by Jerry Bergman, Ph.D. *
Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) is best known both for documenting the importance of language in shaping our innermost thoughts and for documenting the strong connection between language and behavior.1 Crucial to his view is the conclusion that language is not the result of evolutionary survival, nor is it shaped by any alleged advantage that it gave in aiding a species’ survival; it is an incredibly complex designed system. He is most well-known for the Sapir-Whorf theory on linguistic relativity, which he developed with his mentor and co-worker, Yale anthropologist Edward Sapir.
Whorf is also well-known for his research demonstrating that a person’s thinking skills—the conceptualization of ideas and their expressions—are heavily dependent on language, particularly vocabulary. This theory, called linguistic relativity, is also called the Whorf Hypothesis in his honor. Whorf taught that “the language one speaks shapes the world one sees.”2 In other words, “specific aspects of a language provide a grid, or structure, that influences how humans categorize space, time, and other aspects of reality into a worldview.”3 We think in terms of words or other symbols, and they are required as a precondition for a human to form an idea—or, at least, to express the idea to others. Although thinking involves mental manipulation of reality, it is heavily dependent upon words or other symbols. Without such symbols of meaning, one cannot express the thoughts for which the word (symbol) stands.
In short, language shapes not only communication, but also understanding. Our “worldview is inescapably shaped by” our language.4 Language clearly draws our attention to certain aspects of the world and also influences our judgment about it.
Whorf is also famous for his finding that every speech community fits the needs of its culture. The famous example is the Eskimos’ boast that they use many names for snow. A better example is how the deaf use a very different language system than the hearing population: sign language.5 Even the blind use symbols, including tactile, sound, and smell, for communication.6
Research has found that even preceptors (expert teachers) of the past, present, and future are influenced by language, including the ability to remember events in a certain timeframe.7 Other studies have found that the mental ability to rotate three-dimensional objects in space is influenced by language.8 Research by Gilbert et al determined that the way a speaker’s language distinguishes color affects how it is perceived in the right visual field.9 Gilbert et al and other researchers have concluded that language affects all modes of thought, as shown by patients who suffer from language disorders such as aphasia.
While some of the examples used to illustrate the Sapir-Whorf theory, such as the conclusion that the Hopi Indians and English speakers think about time in fundamentally different ways, turned out with more study to be oversimplified, the basic conclusion is valid.10 Our language does influence how we think and also what we think about. The influence of Whorf’s work (his disciples are called “whorfians”) was summarized by Chase:
Once in a blue moon a man comes along who grasps the relationship between events which have hitherto seemed quite separate, and gives man a new dimension of knowledge. Einstein, demonstrating the relativity of space and time, was such a man. In another field and on a less cosmic level, Benjamin Lee Whorf was one, to rank someday, perhaps with such social scientists as Franz Boas and William James.11
Whorf concluded that if language development is lacking or inaccurate, this fact has a major impact on a person’s thinking and mental life. Since most of our vocabulary is ancient, it carries the excess baggage of old, erroneous ideas that can cause thinking and communication problems in the present. Whorf,12 Korzybski,13 and Hayakawa14 all believed that part of the solution to many modern social problems lies in understanding our language according to the findings of modern science. Miscommunication and lack of communication have been implicated in human conflicts that range from marriage problems to international conflicts.
Motives for His Research
A graduate of MIT in the field of chemical engineering, Whorf also studied linguistics at Yale. His drive to study languages was partly related to his attempt to understand the Christian Scriptures. These motivations, as discussed in the introduction to an edited volume of his works, include the following:
Whorf became increasingly concerned about the supposed conflict between science and religion….He wrote a 130,000-word manuscript on the subject, described as a book of religious philosophy in the form of a novel….Completed in 1925, [it] was submitted to several publishers and as promptly rejected by them….Another, briefer manuscript prepared about this time [was]…“Why I have discarded evolution.” An eminent geneticist to whom it was submitted for comment made a very courteous reply, starting with the admission that, although the manuscript at first appeared to be the work of a crank, its skill and perceptiveness soon marked it as otherwise, but continuing with a point-by-point rebuttal of Whorf’s arguments….Whorf’s reading led him to believe that the key to the apparent discrepancy between the Biblical and the scientific accounts of cosmology and evolution might lie in a penetrating linguistic exegesis of the Old Testament. For this reason, in 1924 he turned his mind to the study of Hebrew.15
Whorf’s extensive knowledge of anthropology is reflected in his many publications in the area of anthropology and language. Lavery wrote that Whorf’s “scholarly output, even though he held a full-time job, was enough to equal that of many full-time research professors.”16 Whorf published widely in the scholarly literature, not only in linguistics, but also in anthropology and archaeology. He also lectured widely and was a captivating speaker.
