Thursday, September 15, 2011

Language, Ron Paul, and a Baltimore Bookstore

Language, Ron Paul, and a Baltimore Bookstore

My daughter, a high school sophomore, gave me the transcript of a portion of a lecture by Professor Mark Pagel.  In it, he talks about the development of language as the key component in the advancement of human civilization.  It is language that separates us from Neanderthal, language that separates us from Homo Erectus, and, ultimately, language that separates us from the chimp.  And, paradoxically, it can be language that separates us from each other.  Language, he says, is subversive.

Language augments social learning.  Language creates a commerce of ideas.  It allows us to trade things in the most basic way: to exchange information broadly and, in doing so to build on collective knowledge to advance the species.  Professor Pagel uses as an example the stone hand axes of Homo Erectus.  For a million years, they made superb axes, each essentially the same, unimproved from the original.  Homo Erectus was then succeeded by Neanderthal, and they, too, made tools for another 300,000 years.  Their tools were more complex than those made by Homo Erectus, but again, they were essentially unchanged over time.

Language was the missing component.  Joe Neanderthal made the bow and arrow and the spearhead. But he was incapable of making an exchange.  Joe N couldn’t look at Sam N’s arrow and say “hey, that’s a pretty good edge you put on there, but I like my shaft better-why don’t we swap my extra shafts for your extra arrowheads”.  Without language, and without a broader social commerce, Joe N could only learn from his immediate tribe through "social learning", that is to say, through imitation,  or what Pagel calls “visual theft”.

About 200,000 years ago we began to break out of this, and it'ss a good thing we did.  If we had simply stuck to small bands, with limited language, and limited innovation, it’s likely the species would not have advanced, just as Neanderthal and Homo Erectus did not.  More intellectual horsepower from bigger brains would have increased sophistication, but only to a point.  We needed a way to communicate ideas, even rudimentary ones, such as “nice arrowhead, want to trade for my shafts?” and language is both the medium and end product of that process.  Language makes for the commerce of ideas.

We tend to think of the Discoverers as great individualists; each with their own eureka moment.  The imagery of contemporary genius is Einstein puffing on his pipe contemplating the cosmos, or Steven Hawking, trapped in isolation in his chair, brain freed only for thoughts.  In fact, the reality of creativity and discovery is often far different, it is a synthesis.  A few years ago I went to a ceremony for a friend of mine, a geneticist who being given an important award for creating mechanisms that helped other geneticists test theories.  In other words,  she was making tools for others to make discoveries.  At first glance, that might seem odd, except when you think that Guttenberg made his printing press by assembling existing parts and forming new ones.  So too, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak sat in a garage with extant components, added their own creativity, and made a personal computer.  Ideas, large and small, create a mass of knowledge, what anthropologists, and Nagel, call cumulative cultural adaptation.  IPads and those annoying mounted singing trout are all a product of that.

Why is this relevant to Syncopated Politics?  Well, Professor Pagel notes that there are more than 7000 languages spoken.  On Papua New Guinea, 800 to 1000 discrete languages are spoken.  It's barely a matter of a mile or two to find another village where a different language is spoken.  And the inhabitants of these villages can often converse only with the people of their tribes.  Their language, and their cumulative cultural adaptation, is circumscribed by that small world.  Perhaps not so co-incidentally, some of these tribes can still be called “stone aged”.

We have to go to a far-away island to experience this.  Just as language can be used to illuminate and communicate with others, it can also be used to foster complex coded private clubs, even sophisticated ones.  You don’t need to wear a loin-cloth to belong to a tribe. And when tribes lapse into only speaking their own languages, with limited communication with the outside world, they recreate the insularity that retards social progress.

And that is what we are doing right now.  Even though the internet has fostered great democratizing movements abroad, here, the gigantic mass of social media, 24 hour news networks, talk radio, etc. are the mechanisms of this tribalism.  Several years ago I was in Baltimore, and we all wandered into a bookstore in the Inner Harbor.  There was a barrel-chested man with a droopy mustache who was carrying around several books, all of the same right wing genre.  Laura Ingram, O’Reilly, Michelle Malkin. He seemed to be moving from table to table, displaying his books, and looking a little like John Travolta clearing the floor before he dances in Saturday Night Fever.  He wore a t-shirt that said “It’s not Herstory, it’s History”.  And he was pretty darn proud of it.  If one wants to, you can live in a wall-to-wall partisan world.  Talk radio in the car to work.  Rush in the afternoon, Sean and Bill and Fox at night.  The same tale told over and over again.  The Left has it’s own echo chamber, albeit without quite the same infrastructure.  Truth becomes a malleable thing, twisted to fit the narrative.  Pick a topic these days, and it’s all political, all Left and Right. There is apparently no empiric truth.  And where there is no empiric truth, there cannot be any cooperation.  How do you compromise when you see a totally different reality?

The Republican/Tea Party debate provided another moment.  Wolf Blitzer asked what should happen to a young man who refuses to spend the money for health insurance, and then falls into a coma.  Should he be treated at a hospital? Several people in the audience shouted to let him die.  The candidates, perhaps to their credit as human beings, seemed to freeze. Ron Paul got off the only semi-coherent answer about how churches and charities provided medical care for the needy.  The rest seemed too stunned, or too concerned about appearing too weak for the Tea Party crowd.  I may be out of line for trying to think like a conservative, but the correct answer is something along the lines of “no, we treat him, we value life.  We treat and we send him the bill, even garnishing his salary if we have to, because in our society we expect adults to take personal responsibility. But we treat him, because the alternative is something we should never consider”.     

That answer wasn’t there, and that silence was telling an unspoken truth-that we have people in this country angry enough to let someone else die to make an ideological point.  And we have politicians who enable them by either active encouragement or silent acquiescence.

In “1984” Orwell creates “Newspeak”, a new language, stripped of nuance, stripped of ideas other than those approved by the state.  A population that uses only Newspeak to converse eventually loses the ability to think heretical thoughts.   But Newspeak is really only for the Proles.  The elites, the scientists, will still use English, because they need to think.

Fox or MSNBC do not use Newspeak.  But they do have their own language.  When reality is always filtered through an ideological lens, then we lose the ability to cooperate.  And as this becomes a seemingly permanent state of affairs,  as we become divided up into separate tribes speaking separate languages, we impair our ability to advance as a civilization, politically, scientifically and perhaps even morally.  We begin to live the consequences of what Mark Pagel saw in our prehistoric ancestors.