Providing grounds for the greening of human language.

 

 

 

 

Patricia reviews Adam’s Tongue by Derek Bickerton, Part Two

by Patricia | 10.24.12

Part One here.

This is a GREEN LANGUAGE post.

Adam's Tongue cover1

New kid on the block niche construction course-corrects the previous scientific proposition that evolution is a one-way road: “Adaptation is always asymmetrical; organisms adapt to their environment, never vice versa” (Bickerton quoting George Williams, p. 92).  The niche construction light switched on for Bickerton when he attended a conference where niche construction theory co-founder John Odling-Smee spoke on the idea. An avowed skeptic of “new theories,”  Bickerton became a quick convert, snapping up niche construction and building it into his developing theories of language evolution. Here, in Bickerton’s words, is the gist of niche construction theory:

…animals themselves modify the environments they live in, and … these modified environments, in turn, select for further genetic variation in the animal. So a feedback process begins, a two-way street in which the animal is developing the niche and the niche is developing the animal, until you get the lock-and-key fit between animal and niche … (99)

As Bickerton points out, this new position permitting mutual trade between species and environment countermands previous evolutionary theory casting environment in the tyrannical “Adapt or die!” role it played for decades on evolution theory’s stage. It also relieves species of typecast roles of weak or strong contestants that died out if they failed to catch on quickly enough to insure genetic survival or that lived into the future if they found right answers to an environment’s capricious riddles. In niche construction theory, Bickerton found the missing link that helped him imagine how humans shattered the genetic glass ceiling of ACSs and began developing at an unprecedented speed, altering the world on a scale that no other species has the words and hence mind to dream of doing. Human language, says Bickerton, “is a prime example of niche construction, arising out of a specific niche and enabling us to construct more and more elaborate niches. It began as a behavior and drove genetic change and continued as a series of genetic changes that drove behavior” (107).  Language sparked a capacity for adaptation that snowballed, becoming, as Bickerton puts it, an “autocatalytic process. Once it’s started, it drives itself; it creates and fulfills its own demands. The more you do, the more you can do, and indeed the more you have to do” (107).

I found many of Bickerton’s arguments compelling. For me, his critical focus on hold-up narratives about human and animal language as well as on famous attempts to establish seamless continuity in the rainbow relationship of great apes to humans in the family Hominoidea were a lot of fun. Whether I agreed or not, I saw them as well-taken steps in reasoning he pursued in order to set up his argument that niche construction is an important answer to the where-did-we-come-from and where-are-we-going questions human evolution poses.

However, other readers might find irritating the amount of time he spends balderdashing darling story lines in language evolution. Likewise the elaborate tale he spins out about how human forerunners gained the gift of gab. That bit of long ago and far away speculative prehistory involves an act of imagination of a sort that might provoke some readers to lose patience. But as I told a friend who chafed at some narrative strains in Adam’s Tongue, Bickerton’s take on language is not perfect (it doesn’t need to be) but is on the right track, because narratives like his are not about discovering what’s “The Truth” so much as they are about creating “What’s Possible.” The man holds his own thinking lightly, speaks from where he is at the moment, and builds from that spot toward his next narrative position. His point later in the book that “… language and human thought most certainly did coevolve” (p. 191) is a great gateway insight that can provide for language’s continued development–which development is a ceaseless struggle, because many there be who wish to promote their narrative strain as the dominant one–“The Truth.”

Does the book fall short? I think so, in an important way. While Bickerton enthusiastically embraces the concept that environments and species influence one another and coevolve, and he says that language and humans are coevolving, he doesn’t explicitly name language an environment. In this way, his comparison of the human-language relationship to the species-environment relationship seems incomplete. Because I already believe that language is an environment, I looked for just that meeting point and thought he was on course. Instead, at the end the book, he veered off into “negative niche construction” and angst about ants. That is, angst that humans, in their behavior, exhibit the constrained lifestyles of ants rather than the hunter-gatherer livelihoods of the greater apes. Ants, says Bickerton, operate under a high degree of social control, and so, now, do we, to a degree that “would have been both incomprehensible and intolerable to our hunting-and-gathering ancestors. Why is it, do you suppose, that when a hunter-gatherer group is sucked into the vortex of ‘civilization,’ so many of its members seem to undergo a kind of spiritual death, quickly falling victim to drugs, alcohol, irrational violence, or suicidal dispair? Think about it (p. 248).”

