"The theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution"

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From Missouri House Bill No. 486, introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives on January 13, 2015  (emphasis added):

The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, superintendents of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution. Such educational authorities in this state shall also endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.

Gordon Campbell, who sent this in, is not convinced that the last sentence is grammatical, though he admits that he "just asked someone and they said it sounds fine."

It's an example of Right Node Raising, and on that basis there are certainly precedents. But in this case, the pivot ("evolution") and its conjoined partners ("[[theory of biological ___ ] and [hypotheses of chemical ___]]") are either several layers deep in a complex structure:

[permitted to [help students [understand … [the [[scientific strengths] and [scientific weaknesses]] [of the [[theory of biological __] and [hypotheses of chemical __]]evolution]]]]]

or else are separated from one another by an equivalent number of layers of structure. Or maybe somewhere in between.

Also, the earlier part of the sentence (on the apparently intended reading) involves Heavy NP Shift  of the whole right-node-raising structure out of another conjunction-heavy construction. A plausible reading (of a simplified version) would be:

[[[understand critique and review] ___] in an objective manner] [the [[strengths and weaknesses] of the theory]]]

This sentence presumably evolved by natural grammatical processes out of a simpler structure:

[help students [understand [the weaknesses of evolution]]]

via missing links like

[help students [understand [the [strengths and weaknesses] of evolution]]]]

[help students [understand [the [strengths and weaknesses] of evolution]] in an objective manner]]

[help students [[understand analyze critique and review] [the [strengths and weaknesses] of evolution]] in an objective manner]]

[help students [[understand analyze critique and review] [the [[scientific strengths] and [scientific weaknesses]] of evolution]] in an objective manner]]

[help students [[understand analyze critique and review] [the [[scientific strengths] and [scientific weaknesses]] of [the [theory of evolution]]]] in an objective manner]]

[help students [[understand analyze critique and review] [the [[scientific strengths] and [scientific weaknesses]] of [the [theory of [biological evolution]]]]] in an objective manner]]

[help students [[understand analyze critique and review] [the [[scientific strengths] and [scientific weaknesses]] of [[the [theory of [biological evolution]] and [hypotheses of [chemical evolution]]]]]] in an objective manner]]

The result is a spectacular Rube Goldberg contraption of a sentence. If you found it lying in a field, you would certainly think that it had been designed by a being who had been designed by a being with a sense of humor.


  1. richardelguru said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 7:24 am

    I think the traditional response to the various allusions in your analysis is "I see what you did there"

    … And you did it really well!

  2. shubert said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 8:43 am

    Well said for you made your point.

  3. James Wimberley said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 9:47 am

    All it needed was two intelligently designed commas.

  4. David L said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 10:33 am

    What is "chemical evolution"?

    [(myl) According to Wikipedia,

    Chemical evolution may refer to:

    • Stellar nucleosynthesis, the creation of chemical elements by stellar thermonuclear fusion or supernovae
    • Abiogenesis, the transition from nonliving elements to living systems
    • Molecular evolution, evolution at the scale of molecules
    • Gas evolution reaction, the process of a gas bubbling out from a solution
    • Oxygen evolution, the process of generating molecular oxygen through chemical reaction
    • Cosmochemistry (or Astrochemistry), the study of the chemical composition of matter in the universe, including complex organics, and the processes that led to those compositions.

    I'm guessing that the author of Missouri House Bill no. 486 was most concerned about Abiogensis and Molecular Evolution, with maybe a bit of worry about Cosmochemistry as well. But surely Gas Evolution Reaction (like what happens when you shake up a soda bottle before opening it) could also use having teachers help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weakness of the theory of it.]

  5. Steve said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 12:19 pm

    It certainly seems likely that this sentence began its life in a simpler form, and later evolved into a more complex structure. [Insert joke about maladaptive traits sometimes becoming dominant.].

    But I would be willing to bet that even at its earliest stage, the sentence referenced the "theory of evolution", not "evolution". This is partly because "theory of evolution" is such a fixed phrase, partly because "It's just a theory, after all" is such a rallying cry of creationists, and partly because the point of this bill is to encourage students to question whether the theory of evolution is correct. It would actually strike me as a bit strange to reference students evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of "evolution" rather than the strengths and weaknesses of the "theory of evolution."

