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Topic: Anthropic Rocks

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less’” (Lewis Carroll; 1899, ff.).

James R. Underwood Jr.’s “Anthropic Rocks: Made, Modified, and Moved by Humans” (GSA Today, November 2001, p. 19) leaves me dizzy. Why coin exotic new terms when common English will serve? Despite Underwood’s closing plea that “The concept is much more important than the terms,” I believe that definition creep is the enemy of understanding.

Perhaps Underwood never learned what Gerald P. “Gerry” Brophy taught his Amherst College students: Rocks are naturally occurring structural parts of Earth. If a student holding an object in his hand should ask, “What kind of rock is this?” Brophy would reply, “That’s no rock. It’s a rock SAMPLE, because it’s no longer a structural part of Earth.” With that part of the definition of rock in mind, how can “humans produce immense quantities of rock,” as Underwood claims?

So, in resonance with the delightful “What, if anything, is a rabbit?” (Wood, 1957), I ask, “What, if anything, is a rock?”

Manmade, rock-like things appropriately may be identified by such words as artifact, ceramic, brick, and concrete, or by existing phrases such as manmade glass. I don’t even mind the phrases artificial stone or artificial rock. But anthropic rock is self-contradictory.

Was it Aristotle who said “Nature grades and man divides”? (For example, when describing rainbows, we define color names and bounds.) Taxonomies are used to categorize, but some types can cross taxonomic boundaries.

Word definitions are like taxonomic categories. Neither should be tinkered with lightly; some concepts may fall on the boundaries between terms. Coining a term for every concept that lies on such a boundary would be as endless as coining a science name for every astronomical body would be.

We can change definitions to the point that words become meaningless. We can also get so wrapped up in debating terms that we forget entirely about the subjects of our original interest: minerals, rocks, geology, and such—remember?

Rocks, to me, will remain naturally occurring structural parts of Earth, or (in common usage) other planetary bodies. I can even speak now of the geology of Mars or the Moon (e.g., Mutch, 1970), without gagging. If a human moves a rock, it is no longer a rock (something that humans can so easily destroy but can never create).

When it is possible to do so, let’s stick to concepts, words, and phrases that we already understand. Otherwise, we’ll spend all our time defining and arguing about new terms. Just coining a term does not qualify it for common usage—especially when existing terms are adequate for the same concepts.

Even if most geologists are convinced by Underwood on this, I remain convinced that: (1) the majority is not always correct; (2) good science should not be a matter of majority rule; and, (3) science needs stronger adherence to naming standards.

I reject anthropic rock and hope that you will, too.

References Cited

  1. Carroll, L. (1899, ff.), Through the looking glass and what Alice found there: Macmillan, 224 p.
  2. Mutch, T.A., 1970, Geology of the Moon: A stratigraphic view: Princeton, Princeton University Press, 324 p.
  3. Wood, A.E., 1957, What, if anything, is a rabbit?: Evolution, v. 11, no. 4, p. 417–425.

Stephen A. Langford
Oro Valley, Greater Tucson, Arizona

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