Posts Tagged ‘language’

SERMON: “Talk to the Animals” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

We’ve all heard it: one half of a cell phone conversation.

“Nothing.  Just waiting to pay for my groceries.  What are you doing?”

Someone in their pajamas, at the grocery store, having all appearances of nowhere to rush to, and nothing pressing to do, nevertheless carries in her hand the technology to talk to anybody about nothing anywhere she wants to.

Our communications technology, it seems, has far outstripped our capacity to come up with something worth saying.  It makes me wonder just what it is that we’ve done with our much-vaunted ability to talk.  Though the creationists among us may see ourselves as the ultimate “purpose” of life on earth, I’m fairly certain that the rest of the animal kingdom is not (The Jungle Book’s King Louie’s plea of “I wanna talk like you” notwithstanding) desirous of our position.

Birds chatter all the time. What do they find to talk about?

Birds talk all the time.  I often wonder what it is that they find to talk about.  After all, how complex can the internal life of a grackle or sparrow be?  Maybe, for them, chirping is the calming act of repetitive sound making — sort of a sing song meditation.

Whales, I think, would really have something to say.  They live for a very long time, and must have interesting interior dynamics of affection, memory and even wisdom.  But, alas, they do not possess verbal language.  They do have a capacity for communication, to be sure (and something to say, I expect) but it is limited to clicks and rumbling sounds.  They simply have not been endowed by evolution with the mechanical capacity for speech.  Why not?  Can’t they simply “evolve” a voice box and the brain parts to activate it?

This question seems almost reasonable when seen in the light of the way evolution is often discussed in the popular press.  The language we use to describe evolution almost invariably borrows words that indicate intentionality: a shark is described as a perfectly-designed killing machine, we are told that dinosaurs evolved feathers and turned into birds, humans in higher latitudes developed blue eyes and narrow nostrils (as if they all got together one day and just decided to “do it”).

And this, it turns out, is a rather big deal, and it points us to a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution that is as maddening as it is widespread: individuals don’t evolve, populations do.

And populations evolve because of the way we reproduce: we make babies by combining the genetic material of two parent animals to form a new, single cell.  Once that cell starts dividing, there is a whole lot of copying and duplicating of genetic code going on.  And, like any such complicated endeavor, mistakes are made.  Most often, these mistakes do not cause harm.  But many times they do, and that future individual animal could be in serious trouble if the mistake is in a place in the DNA that causes a severe malformation (a missing limb, a heart condition, a lack of a pain response).

Most often such damaged fetuses are aborted spontaneously by the mother’s body before she even knows she’s pregnant (current estimates are at 50% among us humans).  But just every so often (it doesn’t have to be very often, when you take into account the long years over which evolution and natural selection have had time to “work”), a mutation occurs which provides some tiny, incremental benefit to the animal that has it.  In nature, it doesn’t take much — a touch more speed or agility, or a shred more smarts — to give you an advantage.  In fact, giant leaps of change are most often disastrous and, frankly, wasteful (there is a reason we have the body shapes we have and the huge brains to run them — but as it is we are living right at the hairy edge of disaster as women often have a very challenging time getting that huge human head safely past their narrow pelvises).

A lot of the idiocy around intelligent design has to do with a belief that one animal simply decides, one day, to turn into another animal.  And, since we don’t see that happening around us, evolution must be a fallacy.  Of course, evolution and natural selection aren’t based on decisions at all.  There is no “force” behind it that thinks about anything at all.  It is simply a process in which the success of any and all life forms is the product of the inherited characteristics of that particular life form in a particular environment.  If an environment is stable over time, then life forms will inevitably adapt to it (or fail to, and die off).  So that throughout the history of this planet, life forms that began as the most basic of units have had time and opportunity to keep on reproducing, over and over, mixing and mutating their DNA until, due to an ever-increasing accumulation of those one-in-a-million (or billion, or trillion, or???) beneficial inherited traits, you end up with entire animals built up of cooperative collections of bacteria and bone and muscle and blood.

At some unknowable and uncountable moments in our human reproductive history, the genetic frameworks for our capacity for verbal speech were set in place.  They did not evolve in order for us to speak, they just happened, bit by bit until, by chance, some sort of functional unit took shape that gave the first human that could grunt a slight advantage of the one who only squeaked and, voila, a line of grunting descendants was set to become dominant.  The rest, as they say, is history.  And this is the way that a bacteria becomes a mutlicellular creature, and then a fish and then a talking, thinking human being.

