mordicai caeli (mordicai) wrote,
mordicai caeli
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Apes of NIMH (91)

Adam's Tongue by Derek Bickerton.

Acheulean axe!
Pride of a million years,
is a death frisbee.

Derek Bickerton is a linguist whose big claim to fame is his work with creoles & pidgins. Just so you know that he is kind of great-- he proposed stranding a bunch of families who speak different languages on a deserted island to see how creoles develop. Dumb old National Science Foundation said it wasn't "ethical." In this post-Survivor, post-Jon & Kate plus Eight world, though, maybe it would fly? This book is Bickerton's delve into the evolution of language, & it is academic enough to bear scrutiny. I of course can only give it the most casual of scholarly readings, but his arguments are plausible enough, at least on the anthropological side of things-- I can't speak to the lingustics of it so much. The subtitle of the book should clue you in on the assumptions underlying everything, & his eventual direction: "How Humans Made Language; How Language Made Humans." I should also mention-- Bickerton has the sense of humor that you might expect of a somewhat eccentric professor; Jenny could barely read over my shoulder without groaning at some of his chestnuts. "Pidgins fly to the rescue!" or "Like a ververt (but not for the very first time)" being notable.

He dwells for a while on differentiation between "Animal Communication Systems" & language, showing the first tied to here & now, & most importantly, to behavior modification. A predator warning isn't abstract, & it isn't raw info; it means "get up into a tree!" & it directly influences the hearer to get up into a tree. Bickerton is clear that he's trying to scrape out anthropic bias, while at the same time thinks that failing to show language as a new thing is just a return (around the other side as it were) of that homocentrism. Putting language on a continuum with ACS isn't right, & it has its roots in dogma, not science. I have to say, I was largely convinced; maybe it was him hammering home that evolution does just the minimum needed to get by, but simultaneously arguing that there isn't a hierarchy; an ACS does what it needs to do. It isn't a crappy language, it is different from language. Further more, he has an interesting tactic when it comes to a lot of primatology studies: just simply pointing out that apes & monkeys, while they may be phylogically similar to humans & early hominids, are a world apart ecologically. There isn't habitat overlap; there aren't savanna apes. Or rather there are, & it is us.

Niche evolution was the key that unlocked Bickerton's speculation. Environment puts the natural selection hammer down, but animal behavior both creates new niches & can change the environment. There is a feedback loop there, which old school evolution tends to downplay or ignore. I'll crib his example, since it is a good one: beavers. Rodents start living in the swamp. They start adapting to the swamp. A new behavior sets in: building swamps. They start adapting to building swamps. Forgive me for the gross simplification, but you can see what I'm getting at. Or rather, what he's getting at.

So what is his argument? He says the cornerstone to language uncoupling is...displacement. Not just the physically & temporally present. How do you get there from here? Well, Bickerton paints a credible enough picture. He puts protohumans moving from "terrestrial omnivore" to "low-end scavenger." Low-end scavaging, connected to the period of protohuman distribution of cachement. What we are talking about in practice is tribes of protohumans, largely sedentary, who go to kill sites after all the other scavangers have had their way, & steal the bones. The bones too big to be cracked, which they then get into with stone tools, right into the rich marrow. Alright-- this is just setting the stage for what he thinks is the key phase: Power Scavenging. The transition to the niche of high-end scavenger. Now, he's not shy about pointing out that there are some heafty breeds of megafauna about-- as he puts it, half a dozen genera-- not species, genera-- of just big cats. Big cats. So how they heck is he arguing that a bunch of claw- & fang-less apes gets in there? Well; first by having the needed tools to cut heavy hides before bacteria cause gas to rupture them (the moment all the scavengers are waiting for). Those teardrop shaped hand axes you find all over the place in archeology? Them.

More to the point though, he says, are numbers. Bickerton posits that high-end scavenging comes along with territory ranging hominids, & points at a fission/fusion tribal model for how protohumans are behaving. Splitting up into smaller groups, ranging around till they see the proverbial circling vultures, & then? Running to go get help. Derek Bickerton puts recruitment center stage for language acquisition, for two reasons. One, the more "language-like" of ACSes are bees & ants...who both use them for recruitment. Two, for the simple fact that suddenly, you've got displacement. You run up to a couple of hairies & point, make mammoth noises, whatever...& you are talking about somewhere else with benefits in the future. So the hominids gather all the help they can, fusing back into a big group, & start picking up more hand axes. There are lots of piles of hand axes in the archeological record. A lot, with most of them seemingly unused. To the point where there are theories that the hand axe wasn't a tool at all, but a ritual object. The point is, there are a lot.

So you grab up as many hand axes as you can carry. They are in piles all over the place; when you don't have bags, piles all over the place are the best way to ensure you have things available. Maybe there are more on the way to where the other protohuman is leading you, & you grab more there. You & all your friends gather up & get to the dead mammoth. Sabertooth cats & whatever are gathering in a circle, maybe have already claimed it. So what do you do? You start whipping those hand axes at them. Just a huge group of apes throwing stone shuriken , driving off competitors long enough for some of the others to butcher off some of the best cuts before you abscond. The best thing about this theory? Is that it fits the facts. Around the time hominids are in sedentary tribes, you find bones with stone cuts on top of predator toothmarks-- meaning afterward. When the bones start dating from territorialism, you begin to find the opposite-- the stone tool marks under the gnawed grooves.

I know I'm focusing on the human evolution aspect more than the linguistic; that is just what I know more about. Derek Bickerton fills out the other half of the equation admirably. He has some stiff words for Noam Chomsky-- but not before putting in a disclaimer that I thought was rather compelling. Bickerton recognizes that Anti-Chomsky has become a political position, an easy way to for small dogs to make a name for themselves, but that doesn't stop him from disagreeing...but he disagrees because he thinks Chomsky is wrong. & to my reading, Bickerton trounces him pretty soundly. Of course, Chomsky has been pretty wishy-washy about language origins for so long, & I'd hardly put his opinions on the subject as central to his linguistic schema. From the displacement Bickerton outlines, he puts the next step to pidgins, & then from there he argues, the process is largely autocatalytic.

Me, I like locating language 50,000 years ago rather than 2,000,000 years ago, but only because it solves the Great Leap Forward problem. Even then, the two aren't necessarily at odds; if protolanguage develops two million years ago, who can say how long it would languish unformed before some necessary threshold was passed & human brains were neurologically rewired utterly?

(One aside. On page 230, Bickerton lays out an instance in which language's arbitrariness is outlines, where a woman drives past shouting "pig!" & the man assumes she's a rabid feminist obsessed with male chauvinism, only to find there is a dead pig in the road ahead. I'd just like to register a complaint, & point out the total immersion of misogyny in modern culture, where straw women are set up with unthinking regularity. You know who yell sexist things out of cars? Men, at women. This is one of those reversals of reality that is prevalent but untrue-- the prowling "man-hater." It just isn't true. It doesn't detract from the book-- the book itself is largely gender forward, with frank discussions of the role of females in the Power Scavanger motif & how gender divisions of hunting & gathering aren't set in stone. I just want to be aware of the tiny little blips, the stuff that could be overlooked, but shouldn't be.)
Tags: anthropology, bickerton, books, haiku, linguistics
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