I have thought about it. I think that the environment in which human brains live and develop–human language–suffers underdevelopment in some quarters and exploitation and logosdegration in many other quarters analogous to what has occurred in the physical environment. In fact, problems in human language preceded and enabled despoiling lands and species and still do so. Despite language’s skyrocketing to become a force of nature on this planet, we’re still neophytes in this moving, living relationship we’re wrapped up in with it, and language is young with us. By virtue of language’s recombinant drive and intelligence’s native desire, we may develop and be developed by new narrative strains that open onto hitherto unimagined inspiring gardens and wild landscapes of expression. Finding these will lead to heightened relationship, people-to-nature and people-to-people. As that happens, we’ll likely drop by the wayside that romantic baggage that the vibrant lifeways of hunter-gatherers fell and are falling to the constraints and psychoses of civilization; there’ll be no comparison. Such nostalgia trembles on the tip of Adam’s Tongue but rises to a fever pitch in other environmental works. Amy Irvine’s Trespass is a good example, and the primitive-and-harmonious man apologue is fully present and accounted for in another work I’m reading, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.

So with all his energy for swapping some theories out and others in, and in spite of his pointing up the niche construction nature of language, Bickerton stops short of saying, Yessir, language is an environment. Which is a pity. Our best hope for human evolution is to treat is as such, so I’ll say it. If we attend to language as an environment, awarding it the same status of influence upon our species and acknowledging our reciprocal influence upon it–if we grant language full and engaged companionship in one of the most powerful niches currently evolving–we’ll really get going. We’ll no longer feel the need for hunter-gatherer language. More energetic and less anti-climatic language will permit livelier ways. As it is, there’s still popular in contemporary narratives the idea that language is only a tool, a stick for getting ants out of a log. Indeed, the sort of storying where environmentalists embrace the “hunter-gatherer good–civilization-agriculture bad” narrative strain wields quite a bit of language-as-tool prowess. It’s a narrative strategy that may be as old as hunting-gathering itself. Via hammered and sharpened words, some of its edges enable exploitation in all its actualities.

More on that later, back to Bickerton. I recommend Adam’s Tongue to anyone fascinated with language’s unique qualities of all qualities in the world. If you come prepared to be patient with the book, it will yield bits and pieces that you might find meaningful enough to build into your current view of language’s role in your life. To eager language beavers like me, Adam’s Tongue offers one very big missing language piece–the application of niche construction theory to language evolution theory–as well as many smaller ones that prompted me to take new steps in my thinking about language. It’s looking more and more as if the “truth” about language is one we’re making as language makes us; take it as an environmental concern, one of the biggest ones going, and its inherent sexiness will become irrepressible. What was the word Bickerton used? “Autocatalytic.”

So, everyone: keep compiling your list of brain foods–soy, tomatoes, avocados, fish. But add to it “human language”. Good language is brain food. If we can avoid impregnating it with the rhetorical equivalents of lead; arsenic; cadmium; the mercurial miasmas of guilt, shame, fear, and anger; the unyielding qualities of plastics; the sterilizing pesticides with which we treat the “Truth”; and a host of other rhetorical devices and concoctions that trickle down through human language to other humans, to other species, and to the land at large, everything will clean up nicely. We’ll hardly recognize the place. And that’s because it will have formed different grounds, something more fertile, vital, restorative, and fast–on the move toward nobody knows. We’ll have to find words as we get there.

4 Responses to Patricia reviews Adam’s Tongue by Derek Bickerton, Part Two

  1. Will Reger

    I have so many things to say in response to this review, but one quick point:

    To my mind, the notion that language is a tool does not violate the spirit of language as environment (as you have described it), because we know that the tool shapes the laborer. A man bent over his scythe, his pen, his machine, his red button of nuclear destruction is shaped in subtle and real ways by the tools with which he does the work he does. As a person interacts through language with the world, the mind and spirit are shaped through usage, until the word patterns are as much an expression of the spirit as anything else. Ah, but find a new way of saying things and the world shifts a little. In matters of faith, for example, it has been my observation that repetitive language (in the pursuit of consistent pedagogy) calcifies understanding, reducing it to rote repetition of unexamined concepts. Break away from language as a tool in support of curricular correlation and suddenly the believer must find new ways to capture and convey his deepest feelings. It becomes a liberating and sometimes frightening exercise in defining himself in the universe, using language to actually declare himself amid the many voices around him. Perhaps that, too, is a form of niche construction.

  2. Patricia

    Will, thanks so much for commenting! I appreciate it deeply. I apologize for taking so long to reply–this is my first chance to say something, though I’ve been thinking your words over for two or three days.

    First, I think that human language has tool-ish aspects and uses. If peckish and travel-weary me stops at the local visitor’s center and asks where to find the nearest restaurant, and the visitor’s center host directs me effectively to its location, the stick has worked to get those ants or termites out of their mounds. I’ve used language to get me what I wanted and needed–food. Yay!