    Of course, people commonly use "evolution" as short hand for the "theory of evolution", but I think that would be an odd fit for the idea that the bill-drafter was trying to convey here.

  6. Toma said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

    There should be Rube Goldberg sentence competitions along with Rube Goldberg contraption competitions. Make a simple sentence humorously complex.

    [(myl) Well, we do have the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding. And there's even a Right Node Raising category, which Missouri House Bill No. 486 should certainly be a strong contender for.]

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

    Googling reveals uses in discourse about our own favorite discipline of phrases like "strengths and weaknesses of formal semantics" and "strengths and weaknesses of generative grammar," without adding "theory of" to underscore the "it's just a theory" point. Perhaps that's because attitudes toward generative grammar are not typically understood in society at large as a proxy for broader political-cultural-tribal affiliations?

  8. Steve said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

    Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that the structure, "theory of X" is always, or even usually, used to undermine the validity of a principle.

    As for, is this rhetorical move employed in linguistics, the closest analogy I can think of is "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" (also known by many other phrases, but the word "hypothesis" is commonly employed). Perhaps I'm just projecting, but ISTM that the inclusion of the term "hypothesis" in that phrase does, whether by design or otherwise, underscore the point that the idea may not have strong evidentiary support. Though I don't recall people making a point of coming right out and saying that it is "just" a hypothesis, as if the use of that label ended the matter.

  9. the other Mark P said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 3:23 pm

    Of course, people commonly use "evolution" as short hand for the "theory of evolution",

    Actually, they use it as short hand for "Darwin's theory of evolution".

    Other theories of evolution, and amendments to Darwin's, are completely written out of the picture in these political discussions.

    When people annoy me about this, I ask them whether gravity will still exist if EInstein's theory of gravity (wrapped up in relativity) is shown to be wrong. It didn't seem to go away when Newton's theory of law was shown to be wrong.

  10. the other Mark P said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

    sorry, when Newton's law was shown to be wrong.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

    Well, you can find google hits for "strengths and weaknesses of Chomsky's theory" but not "strengths and weaknesses of Grimm's Law" . . .

  12. maidhc said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 5:33 pm

    I believe it to be incorrect. If you diagrammed the sentence in a tree structure, you would see that there is more than one path from the root ("sentence") to a leaf node. If you took "the theory of biological evolution", "theory" is higher in the tree than "evolution". I'll try to draw it, omitting adjectives:

    theory – and – hypotheses
    \ /
    of of
    \ /

  13. maidhc said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    The previous message was not intended to be submitted. I was trying to find some way of entering non-breaking spaces since the software removes multiple spaces from messages. But somehow one of the key combinations I tried (alt-space? ctl-space?) caused the message to submit.

    The dangling adjectives mess up the tree structure, since the only way to attach them creates a loop in what should be a tree.

    I contend that correct English sentences, however complex, must have a tree structure, and loops are not permitted. Or such is my hypothesis, since I haven't researched the topic much.

    It would be much easier to discuss if there were some way to do diagrams.

    [(myl) There are several applets for drawing tree diagrams, e.g. this one.

    But it's pretty clear that some natural languages have got lots of crossing dependencies, and that all languages probably have some of them. See e.g. Emily Pitler's 2013 dissertation, "Models for improved tractability and accuracy in dependency parsing". From the abstract:

    [D]ependency parsing has often been formulated as either searching over trees without any crossing dependencies (projective trees) or searching over all directed spanning trees. The former sacrifices the ability to produce many natural language structures; the latter is NP-hard in the presence of features with scopes over siblings or grandparents in the tree.

    For some examples of crossing dependencies, see e.g. this or this.]

  14. Chris C. said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 8:23 pm

    @maidhc — I believe you can insert non-breaking spaces with the HTML entity  

    test nbsp; nbsp; nbsp nbsp; nbsp; nbsp; test

    comes out:

    test       test

    On-topic, it's been a long time since I did any serious math, but it seems to me that any recursive structure, as Chomsky tells us we use to create language, can be more or less trivially converted to a graph, at least. I'm not sure why language in general should exclude loops, or English in particular for that matter. (A tree being a special case of a graph that does not loop.)

