Biology and Vocabulary

I love the study of life.  But there are some things about the academic discipline of biology that I don’t so much care for.  One is the tendency for overemphasize vocabulary.

My son is taking cellular biology as a high school freshman.  He was struggling with understanding the phases of mitosis–prophase, metaphase, cytokinesis, etc.  Since I got my Bachelor’s Degree in biology, I tried to help him out.

I was not much help for this particular exercise.  I may not have learned the terminology as well as I should have, but I also found myself resenting the whole exercise.

You see, mitosis is a description of a process that eukaryotic cells use to reproduce themselves.  It is more of a continuous process than something divided into distinct phases.  If you watched a cat jump and then land, would you divide the jump into different phases and name them?  Projump, metajump, etc?  Dividing cell reproduction into phases is an artifact of how we study the cells (and the poor tools we had historically versus what we have now).

So creating little diagrams of the different phases of the process, along with fairly complicated terminology to describe what happens has some fundamental flaws.

First, although the diagrams may be accurate for certain groups of eukaryotic cells, the process is not uniform for all types of eukaryotic cells.  And the process that prokaryotic cells use is completely different.

Secondly, while precise vocabulary is important, it can also be a major impediment to learning.

Lastly, and most importantly, the use of extensive vocabulary tends to create the impression that we fundamentally understand what is going on.  That could not be farther from the truth.  What we know about life can be measured in inches, and it is held together by miles of assumptions.  We know a lot about what happens in mitosis, but the amount that we don’t know dwarfs what we do.  The same is true about photosynthesis, respiration, locomotion, and about anything else you can think of.

Using big words to describe what we know can make it sound like we know more than we do.


About the roused bear

Nature photographer from central Iowa.
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1 Response to Biology and Vocabulary

  1. juliecache says:

    I am completely behind you on this.

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