Chris Maser

As I explore the mystery of life, I find that language in many ways embodies a metaphor of the very mystery that gave it birth. Having written about language in times past, however, I ask you forbearance when I reiterate part of my discourse, which is necessary to frame the metaphor.

As every human language is a cultural necklace composed of individual words strung together in a specific order (be they English, Japanese, Navaho, or Arabic), so life is medley of living entities composed of individuals (be they microbes, fungi, plants, or animals) in the eternal dance of choreographed relationship. Whereas each word represents a reflective pause in an open-ended experiment with sound, form, and function, so each life represents the momentary pinnacle in the eternal progression of an evolutionary experiment.

While words define the mental boundaries of our personal perceptions, DNA archives the evolutionary language that governs the functional boundaries of life's journey. Moreover, no two words or two individuals are ever exactly the same, and yet each is vital in their service to the whole, whether that is the fullness of expression in terms of human language or complementary functions in terms of life.

As I mull over the probable events that led to our modern, human languages, it occurs to me that all words are the names of things, be it a touchable entity (a flower, animal, or tool); a definition of quantifiably time (a second, an hour, today, yesterday, tomorrow, next year); an action (do, run, sit, speak); or something that describes the qualities of something else (pretty, ugly, hairy, large, small, fast, slow), and in time (now, earlier, later).

Life, as a counterpart to language, is a multitude of life-forms, each individual of which is a touchable entity recognized by a name (bacterium, mouse, or whale); a definition of quantifiably time (a fossil, the last individuals of an ancient lineage, a common species, or a subspecies in the throws of rapid evolution); an action (a flying bird, a gliding mammal, a swimming fish, a climbing plant, a digging insect); or something that describes the qualities of something else (an aquatic larva, a terrestrial snail, a sessile plant, a wide-ranging predator, an iridescent butterfly, a hairy caterpillar), and in time (a diurnal squirrel, a crepuscular owl, or nocturnal bat).

And just as language produces synonyms, life produces backups. Whereas a synonym is a word that means almost the same thing as another word in the same language, either in all of its uses or in a particular context, so a backup is a species that performs a function similar to that of another species in the same ecosystem, which protects the system from a functional collapse should something happen to one or the other species.

With the invention of each new word (each new name), we humans are attempting to simultaneously explore, define, and refine the boundaries of meaning attached to our perceptions of the world around us—boundaries encompassed in the names by which we recognize what we see. When we speak, therefore, we are attempting to express our perceptions by transferring boundaries of meaning attached to the various categories of words.

Through the continual evolution of a species, life is simultaneously exploring, defining, and refining the boundaries of itself in form and function as mediated by nature's inviolate, biophysical principles. Moreover, as grammar determines the correct arrangement of words in order to create syntactical harmony and thereby clarity of meaning, the encrypted genetic code governs the dynamics of life's evolving forms and functions as an interactive whole, from the first living cell to the last.

Language evolves through a gradual shift in pronunciation or the sudden invention of totally new sounds designed to identify some heretofore-unknown and nameless thing. The isolation of a human population reinforces these nuances, which, over time, develop into a regional dialect. It's just this sort of isolation in which the slight genetic variations or relatively dramatic mutations within an isolated non-human population gives rise to the evolution of a subspecies. To examine this phenomenon in more detail, we'll travel to China.

At one time in the long-distant past, the people of China spoke a unified language. Over the millennia, however, groups of people dispersed throughout the land and became so isolated from one another that the common language devolved into a number of regional dialects, which became progressively distinctive until inter-group communication was all but unintelligible. To remedy the situation, Mandarin Chinese (a branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages) was adopted as a common language through which to unify the people. Without Mandarin Chinese, the regional dialects not only would have become separate languages but also would have facilitated the development of distinctive, regional cultures without a unifying principle of communication.

A similar dynamic happens when an adaptable, non-human species evolves in a centralized location, from whence it begins to spread across the landscape, where topography sooner or later fragments the original population into isolated groups of individuals. The isolation is then augmented by such events as short-term trends in weather and long-term shifts in climate, both of which affect habitat. In time, the isolated populations begin to exhibit recognizable differences on their way to becoming full-fledged species. Speciation is consummate with the advent of reproductive incompatibility between neighboring populations, should they chance to meet. And just as languages are thought of as related members belonging of different "families," each of which can be traced to a shared origin, so species are similarly aggregated into families with parallel traits attributable to a common ancestor.

Although many people believe words carry meaning in much the same way as a person transports an armful of wood or a pail of water from one place to another, words never carry precisely the same meaning from one person's mind of the next. In this sense, language, in its fullest experience, is so much more than mute scratches on paper, repetitive configurations on computer screens, or even the utterance of predetermined sounds.

By analogy, life is so much more than simply form and function. From a walrus to a flea, life is the continually perfection of history archived in each and every living thing—a virtual library of experimentation in form and novelty in function that began when the spark of life was ignited within the first cell. With that initiation, the Eternal Mystery forever cast life beyond the ability of words to convey and the human mind to conceive.

The relative independence with which cultures evolve creates their uniqueness both within themselves and within the reciprocity they experience with one another and their immediate environments. Each culture, and each community within that culture, affects its environment in a specific way and is accordingly affected by the environment in a particular way. So it is that distinct cultures in their living create a varied landscape, which in some measure is reflected in the myths they hold and the languages they speak.

In like measure, the relative independence with which non-human species evolve creates their uniqueness both within themselves and within the reciprocity they experience with one another and their immediate environments. Each species, and each population within that species, affects its environment in a specific way and is accordingly affected by the environment in a particular way. So it is that each species in its living contributes to the creation of a varied landscape, which in some measure is reflected in a species' adaptability to the ever-changing biophysical conditions, as translated through the genetic code embedded in and carried forward by the young, from one generation to the next.

©chris maser 2008. All rights reserved.

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