    I'm sure this sounds a bit sophomoric to the experts, who could go on in much more detail than I remember 30 years on from the last time I was exposed to Chomsky (or any math at all, for that matter) in a rigorous way.

  15. nemryn said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    Yeah, I'd throw in some commas: "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological, and hypotheses of chemical, evolution."

    Still a little clunky, though.

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 10:32 pm

    As Rube Goldberg sentence constructions go, you would need to work pretty hard to beat the first sentence of FSK's The Star-Spangled Banner. The instant example doesn't come close. Too, it lacks the follow-up of crushing irony as found in the second sentence; it makes do with a weak sauce of hinted self contradiction.

    If this were in an assignment I was grading, I would feel compelled to write "Surely you can do better than this!" in the margin.

  17. maidhc said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 11:25 pm

    myl: The diagrams generated by that application will not paste into the comments box here. Furthermore I believe it will only generate structures of the type that I consider correct, not the type I was trying to argue are incorrect, because the input format will not allow them.

    [(myl) For a more general (and thus more complex) graph-drawing application, there's graphviz. Or you could start with trees and add cross-links by hand using gimp or whatever. And finally, you could draw what you want on a piece of paper and scan it, or take a picture with your phone, or whatever.

    Fitting the results into a small display space is always going to be a problem — I'd suggest putting the image up on Flickr and linking to it.]

    The first paper has "crossing dependencies' in the title, but as far the English-language examples are concerned, they are of the sort "He would eat rutabagas, and Holly would too." Pitler gives "The units have worked on 37 investment banking deals this year, he says, though not all of them have panned out." I think these are different matters than I what was attempting to get at. I may not have the right vocabulary to get it across.

    [(myl) One standard sort of example from English comes up when a relative clause is on the far side of an adverb: "I saw someone yesterday who was riding a unicycle". The adverb "yesterday" is not part of the noun phrase "someone who was riding a unicycle", but rather modifies the whole verb phrase or perhaps the whole sentence — the traditional description is that the relative clause has been "extraposed". Or subject "it" with an associated clause sitting on the other side of the predicate: "It bothers me that you keep looking out the window".]

    I don't know enough about German or Dutch to comment on those examples, I'm just sticking to English.

    Perhaps a better way to express what I'm trying to say is:

    "theory of biological and chemical evolution" here the AND is joining the two adjectives together

    "theory of and hypotheses of evolution" here the AND is joining the two OFs to take the same object. I'm not sure I like this. I would prefer "theory and hypotheses of evolution".

    "theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution" here the AND is trying to serve both purposes at once.

    Chris C.: The grammar for arithmetic expressions:

    Exp ::= Exp + Term | Exp – Term | Term

    Term ::= Term * Factor | Term / Factor | Factor

    Factor ::= x | y | … | ( Exp ) | – Factor

    is recursive. It will generate trees of arbitrary complexity, but never with loops.

  18. maidhc said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 1:52 am

    I asked my wife, and she thought it was OK. So according to my survey results, 50% of native English speakers find it an acceptable construct.

  19. John Swindle said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 6:18 am

    They're going out of their way to contrast theory to hypothesis, presumably in deference to partisans of revealed religion, and they're getting tangled up in the process. But the contrast between theory and hypothesis has almost nothing to do with what they're actually trying to say. All they're trying to say is that students should learn to evaluate scientific ideas scientifically.

  20. richardelguru said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 6:58 am

    @ the other Mark P
    Pedantic point, but Einstein didn't make Newton's theories 'wrong', it extended them.

  21. GH said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 7:42 am

    @John Swindle

    That's certainly what they're trying to give the impression they're saying, but those of us with a suspicious mindset are inclined to believe that what they're trying to do with this bill is to allow the teaching of non-scientific criticism of evolution in the classroom.

    The bill implies that evolution is the subject of "scientific controversy," in the sense that its basic propositions are not widely accepted among scientists, or that there are serious "scientific weaknesses" being debated. This is simply not the case.

    By conflating religiously-inspired political controversy with scientific controversy, the bill attempts to smuggle non-scientific, fringe and discredited arguments against evolution into classroom teaching. And by asserting the need "respond respectfully to differences of opinion," it suggests that the lack of scientific support for certain positions is not to be plainly stated.