Whorf’s Opposition to Evolution
Unfortunately, his Why I have Discarded Evolution manuscript evidently has not survived. Fortunately, though, many of his other manuscripts have—and it is in these that his ideas and interests are clearly revealed. Some of his thoughts on evolution that have survived include the following:
There is no purpose in dynamic nature, or none that we can see by the eye of science without faith; there is no perfecting bettering force in evolution, as even the most sentimental evolutionist, if a scientist, will finally admit. But there is purpose in nature, and it is seen in static nature. The discontinuous and unit-wise structure of the whole universe, the concentration of its matter in foci, the absence of any gradations between its major forms [of animals], the rigid restriction of matter, to a definite small number of kinds (the chemical elements), the fixed set of properties possessed by each element, the discrete or stepwise structure of all matter of electricity, of light, even of energy—in these and other things the universe bears those unmistakable earmarks which possessed by any article, would tell us that it was a manufactured article.17
Much of the “design argument” Whorf used to argue for creationism is similar to that still used today by intelligent design advocates. For example, the following was written by Whorf in response to James Porter,18 who:
believes that there is a conflict between evolution and religion, because…nature is full of cruelty—which fact, by the way, was well known long before any “law” of “survival of the fittest” had been announced. If he [Porter] means that the tendencies of nature should never dictate the form of human morality or law (which some evolutionists would have them do) I quite agree with him. But if he means, or if any construe him to mean, that cruelty in physical nature, that evil in general in the world, should be a bar to our conceiving of a wise Providence who created with purpose, I must take up the cudgels.19
Part of Porter’s response to Whorf’s ideas was to argue for atheistic evolution and naturalism in the following words that echo the origins debate today:
Mr. Benjamin Lee Whorf seems to me to be endeavoring to insert some artificial pieces in the mosaic picture of nature built from facts by science. He finds in static nature a number of qualities which he declares indicate purpose because they possess qualities resembling manufactured articles. Does it follow then that the rounded roof of a cave shows design because it resembles the Roman arch? Static nature, however, is only an illusion due to our inability to perceive the “dance” of the electrons. Science has not succeeded in explaining man as anything but a mechanistic contrivance. Mr. Whorf therefore turns to belief where he is unfettered by facts.20
Lowrey wrote that Whorf is wrong: No Intelligent Designer created us and humans are, he argues, “nothing more than an expression of…physical tendencies, bound only by the laws of food and hunger, the attraction and repulsion of positive and negative energies and the blind desire of cells to reproduce their kind.”21 These responses to Whorf rely on the same line of argument used today against both creationism and intelligent design. Whorf did not come to accept creationism by rejecting science, but by embracing it. Note his stress on the critical importance of science:
Consider how the universe appears to any man, however wise…who has never heard one word of what science has discovered. To him the earth is flat; the sun is a shining object of small size that pops up daily above an eastern rim, moves through the upper air, and sinks below the western edge; obviously it spends the night somewhere underground. The sky is an inverted bowl made of some blue material…the “solar system” has no meaning…bodies do not fall because of any “law of gravitation,” but rather because there is nothing to hold them up….For him the blood does not circulate, nor the heart pump blood; he thinks it is a place where love, kindness and thoughts are kept. Cooling is not a removal of heat but an addition of “cold”; leaves are green…from a “greenness” in them.22
Whorf is one of many prominent scholars who have concluded that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution by genetic changes and natural selection is scientifically wrong. His anthropology studies, especially his study of human language, provided support for Whorf’s conclusions. Tragically, his life was cut short by cancer at the age of 44. Stuart Chase wrote that if Whorf had lived, he
might have become another Franz Boas or William James, so brilliant were his powers of projecting scientific data into fruitful generations….He published some thirty articles in the learned journals, and might well have gone on to give the world one of the great classics of social science.23
Whorf’s unpublished and published papers housed at Yale University are a treasure trove that document not only his scientific studies of nature, especially botany, but also his acceptance of Genesis and of the Creator God of the Bible. This acceptance propelled him to carry out his scholarly research not only on evolution, which he rejected based on his study of the scientific evidence, but also to study language to allow him to better understand the book that he firmly believed was God’s inspired Word to humankind.
- Ross, P. E. 1992. New Whoof in Whorf: An old Language Theory Regains Its Authority. Scientific American. 266 (2): 24-25.
- Ibid, 24.
- Scupin, R. and C. DeCorse. 2008. Anthropology: A Global Perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 313.
- Harrison, K. D. 2007. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Wright, D. 1969. Deafness. New York: Stein and Day.
- Monbeck, M. 1973. The Meaning of Blindness. Bloomington, IL: Indiana University.
- Kenneally, C. 2007. The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. New York: Viking, 106-107.
- Ibid, 107.
- Gilbert, A. et al. 2006. Whorf Hypothesis Is Supported in the Right Visual Field But Not the Left. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 103 (2): 489-494.
- Scupin and DeCorse, Anthropology: A Global Perspective, 313.
- Chase, S. 1956. Forward in Language, Thought, and Reality; Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Published jointly by Technology Press of MIT, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., Chapman and Hall, Ltd., London, 7.
- Whorf, B. L. 1925. Purpose vs. Evolution. New Republic, December 9, 89.
- Korzybski, A. 1980. Science and Sanity; An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 4th ed. with preface by Russell Myers, M.D. Lakeville, CT: The Institute of General Semantics.
- Hayakawa, S. I. 1972. Language in Thought and Action, 3rd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
- Carroll, J. B. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality; Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Published jointly by Technology Press of MIT, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., Chapman and Hall, Ltd., London, 7.
- Lavery, D. The Mind of Benjamin Whorf. Paper given at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, Atlanta, GA, November 1995, 1.
- Whorf, Purpose vs. Evolution, 89.
- Porter, J. F. 1925. Science and Religion. New Republic, October 21, 232.
- Whorf, Purpose vs. Evolution, 89.
- Porter, J. F. 1926. Purpose and Evolution. New Republic, January 6, 192.
- Lowrey, E. R. 1926. Purpose vs. Evolution. New Republic, January 6, 192.
- Quoted in Chase, S. 1954. The Power of Words. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 110.
- Ibid, 100.
* Dr. Bergman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Toledo Medical School in Ohio.
Cite this article: Bergman, J. 2011. Benjamin Lee Whorf: An Early Supporter of Creationism. Acts & Facts. 40 (10): 12-14.
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