Faculty Research Forum: Debra Journet

When Sep 20, 2013
from 03:30 PM to 05:00 PM
Where Bingham Humanities, Room 300
Contact Name
Contact Phone 502-852-8977
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"Ambiguous Metaphor, Kenneth Burke, and the Levels of Selection Debate: Or, What is the Agent of Natural Selection?"

Debra Journet

  • Friday, Sept. 20th @ 3:30 PM - Bingham Humanities Bldg. Room 300

Metaphors have an epistemic function in scientific rhetoric because they offer a way for scientists to speculate as well as clarify. That is, metaphors help scientists engage in provisional and exploratory attempts to understand phenomena they cannot study directly or, because of the status of contemporary scientific knowledge, understand adequately. The resulting ambiguity that is necessarily built into such metaphors often provides what Kenneth Burke describes as a resource or an alchemic opportunity for transformation.

In this presentation, Debra Journet will draw on Burke’s discussion of the transformative potential offered by ambiguities of motive in evolutionary biology as they play out in what is sometimes called the “levels of selection debate,” a project in evolutionary biology that tries to answer the question of who or what is the real agent of evolutionary change. Using Burke’s Pentad, I briefly examine work by W.D. Hamilton, George Williams, and Richard Dawkins in order to locate the ambiguous ways in which attributions of agent and agency are distributed between the gene and the organism. In one version, the gene is the agent, and the organism is the agency whereby the gene enacts its purpose of self-replication. In the other, the organism is the agent, using its genes as agency to help it fulfill its own purpose of survival and reproduction. The tension between these two potential stories is the source of ongoing and crucial debate in evolutionary biology and is perhaps essential to the ability to theorize evolutionary processes. The rhetorical ambiguity of agent rhetoric, I argue, not only reflects a preexisting ambiguity in how scientists think about the connection between gene and organism in evolutionary processes; it also provides a discursive space where that thinking can occur.

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