  22. Brett said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 9:31 am

    @richardelguru: No, Einstein showed that Newton was wrong. Newton wasn't very far off in most regimes, but even for the orbits of the planets, Newton's laws were already known to give the wrong answers. And with sufficient precision, Newton's predictions can be shown to be wrong in any regime. (And it only took special relativity, not general relativity, to show Newton was wrong.)

  23. GH said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 10:27 am


    It's a philosophical question of whether one considers a scientific theory an absolute claim about the universal nature of reality (which is falsified if it ever turns out to not exactly match), or just a model that offers a good approximation under certain conditions. In the latter conception, new theories that offer more precision or can deal with more general cases improve on earlier theories, but don't falsify them.

    Of course, many Newtonian scientists (and possibly Newton himself) thought Newton's laws were absolute truths of the universe, and they were definitely wrong about that.

  24. wally said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

    I for one have taken the position that the study encouraged by this bill could be the most important thing a student gets out of school. Since surely one would want to include the study of the alternatives to the theory of evolution. And having "students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of, say, creation science, would be interesting indeed, and I think highly applicable to other controversies we are having.

  25. Piyush said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    @GH, Brett, richardelguru:

    I think Issac Asimov's essay The Relativity of Wrong is quite apropos to this discussion.

    Also, to be even more pedantic, it was not Einstein who showed that Newton's model of mechanics and its use of Gallilean transformations gave "wrong" answers. That was already known for quite some time when Einstein's 1905 papers were published, which itself was a decade before his papers on General Relativity appeared. Indeed, the "corrections" required to Newtonian kinematics were also well known by then: they were derived by Lorentz well before Einstein. Einstein's contribution in special relativity was a formulation of a simple set of principles (a "theory") which entailed the corrections as a natural consequence.

  26. Daniel Barkalow said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 4:10 pm

    I think you should begin awarding the Missouri House Honorable Mention for Controversial ___ and Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding. I think a plaque for the Missouri House Honorable Mention for Controversial ___ would be particularly nice, especially if it were heavy and hung at an angle.

  27. D.O. said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

    The most endearing part of this sentence (but trivial grammatically) for me is "teachers shall be permitted to help students…" I am just imagining poor teachers trying to "help students understand" etc., but some misguided authorities (who?) trying to prevent it and the legislature coming to the rescue.

  28. John Swindle said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 7:29 pm


    Aha! You're right! Despite external evidence (such as the source, the Missouri state legislature), I had taken "the theory of biological evolution" to refer to any and all theoretical considerations around biological evolution. Compare "the theory of art." Of course that's not what they meant at all. They were after that business about monkeys.

  29. Glenn Branch said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

    Alluding to Paley's Natural Theology, Mark Lieberman wrote, "If you found it lying in a field …" Importantly, Paley asks the reader to imagine finding a watch not in a field but on a heath. A field is typically planted and often bounded (by fences or trees or hedges), while a heath isn't under cultivation and isn't bounded. In short, fields are human artifacts and heaths aren't, and that's rhetorically important for Paley.

    The National Center for Science Education, for which I work, tracks such legislation; you can follow the history (if not the syntax) of antievolution bills in Missouri on our website:

    [(myl) Do we actually have heaths here in the U.S.? I changed it to "field" since I think of "heath" as one of those words like "aubergine" and "codswallop" that we call something else on this side of the Atlantic. I admit that I don't have any evidence for this, beyond my own unsupported intuition.]

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 24, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

    The Heath Hen was the subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken that lived on "coastal heaths" in New England. Also in New England, there was "the blasted heath" in Lovecraft's story The Colour out of Space. I don't know whether either is unequivocal evidence that we still have heaths.

  31. Guy said,

    January 24, 2015 @ 4:05 pm


    I think one way this might be analyzed is ((theory (of (biological ___))) and (hypothesis (of (chemical ___)))) (evolution) where we've inserted gaps to function as head of object of "of" linked to an extraposed "evolution". Do I correctly understand your objection, looked at this way, to be that it is ungrammatical for the gap to function as head of a constituent in cases of right more raising? So you would also reject "I like blue, and you like red, baseball caps", or am I missing what you are saying entirely?

  32. Guy said,

    January 24, 2015 @ 4:24 pm

    It occurs to me the awkwardness may be aggravated by "biological" and "chemical" being arguably complements, and not attributive modifiers, to evolution, so that they resist separation more strongly. So maybe a better analogy is "you wear baseball, and I wear basketball, jerseys."

