Sunday, October 29, 2017

Butterfly-collecting: the history of an insult

Chomsky's barb about butterfly-collecting has echoed in the ears of descriptive linguists for decades, and is sometimes blamed for the withering away of field linguistics over the late 20th century. The earliest published version I could track down via Google is:
"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!)


David Marjanović said...

The Dobzhansky quote is about something different: the idea that the butterflies we should collect aren't the butterflies as unanalyzed wholes, but their nucleotides one by one, a supposedly much richer and much more reliable source of data for testing phylogenetic hypotheses.

In other words, it already presupposes that you can't explain butterflies if you haven't collected enough.

The Chomsky quote rather reminds me of Darwin's (in a letter to somebody named Fawcett, 1861): "About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not to theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe their colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observations must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service."

BTW, I had only encountered "stamp-collecting" in the quote attributed to Rutherford.

Sourav Roy said...

This resonates with the suspicion of the contemporary humanities with any kind of comparative methods, especially after the advent of post-modernism and post-colonialism. But I like what Wendy Doniger says about this paranoia in case of contemporary Religious Studies: “The tension between sameness and difference has become a crucial issue for the self-definition of postmodemism. Now the mere addition of accent digit transforms the modest English word into the magic buzzword for everything that right-thinking (or, as the case may be, left-thinking) men and women care about: difference (or, even buzzier yet, differance). For postmodernism, sameness is the devil, difference the angel. . . .[T]he academic world . . . now suffers from a post-post-colonial backlash: in this age of multinationalism, to assume that two texts from different cultures are ‘the same’ in any significant way is regarded as demeaning to the individualism of each, a reflection of the old racist attitude that ‘all wogs look alike’—in the dark, all cats are gray. And in the climate of anti-Orientalism, it is regarded as imperialist of a scholar so stand outside (presumably above) two different cultures and to equate them. I am unwilling to close the comparativist shop just because it is being picketed by people with whose views l happen, by and large, to agree. I want to salvage the broad comparative agenda, even if I acquiesce, or even participate, in the savaging of certain of its elements. In particular, I want to make peace between premodern typologies and postmodern differance in comparativism, to bring into a single (if not necessarily harmonious) conversation the genuinely different approaches that several cultures have made to similar (if not the same) human problems. (Doniger 1996, 532-3)” (p.14, 15, Introduction, Taylor: 1998)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David: Reading that more closely, I see that you're right. In fact, he ends up turning the insult on its head by effectively dismissing "Cartesian" molecular biology as mere data gathering for the higher purposes of "Darwinian" organismic biology: "at the lower levels of integration the type of question most frequently asked is "how things are," while at the higher levels an additional question insistently obtrudes on the mind of the investigator - "how things got to be that way.""

Sourav: The abandonment of comparative methods certainly reflects wider trends across the humanities, but the Chomskyan approach that eclipsed them in linguistics hardly fits well with the postmodernism faith in difference - if anything, it tends to rest on the assumption that all differences are superficial. Perhaps closer to the postmodern suspicion of comparison is, say, Martin Haspelmath's paper "Pre-established categories don't exist — consequences for language description and typology" ( ). But note that, for all his methodological caution, Haspelmath is certainly not ready to give up on cross-linguistic comparison!

Sourav Roy said...

@Lameen Souag: Thank you for your generous reply.

I know nothing about Linguistics (except some friends in the field)though I do dearly love languages. My research discipline is visual studies and it has the same suspicion for descriptions in Art History, its earlier academic avatar (

From the abstract of the paper you have shared, I could dimly perceive its spirit. Downloaded and saved in my 'interdisciplinarity' folder. Will get to reading it some day, hopefully.

Thank you again.

Whygh said...

The quote investigator finds an attribution to Rutherford from 1939, but it's still mythical.
A JSTOR search finds a 1982 article called "Biology is not Postage Stamp Collecting".

Alex said...

Interestingly, in its travels from Rutherford to Chomsky, it gained a new degree of emotional and moral valence. Nobody minds you collecting stamps, but collecting butterflies?

petre Tepner said...

An embarrassing attempt to pretend that linguistics is a "hard science", like physics. Of course, it isn't. Live with it.
Chomsky would have us be blind to the butterflies even as they flutter by.
Credit 'n' all, but not a big fan, really.

petre Tepner said...

+Sourav Roy If you "dearly love languages", there are many to learn, and I wish you joy of them. DON'T become a linguist. I dearly love my boyfriend, but even in my darkest dreams can't imagine slicing him open to find out what's going on inside.

That's pretty much what linguists do with languages (without the oozy gore). If you want to learn loads of different languages, then a fairly superficial knowledge of linguistics might be useful. I disadvise you from probing deeper: that way madness lies; I'm the living proof.

Sourav Roy said...

@petre Teper Ha ha! That's a lovely graphic analogy you got there. I don't think my practicing Linguist friend will find it as hilarious. But then again, I dearly love art too and studying it theoretically has only deepened it. But no ambitions to be a linguist at all. Learning Hindi now. Want to learn Spanish and Pali eventually.

petre Tepner said...

Sourav Roy I'm sorry if I offended your friend. Linguists are a necessary evil, like surgeons. I owe my life to surgeons, not so much, I think, to linguists.

Once you've learnt Hindi, Pali shouldn't be difficult. Spanish you can learn on a wet weekend, when you're bored. Learn loads of languages, but DON'T become a linguist unless you absolutely have to. That way madness lurks.

Sourav Roy said...

@petre Tepner Learning Spanish over a 'wet weekend' seems to be a tempting overstatement for me. In fact, 'to learn loads of different languages...fairly superficial knowledge of linguistics might be useful' was what drew my attention to Linguistics first and eventually to this blog. And it is a prospect that allures me towards the potential of a further conversation. But I am squeamish to use this forum for a conversation unrelated to the post above. We can continue this conversation over a social medium which we both use or over email, if you wish.