But it’s more complicated than just evolving the mechanical equipment of a voice box activated by air flowing from our lungs.  Surely the nature of our language shapes our thought.  We rightly wonder whether the internal, cognitive complexity of animals isn’t itself limited by a lack of verbal language (or, conversely, greatly enhanced by it).  After all, it is our language — our words with their shared meanings — that provides the sort of filing system of our experience of living.  Without language, I think much of our memory and ideas would remain undifferentiated, like our memories of very early childhood (or even of our birth).

(I mean, surely we were conscious during all of those early experiences, but they are ideas we had before we had words to form ideas with.  They are like digital files from our first computer in a program that no-one has anymore.  The data is surely locked in our minds, but we cannot access it).

Such is the power of language.

And this is also why we will never be able to talk to the animals.  As much as we are able to communicate with chimps and dolphins and dogs and cats, we can’t actually talk with them.  We do share a very real understanding, at times, with other creatures.  But it is not simply a problem of translation (in the way it might be when trying to talk to another human who does not speak our particular language).  For we don’t even know how whales, say, file the memories and ideas that they have.  To read a whales mind would pose the same problems as trying to recall the pre-language experience of our own birth: how can we translate thoughts that were not recorded in any language?

It’s like the aging floppy disks that I keep in now dusty boxes…well, sort of.  For though those disks carry data in an actual language readable by an actual (if out-of-date and-hard to-find) technology, they will soon be, for all practical purposes, impossible to read.  The difference is that our pre-language memories (and likewise, one assumes, the thoughts of the whale) were never recorded in a language at all.

As one scientist said to me: what we really assume in our inter-species communication fantasies is that the other animal will learn our language, and tell us what he or she is thinking.  But for that to happen, that animal would have to evolve the brain and body structures that we did.  And since evolution is not directed, there is no reason to expect them to do that over the next million years or so.  But even if they did, they would no longer remember life without language, and could not tell us some of the secrets to our own wild past that we seek.

So what we really hope for, I think, is for a dolphin to suddenly start talking to us.  But it should be obvious by now that this is a fantasy.  For that magical talking dolphin, too, would have no access to its pre-verbal memories (unless it were, truly, “magical”).  This is why the notion is such a potent subject for fantasy in film and fiction.  It’s appeal is only outweighed (or perhaps enhanced) by the sheer impossibility of it actually happening.

I think we should be appreciative of both the benefits and limitations of our unusual capacity for language.  I coo at dove, or moo at cows all the time, and talk to cats and dogs as if they have a clue.  It amuses me and doesn’t traumatize the animals.  And it serves as a kind of wry reminder that we humans are in this talking life alone, together.  Our capacity for verbal language is one of the highly unusual products of an incredible series of tiny historical mutations that had to rise or fall in our population in the living conditions of untold numbers of individual lives.

And make no mistake: our capacities evolved step by step, always built upon the body plan that came before.  There is nothing “irreducibly” complex about us.  We see analogues to our own eyes and hands and throats and minds in the animals around us.  They echo our sameness and shed light on our uniqueness.  It is a wonder that the whales would probably enjoy talking about.  If only they could.

Or maybe, like us, they’d quickly run out of things to say.  And then we’d be reduced to visiting them at Sea World where, instead of thrilling us by leaping out of water for their wet-suit clad trainer, they would instead entertain us by chattering endlessly on their own whale-sized cell phones:  “Oh nothing.  Just jumping for some fish.  What are you doing?”

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“The infinite flexibility of language and our experience of shared emotion in reading novels and poems and at the movies must also cast doubt on whether there are any human experiences that cannot in principle be shared.  On the other side of this thorny tangle is the intuitive knowledge that what we feel is unique to us and can never be fully identified with anything felt by anyone else.  That inexpressible residue of the individual is ineffable — and the ineffable is precisely what cannot be translated”  

(From “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” p. 151)

David Bellos is a Princeton professor with a lot to say about translation.  Now you may be like me and think that there is, indeed, something to be said about translation, but not 338 pages worth.  Which means that you — like me — would be wrong.

From the start I could tell that this is a writer who is as much philosopher as translator, and historian as much as linguist.  There is no statement about what translation is (or what it is not) that does not — it turns out — deserve the author’s clarifying attention.  I was tempted to be bored with the entire thing, and kept waiting for the moment when I was finally going to say “enough!” and put the book down.

But that moment never came.

For it turns out that there is, indeed, much to say about translation.  And, as the title suggests, when you start to talk about translation you end up having to talk about the meaning of, well, everything.