  33. Brett said,

    January 24, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I love the irony of citing "The Colour Out of Space" for American usage.

    Heath, if it is ever used in America, seems to be very rare. Googling "heath England" turns up many pages referring to specific locations and heaths in general. However, Google interprets "heath United States" or "heath America" as an error and changes the search term to "health." It seems to provide a necessary contrast in Britain that does not exist in American English. I recall that I have seen other British writing that implicitly assumed that a "field" meant specifically a cultivated one, whereas fields untouched by humans are unremarkable in American English (although not so commonly found these days). Whether the obsolescence of "heath" in America is the cause or effect of this linguistic difference, I have no idea.

    I just realized that there is also a family of plants known as "heather," the Ericaceae. The family includes plenty of flowering, fruiting shrubs found in North America, but the term "heather" also seems to be rare here.

  34. John Swindle said,

    January 24, 2015 @ 5:26 pm

    American English has no word for heath.

  35. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 24, 2015 @ 11:35 pm

    Brett: Yes, I wasn't sure whether my citation indicated that "heath" really shambles down the tenebrous and curiously disorganised corridors of American usage.

    You can find American uses of "heath" by combining it with "pine barrens", "pitch pine", or "jack pine". (You may have to put "heath" in quotation marks, though, to tell Google you mean business.) There seems to be some confusion, since definitions of "heath" say it has no trees, but some of the hits I got refer to pine trees (duh) as the dominant vegetation.

    Wikipedia says there are extensive heathlands in the California chaparral, but I don't think people usually call them that. (Here's an exception.)

    The "heath family" contains plants called both heather (Calluna) and heath (Erica), neither of which grows naturally in North America. Apparently American heaths (ecotype) do often have plants of the heath family, though. Try searching for "blueberry heath".

    Turning from botany to language, though, I agree that "if we were to find a watch lying in a heath" doesn't convey much of a picture to most Americans.

    I never saw a moor.

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 24, 2015 @ 11:44 pm

    A parallel to the original quotation at COCA is "It also has had unrestricted expansion of existing and influx of new businesses." There are several with percents, such as "70% of medical and 36% of surgical patients". (COCA isn't cooperating. I think it wants money. I have had a lot of fun with it, so maybe…)

    There are no records of anything similar with commas as people have suggested, though that doesn't mean commas wouldn't improve the evolution example.

  37. maidhc said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 4:46 am

    Guy: Yes, those are constructions similar to what I would disallow.

    The argument I was trying to get across was that if you tried to structure it as a tree, you would have multiple paths from the root to a leaf. Unlike what myl is talking about as "crossing dependencies", because in those cases, if you picked the tree up and shook it, they would sort themselves out. In other words, they are context sensitivities, because they require you to retain information from the beginning of the sentence over to the other side, which has only a minor grammatical connection to the left-hand part.

    [(myl) This is certainly not true of cross-serial dependencies in general, e.g.


    If I disallow your example, the question remains whether there is an example in English that would cause me to recant. So far not. Although it's rather arbitrary, since I certainly understand the meaning of those examples I am claiming are unacceptable. It's more in the nature of a thought experiment. Are there any acceptable English sentences that do not have a single path from the root to a leaf? That affects the nature of the grammar that generates them.

    If I reject "you wear baseball, and I wear basketball, jerseys", are there any other constructs that would contradict my hypothesis? I'm arguing here out of a spirit of curiosity, not because I think this is important.

    "Heath": I've been in heaths, and I don't think they really exist in North America. Chaparral is kind of like a heath, but the ecology is much different. In Europe you can also find maquis, which again is similar but not quite the same. I would say maquis is not found in Northern Europe or North America. Different kind of ecosystem.

  38. Brett said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 9:17 am

    @maidhc: I had no idea "maquis" was a terrain type. I was only familiar with the resistance fighters, who were evidently named for the terrain where they hid out.

  39. James Wimberley said,

    January 28, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

    To be pernickety, "maquis" is Mediterranean scrub a couple of metres high. The Archdeacon would be very lucky indeed to find a watch in it. The low heather-high stuff is "garrigue", in France at least.

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