Friday, September 02, 2016

Evolution, Chomsky and Bows and arrows

Just a note on what I am reading in Tom Wolfe's new book on language and Darwin.

There is a long section about Chomsky who believes language is wired in the brain, and a man who spent time with a remote Amazon tribe whose language lacked elements that Chomsky said should be there, so Chomsky was wrong.

I don't know enough about the subject to follow much of this except to note a few things.

One: the Amazon once had a vibrant agricultural culture that is no longer there. It died out from white man's diseases.

So it is possible that the tribe disintegrated with the demographic collapse, and lost much of it's knowledge.

However, in the book, one trying to disprove Chomsky assumes the tribe is a representative of ancient man who hasn't yet evolved to more complicated ways of speech, thinking or tool making.

Who came to this conclusion?

Two: The language of this tribe lacks aspects of language that Chomsky insists are in every the controversy assumed that this counteracts Chomsky...

 yet the next chapter notes that children in contact with the local Portuguese easily picked up the language. WTF? Doesn't this suggest that Chomsky is right,, and that kids had the wiring (hardware) in their brain that let them learn language? (and language has a window that enables one to learn it, which is why children learn easier than adults, and why deaf children need to get their cochlear implants at a very young age).

and since the language is linguistically related to other local languages, one wonders: What are subtle aspects of these languages? Could the more subtle aspects have been dropped with the simplification of the culture? Or with people of several tribes with slightly different languages that combined and dropped the complicated aspects?

But in anthropology I am told there are some cultures that do not think of past or present: I haven't worked with these, but I have worked with cultures where the future is seen as so vague that why talk about it.

Three: The number of people in the tribe is less than 400 suggesting interbreeding. Other "isolated" tribes turned out to be known to kidnap women and children from other tribes to keep up their numbers, but this was not mentioned, and of course, if done would lead to new words in their language, which also is not mentioned. And of course interbreeding is a known cause of mental and physical defects. Could there be a genetically based neurophysiological type of agnosia to explain their inability to recognize past and future?

Four: The presence of a low level of life also makes me wonder if the IQ was lower from protein malnutrition in the young children... not to mention developmental problems from disease. Ditto for the seeming willingness of the people to pick up new ideas. Repeated infections, chronic malaria, parasites and hookworm are all major causes of lack of energy.

Of course, as is mentioned in the book, if you suggest this you are "racist". Yes, the Eugenics movement of the early 1900's suggested the low IQ of the Irish and Jewish immigrants fleeing starvation level poverty in the old country was due to inferior genes,  but their grandkids are doing well, so presumably it was not genetic but environment. Ditto for the lazy dull redneck: Hookworm and vitamin deficiency were behind this cliche.

Five: The people had no tools, didn't make any tools, and declined to learn how to make tools.

Yet they had bows and arrows, which are quite sophisticated to make. This suggests a deterioration of the culture from isolation and loss of knowledge.

Six: There was a point where the outsider tried to teach kids basic arithmetic so they wouldn't be cheated when trading, and the chief saw the kids knew something more than he did, so punished the kids. This might suggest that the dislike of learning new things is cultural, a form of passive aggression, knowing that if you know more you will be punished? And how many of the smartest and brightest minds either leave the tribe for a better opportunities or are killed quietly by their jealous neighbors?

Or maybe they are just too tired to make the effort.

The dirty little secret is that Amazon tribes are not happy people living in paradise having a wonderful time. And medically, they have a high incidence of hookworm and parasites.  not to mention tuberculosis, STD's and other diseases.

Yes, I know: Wolfe's new book is about evolution and the language puzzle not solved by Darwin's philosophy.

And I will have to read the next chapter to see how this fits in with the theory (and maybe reread the book slowly, since right now I am listening to by Text to speech while I do other things).

But I get annoyed with books that quote experts and tell as story that ignores the obvious.

I've lived and worked too many years in such areas not to see poverty and disease behind the romantic vista. So excuse me for not being enthusiastic about the noble savage, which by the way was a myth concocted by a French philosopher who sent his kids to an orphanage because their crying might interfere with his lifestyle.

The PC lament that "contact" with a new society leads to the destruction of that society is, alas, true, (the trick in development work is to change things with as little harm as possible).

but you know, change is not the same as the destruction of the people. For all the lament of killing of these cultures, you have to remember that often this ignores the culture disappears because people chose to leave, and the people live on but are now invisible because they assimilate with the outsiders.

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