    The classic example of niche construction in nature is the beaver and its habitat. According to niche construction theory, the relationship that beavers have had for thousands and thousands of years with the environment has produced not only the creature we know as a beaver, but has also altered the environment. As beaver and habitat traded back and forth, the beaver’s incisors grew, and it developed oil glands that help it keep its coat waterproof as it hangs out in cool pools. The environment partnered with the beaver to create the beaver as well as the beaver partnered with its habitat to create a standout example of environment-species niche construction relationships.

    If we apply the beaver-habitat niche construction relationship to your examples above, I think the tools that you mention–scythe, pen, doomsday button–correspond to the beaver’s four hyper-developed incisors, oil glands, flattened tail, etc. For instance, a beaver uses those teeth to fell trees. And by the way, those teeth grow continuously to compensate for the wear and tear of biting into wood. That’s a good example of a tool and its application shaping the laborer as the laborer shapes the habitat.

    But it’s the environment–again, in partnership with the adapting beaver–that informs those tools. The tools are part of the environment, and they affect the environment, and they often shape the species as part of the environment-species relationship, but they are not in themselves an environment.

    Language corresponds to environment in the beaver-environment niche construction analogy. It can be used for tool-ish purposes, but that’s not all it does. Not anymore. My remark above is just me saying that language is not only a tool, and that thinking of it only as that-which-gets-me-what-I-want is detrimental, not just to the development of language but to the further development of mankind. For one thing, reducing the nature of language to that of an implement can lead to objectification of other. Language then becomes the main means by which we arrange other people or species to our liking. Or we might use language as the artillery with which we hold fast against challenges to our mental fortifications. Language is sooo much more creative than that.

    But you’re obviously aware that shifts in language can open up the person to new possibilities, as your poetry and the second half of your comment shows.

  3. Will Reger

    If language is more the environment than the tool, then humans potentially operate in multiple environments. We speak (maybe think) differently at home than we do at work, for example. We engage in jargon to communicate ideas within professional circles, or we learn jargon in order to jump from circle to circle. As university teachers we are like happy beavers attempting to teach our muskrat students to “talk like a be-ea-ver” (sing that last bit as you read it), but of course the language environment of beavers is sometimes beyond those dear muskrats and they must wander deeper into the maze of options presented to them.

    Conversion of any sort brings with it the uncomfortable necessity of entering a new language environment in order to navigate among the new community. We’ve all known people who come from outside who do not engage the environment of language in patterns we find acceptable or comfortable. In some cases they introduce new elements into the environment they enter, though in some cases they are expelled or rejected because their new environment language is too rigid and unwelcoming.

    We could identify such crossover situations in religion, professions, nations, neighborhoods, marriages, and even among individuals who are kept at bay by “inside” languages used among only a few to both identify with the select inside group and to keep outsiders at a distance. One of my favorite examples of this is the swearing and blasphemous language of pirates. There are recorded instances when one pirate doubts the identity of another, until he begins to spew filthy language and thus establish himself as one of the brotherhood of the damned.

    At some point, if we recognize that language is an environment we must also face the issue of the management of that environment. Surely even the lowly beaver must have some sense of its impact on the world around him, or do I anthropomorphize our friend? It seems to me that our notion of “green” is a human-to-environment process. Or perhaps human-over-environment. The doctrine of “green” implies management. Will the establishment of “green” language result in a policing effort to rid our tongues of offensive words? Will there be no legitimate place for ugly words in our lexicons? Or will the “greening” of language accommodate patches of “prairie restoration” as we have in our town, where the unuseful, original indigenous plants thrive along berms and freeways, in ditches, between warehouses and in tiny parcels of unwanted land?

    I’m just curious.

  4. Patricia

    It’s great to have someone to talk to about this! Thanks, Will, for being willing to engage this topic. You ask great questions that help me think this business through.

    If language is more the environment than the tool, then humans potentially operate in multiple environments. We speak (maybe think) differently at home than we do at work, for example. We engage in jargon to communicate ideas within professional circles, or we learn jargon in order to jump from circle to circle. As university teachers we are like happy beavers attempting to teach our muskrat students to “talk like a be-ea-ver” (sing that last bit as you read it), but of course the language environment of beavers is sometimes beyond those dear muskrats and they must wander deeper into the maze of options presented to them.