Bellos is a sneakily delightful writer.  And even as each chapter feels like falling anew down a rabbit hole chasing after wild hares of translation babble, he always brings us back with a single clarifying sentence that perfectly sets up the next chapter’s wild ride.

But how do I tell you what this book is actually about?  It is about the history, practice and future of translation from one language into another.  This seems a fairly straightforward topic.  But it turns out that as soon as you start dissecting just what makes a “good” or a “bad” translation, you are immediately thrown upon the reality that language is not the fixed target we tend to think it is.  After all, not a one of us uses our native language in just the same way, and this is bound to have implications for the poor sod that then tries to carry our thoughts, ideas, stories and jokes into another human’s language.

If you have any interest in ideas and how ideas are expressed or the myths and realities about the differences between languages, and you have a moderate tolerance for complexity mixed with a taste for precise thinking, you will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Yes, there is a lot to say about translation, and this book says it in a clear, concise and highly entertaining way.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

SERMON: “Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it”  That could be the title of the book we may well end up writing one day about how memory — that vaunted aspect of the human brain — works.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photograph: Public Domain

It’s disturbing enough to believe that there are goblins and malevolent spirits at loose in the world trying to trip you up.  But it is hardly less disturbing to realize that the part of our brain that manages memory is somewhere below the Blind Mole Rat on the evolutionary scale of intelligence, and is therefore not doing the bang-up job we imagine that it is.

One thing is obvious: the thing that lives in my brain and pulls from the shelf any and all of the stored snippets of experience that it “thinks” might be useful to me in whatever current drama I am engaged is nothing at all like a little person.  It is nothing like a conscious personality (or “mini-me”) with whom I am really communicating in the same way that I might talk to the help desk on the other end of my telephone call.  My little mental librarian is more like a reflex — capable of lightning quick response speeds that leave it, frankly, no time for the thoughtful reflections of a true librarian.

Though I’ve tried it many times, there is really no way of talking with this librarian of memory.  And yet we are in communication.  But I don’t know what form of communication happens at this level of the brain.  The evolution of my biology has  clearly developed a means of creating differentiated signals that can be “understood” deep in the mind’s archives.  It may well be electrical, but it could be chemical as well, or both (I am ignorant of the current level of understanding neuroscience currently has on this subject).  But whatever it is, in practical terms, the form of communication that exists between my conscious mind and my memory is damn imprecise and not always useful.  In fact, I’d go on to say that it can, at times, be less of a help and more of a hindrance to an enjoyable experience of conscious life.

I think I am so smart, when all along I’ve had this primitive, reactive, mad assistant lodged deep in my skull who has clearly evolved for speed over accuracy.  And why not?  It’s not like memory evolved for the purposes of adding richness to my experience of living.  It clearly began as something else.  This sort of ready storehouse of past experience is most likely the source of our ability to flick into fight or flight in an instant (and by instant I mean even before my conscious mind is aware of the fact that my body has decided to get the hell away from whatever trouble is in front of me).  And as we know, those that experience a few (or many) “false positives” may have run away unnecessarily, but run away they did, which means they survived the one time in a hundred when they really did need to run away.

But where does that leave me: a modern human who can go through days and months without facing a truly life-threatening situation?  I am a civilized man, trying to go about my business of driving, working, meeting other humans, socializing with a close friend, thinking that I am this wonderful bloke with a clever and refined mind only to find that I can be totally taken over by obsessive thoughts that trigger strong chemical reactions of fear or discomfort, all caused by my little blind librarian with whom I find no common language with which to communicate.

I think this is another one of those uncomfortable realities that science brings us face-to-face with: just about all of that which constitutes “me” and “my life” are unintentional by-products of my evolutionary biology.  That is the stark truth of our physical reality.

But that is not the end of the story, nor, in truth, the only story.  For our consciousness, and the way we engage life and infuse it with meaning and significance, color it with our pleasure, sweeten it with our love and with our art, is as much the story of our “life” as our biology.

But the one need not be sacrificed for the other.  In other words, the richness of life is not diminished by a recognition that it came about by a bewildering series of accidents and mutations over a nearly incomprehensible stretch of time.  But neither is it really enriched by denial of our biological, evolutionary reality.  In short: we make too much of ourselves when we demand to have been specially created by an omnipotent, omniscient being…and too little.

We are special enough as it is.  We don’t need the spiritual filigree.  On the other hand, recognizing our biological limitations, especially regarding our own brains, can actually offer us a bit of comfort and self-understanding that may, in the end, make that blind librarian resident in our skulls a bit easier to live with.

t.n.s.r. bob