"You can also collect butterflies and make many observations. If you like butterflies, that’s fine; but such work must not be confounded with research, which is concerned to discover explanatory principles of some depth and fails if it does not do so." (Chomsky 1979:57)So I was surprised to find a similar statement attributed to the eminent early 20th century physicist Ernest Rutherford, quoted by Dyson (2006:179) as saying "Physics is the only real science; the rest are butterfly-collecting." How did this metaphor make its way into linguistics?
For a start, it appears that Dyson's version is somewhat inexact. The Rutherford quote appears to belong to the oral tradition of physics, rather than deriving from any publication of his; the earliest version that I can find on Google Books is from Baker (1942:96):
"These ideas are crystallized in the statement, attributed to Rutherford, that science consists of physics and stamp- collecting. This is an epigram intended to mean that particular objects are uninteresting : it is the extreme view-point of a general analytical scientist."The shift from stamps to butterflies came decades later, first attested only in 1974. In fact, the derisive comparison to butterfly collecting seems likely to have seeped into linguistics not from physics but from, of all subjects, anthropology. Edmund Leach (1961:2) makes it the central metaphor of his assault of Radcliffe-Brown:
"Radcliffe-Brown maintained that the objective of social anthropology was the 'comparison of social structures'. [...] Comparison is a matter of butterfly collecting — of classification, of the arrangement of things according to their types and subtypes. The followers of Radcliffe-Brown are anthropological butterfly collectors and their approach to their data has certain consequences."Anthropologists would reuse the metaphor in debates over the distinction between different types of comparison in linguistics itself, whether endorsing it like Lehman (1964:387) or rebutting the criticism like Sarana (1965:29). From there it seems to have been taken up by Chomskyan linguists as an argument against Bloomfield's "disovery procedures", if I am correctly interpreting the incomplete fragment of Ferber and Lynd (1971) that I can find on Google Books:
"These procedures, which are largely a matter of classification, have been uncharitably called "butterfly-collecting" in the manner of pre-Darwinian biology: they account for a detailed "external" description of each language (what Chomsky [...]"Geoffrey Leech (1969:4) deploys the same metaphor against rhetoric:
"Connected to this is a second weakness of traditional rhetoric - what I am tempted to call its 'train-spotting' or 'butterfly-collecting' attitude to style. This is the frame of mind in which the identification, classification and labelling of specimens of given stylistic devices becomes an end in itself [...]"The redeployment of this argument to belittle descriptive work in general, rather than particular approaches, seems to be attributable to David DeCamp (1971:158), criticizing sociolinguistics from a Chomskyan perspective:
"The weakest theory is a 'functional' model, which only relates outputs from the black box to inputs, e. g. a grammar which would generate all and only the sentences of a language; the goal of much scientific research is to replace such a functional model with a 'structural' model, one that makes the stronger claim of describing what is actually in the black box. Mendel's 'genes' were only a functional model of genetics; the research on the DNA and RNA molecules has yielded a model that is much more nearly structural. Thus one branch of biology has at last become a true science; general linguistics is approaching that status; sociolinguistics is still in the pre-theoretical, butterfly-collecting stage, with no theory of its own and uncertain whether it has any place in general linguistic theory."He then clarifies (ibid:170) that:
"'Butterfly collecting' is simply the collection of a whole lot of information toward the day when somebody can produce a formal theory. Now this is valuable, this is useful. We need a lot of empirical data collection also. I certainly would not want to imply by this that in this I'm saying that there is not an importance to the kinds of things that the Urban Language Survey is doing at CAL, or Bill Labov's work in New York. This is immensely important. What I am saying is that although it is necessary, it is not sufficient. We've got enough data now; it is about time to guide further research by means of some sort of a theory."So, if we have to blame one person for reducing descriptive linguistics to butterfly collecting, it looks like it would be David DeCamp, at least until someone tracks down an earlier citation. But that misses a broader point: the disparaging comparison of data gathering to butterfly collecting seems to have become rather pervasive across a variety of disciplines in the late 20th century - including biology itself, which may well be part of where DeCamp got it from. All the way back in 1964, Theodosius Dobzhansky - who had been an ardent butterfly collector before becoming a prominent evolutionary biologist - comments sarcastically that:
"The notion has gained some currency that the only worthwhile biology is molecular biology. All else is "bird watching" or "butterfly collecting." Bird watching and butterfly collecting are occupations manifestly unworthy of serious scientists!" (Dobzhansky 1964:443)Had he lived to see molecular biology turn to such quintessentially descriptive, list-making pursuits as the Human Genome Project, he would surely have enjoyed having the last laugh.
(If you have any earlier citations bearing on the history of this metaphor in linguistics, please tell me below!)