    You’re right. Particularly adaptive individuals “change up” or “change down” or “switch over” their language, depending on social or cultural environs. Individuals who lack flexibility in their rhetorical behavior could well find themselves “shut out” because their language doesn’t contain the right markers for a particular cultural or social climate. Suppose we think of the different social climes where people might alter their language behavior as being comparable to major ecosystems, which are broad habitat types hosting complex interrelationships between living creatures and non-living components of their type of environment. That is, all the elements, living and non-living, link up into a gestalt. For example, the flora, fauna, water, and air that grow and flow around a river system characterize a riparian ecosystem. Major ecosystems can then be divided into smaller units called biotopes, a biotope being a habitat associated with a particular ecological community, such as a tidal pool, backyard garden, the bark of a tree, a saguaro cactus, etc.

    No matter how large or small the eco-units or niches we apply in our thinking about the earth’s physical environment, we’re still talking about aspects of an over-arching environment that contains them. It’s the same with human language. In the language-human relationship, human language generally, in all its variety, complexity, language family groupings, dialects, distinct or idiosyncratic meanings that develop in regions, a job environment, a street gang or even in a particular family, is still the over-arching system containing these bounded rhetorical relationships. There are “regions” in language. So whatever distinct elements the language of a lawyer or a pirate might display (yep–there are circumstances where these two language habitats might overlap), these two rhetorical climates are contained in the larger logosphere: the whole of human language.

    At some point, if we recognize that language is an environment we must also face the issue of the management of that environment. Surely even the lowly beaver must have some sense of its impact on the world around him, or do I anthropomorphize our friend? It seems to me that our notion of “green” is a human-to-environment process. Or perhaps human-over-environment. The doctrine of “green” implies management. Will the establishment of “green” language result in a policing effort to rid our tongues of offensive words? Will there be no legitimate place for ugly words in our lexicons? Or will the “greening” of language accommodate patches of “prairie restoration” as we have in our town, where the unuseful, original indigenous plants thrive along berms and freeways, in ditches, between warehouses and in tiny parcels of unwanted land?

    Current language evolutionary theory proposes that beside the human brain’s well-advertised function of sustaining human life, it has developed wiring for acquiring language as one of its basic purposes–it has evolved a “language instinct.” This instinct is evident in children almost from the time they’re born. Bickerton proposes that human beings’ breaking through the limitations of animal communications systems (ACSs) was the equivalent of birds achieving flight. We now have the ability to “fly”–to alter our cultural and social climates and our physical environment at a rate of speed that no other creature has achieved or is ever likely to. What is the connection between the quality of language we live and grow in–the language with which we find and make choices about how we live–and the quality of our effects upon the environment? There’s probably a pretty direct correlation, one I’ll explore as I pursue this project.

    More interesting to me are the effects of the quality of language on people’s brains. If toxic elements like lead, cyanide, etc. can affect the cognitive well-being of children and adults, then are there analogous toxic elements in language? If so, might they similarly adversely affect the growth and development of the human brain? Currently, we behave in language as if “anything goes,” just like we did in the physical environment 50 – 200 years ago. If it turns out that language is actually an environment–perhaps one this world has given rise to–then, yeah, for the sake of human being, for the sake of other species on this planet, we might need to make drastic changes in how we live in our language.

    Your question seems to touch on censorship–“a policing effort to rid our tongues of offensive words ….” Censorship is problematic because its outcomes ride on who gets to decide what words are offensive. Historically, censorship has posed problems for freedom of expression, let alone freedom and civil rights generally. The more interesting question for me isn’t whether or not we should weed language of the thorns and thistles of “offensive language” but whether or not language of whatever color opens possibilities for human life rather than limits them or closes them off. Language that has all the suits and trappings of the most religious rhetoric–not a ostensibly offensive bone in its rhetorical body–can be wielded to limit human agency rather than enable it. Any sort of language whose purpose is to close off possibilities for other people (or other species) is language gone wrong. Yet such language is common. It’s the language of objectification–of treating other people as things to be arranged according to one’s own desires and purposes.

    As far as management of the language environment goes, I think aspiring to certain levels of sustainability is in order. For instance, the restoration of reasoning to the public education curriculum would work wonders to improve the quality of the language environment. Teaching kids from early on not to wield the ad hominem fallacy–name calling–seems a good prospect. It could be integrated into the rising movement against bullying, for example. And, as I propose in my essay “Why Poets Need Logic,” good reasoning sustains true creativity.

    But I also believe there are ranges of green language where language’s recombinant qualities take it beyond the range of mere sustainability–that is, merely improving the ground we have developed–to creating new ground. These are the upper ranges of language where we spark continued development of ourselves, individually and as a group, and where we see the depths of relationship we’re involved in with other people and other species and “grow” those. This is cutting edge language that keeps us on the frontier of who we are.

    But more about that later. This is a cool discussion. I’m enjoying it tremendously.

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