discover that bats had been using sonar all along. Talk about security leaks!
It should no longer surprise us that the beautifully intricate mechanisms created by Natural Selection should … well, surprise us. But further paradoxes lurk in the realm of language. Regarding hearts as pumps, Brockman went on to tell Hector …
- That metaphor is a human invention.
Indeed, nobody knew that hearts were pumps until William Harvey figured it out in the 17th century. So which came first, the invention or its name?
I suppose, if Hector had thought to ask Brockman this question, he would have answered that words like “sonar” and “pump” and “gear” weren’t around when nature first toyed with echolocation, primordial jumping devices, and throbbing two-chambered movers of blood. Neither were any other words. There wasn’t anything we would call “language” at all. And as Brockman put it …
- If it’s not in the language, it isn’t. If you can’t say it, it isn’t.
And so, although little gears appeared in bugs untold millions of years ago, they didn’t actually become gears until we noticed them and called them “gears.” The same goes for pumps and sonar. Hector Glasco might take heart from this. “If it’s not really invented until there’s a word for it,” he might say, “then surely human beings actually did invent gears, pumps, and sonar! After all, aren’t we, and not nature, the makers of words?”
The words of another oracular figure come to mind—Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass …
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
But according to Brockman, even so lofty a linguistic authority as Humpty Dumpty is wrong, for words are the makers of us—and of everything else:
The words of the world are the life of the world, and nature is not created, nature is said…. I’m talking about the idea that we are our words. We create technologies and tools, and we become the technologies and tools. So, too, with language. All we have is language. All we have is ideas.