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This was delightful, but I have always thought of the "ban" on discussion of the origins of language more as a "self-denying ordinance," and as such very sensible. Part of the "science instinct" is an instinct for finding the fruitful question--i.e., one that we might make a reasonable start on answering with the means at hand. The age of amateur scientists and scientific amateurs--roughly before 1860 or so--was naturally prone to tackle ultimate questions several steps beyond those that could usefully be asked. The recognition that this was still true with respect to the origins of language is part of the maturing process of the age. I think of George Eliot's "Middlemarch," which takes place in 1829-30. The egregious Dr. Causaubon is trying to write "The Golden Bough" 70 years too early. The heroic medical researcher Lydgate, however, is trying to figure out the single chemical nature of undifferentiated protoplasm--just before the discovery of the cell. In other words, as Eliot very quietly points out, he's barking up the wrong tree in a way uncannily similar to Casaubon's, for all that his training is more up-to-date. Looked at this way, the "ban" disappeared at the moment when we finally had enough evolutionary biology,genetics, neurobiology and anthropology to begin to say something useful about the problem. As an amateur of the subject, though, I have to say that I often feel that we're still a generation too early. The good stuff is still coming. Maybe language does fossilize!
Toggle Commented Jun 23, 2011 on Forbidden Knowledge at Babel's Dawn
Blair, A brilliant post, and I entirely agree with you about the necessity of narrative. But I do think someone should say a word for Stephen Jay Gould and the "just-so story." As I understand it, Gould's meaning was something much more specific than the unreliability of evolutionary narrative. Gould was referring to the popular misunderstanding of evolution, in which every discrete feature has to be separately accounted for by a specific adaptive advantage. An example would be the distribution of our remaining hair, where the conservation of head hair supposedly has to do with keeping the brain cool, whereas axillary hair is there to trap pheromones and pubic hair is a visual exclamation point, a dry lubricant, etc. Different but equally plausible explanations were deployed a number of years ago in support of the theory that homo sapiens evolved by the seaside. We're essentially hairless because it helps us swim, but we have hair on our heads to protect our scalp while we wade. Of course, we could equally have evolved coats like otters! Gould was not sneering at Kipling, but comparing the evolutionary naivete in such stories to "How the Elephant Got his Trunk" and similar origin fables. Gould's point was that features like axillary hair may be accidental byproducts of changes in mechanisms of growth and/or control driven by some other adaptive advantage altogether. Gould famously called such byproducts "spandrels." Gould's acerbity on this point was of course partly driven by his liberal politics. Vulgar biological determinism constantly deploys such stories in the service of fatuous Panglossianism at best and social Darwinism and eugenics at the worst. A good example is the bizarre and irritating idea that men are promiscuous and women monogamous because they are pursuing different reproductive strategies, as if they belonged to different species. The problem, of course, is that the proliferation of one's genes requires one's children to survive and reproduce, so that fathers should be no less invested in the nurturing and support of their offspring than mothers. If they're not, there must be some other explanation, of which the simplest and most parsimonious is that natural selection and therefore evolution is still going on, in this area as in every other. As Richard Dawkins has been heard to complain, most Americans first learned their evolutionary theory from Gould. I'm one of them, and it wasn't a bad place to start.
Toggle Commented Apr 9, 2011 on Finding the Truth in a Story at Babel's Dawn
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Apr 9, 2011