Language and Human Nature

Posts related to my book “Language and Human Nature”

October 31, 2007
Washoe, a Chimp of Many Words, Dies at 42

Memories of Washoe (the chimp who “spoke” sign language) – but more especially about the attempts to explore the relations and differences between chimps and humans. Let’s give a few minutes to mourn her death, and to think about how her presence especially helped to make deaf persons (especially congenitally deaf persons) into fully human beings.

Child and Chimp at Zoo, photo by César Rincón

A Confession: I only saw Washoe on film – signing with and to people.

But I was a fairly constant discussant of the issues involved by the chief investigators, Allen and Beatrix (Trixie) Gardner. We had first met at a meeting with William Stokoe, the author of American Sign Language, and Professor at Gallaudet College for the Deaf in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. We continued discussions for a long time.

Some context: Sign Language was not permitted in any American schools for the deaf, until 1972 – and Bill Stokoe was the person who rounded up a number of allies to make all that happen. Deaf persons using sign language now seems commonplace: interpreters are available in many settings; most deaf kids learn and use sign language; there are courses at most universities. But this all happened because of Stokoe – the work of the Gardners with Washoe – and the accurate shifts in our thinking about the deaf. (see Oliver Sacks, “Seeing Voices” for a review.)

I had been deeply engaged with the critical exploration of language as a presumably “unique” aspect of the human, and what makes humans truly human. My own work shares the approach of Darwin’s last book: “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” and lays out the various subjects to be explored to enter human nature beyond the assumptions of language as defining us. I wrote a book (“After Metaphysics” – republished later as “Language and Human Nature”). I try to take the fact that we are bodies in interaction with others’ bodies, and more fully explore our nature. (Bill Stokoe wrote the Introduction to the second edition.) Read the rest of this entry »

“The heart-stopping thing about the new-born is that, from minute one, there is somebody there. Anyone who bends over the cot and gazes at it is being gazed back at.”

Elaine Morgan, The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution from a New Perspective, p. homework help websites 99, (1994).

Currently, a revolution in the study of the human: begin by observing others – and oneself…observing. The ancient trap: to extrapolate from us mature thinkers about human nature, directly to all the wonders about how we are…and how we know.

What was ignored, left out in our attempts to describe and understand? Lots! The facts about the newborn – but, perhaps even more so – the facts of the m/other observing her new-born – and the power of her to remain involved with her new-born, and all of what this entails. Most of this part of the human story has been neglected until very recently: now, developing “Attachment Theory.”

We do not survive unless some one who gazes at the newborn: and sees, interprets what she observes as “somebody” (usually the birth mother – but whoever takes responsibility so many moments especially for the first several years of life and development – thus m/other).

We are not individual bodies, but our body in the world with others’
bodies: being observed, observing others. “Somebody” there!? – means that somebody is “looking back” at us looking. We’re not merely body hanging-out in the world, absorbing the world via our senses.

And what does looking-observing entail? This is not very obvious, even though it is “common” experience: it involves looking at an infant’s face, and noting something about the eyes and the areas about the eyes, being held in some “tension.” This tension is pretty much like the tension of others’ faces that the m/other interacts with.

But her face is also being held in the kinds of tensions which involve “looking at” somebody. The infant is “captivated” by m/ other’s face as well.

How do I know this; or think that I do? Primarily from the work of Rynders and Horrobin – who worked with Down Syndrome children and their m/others. Whatever is “different” about such children (mostly muscular – but remaining poorly described), it is very difficult to see “somebody” there. The muscles which move or shape the face of the infant are apparently missing or non-useful. As Rynders explained to me: he asks the m/others of Down children to “hang-in” with them for a few months – they will be able to move, smile, find some muscles to move their eyes which others can “read” as “somebody there.” And this generally works: the first Down Syndrome child to be able to read by age 2 and ½ was reported in our local paper just a few years ago.

The fact that children are deeply, constantly, engaged with m/others – not much in our thinking about the human…until now. Why not? How could this be? – should help us to begin to be more deeply engaged, critically, in what is human nature!

The most usual description – actually more a metaphor – about the human condition tried to address the questions of how we know, are infinite or “symbolic” in our scope, and led us to posit that we are deeply and basically body and mind: two-part creatures…but pretty much alone in the world with respect to how we know, and are.

Instead, Attachment Theory, deriving much from Pragmatist G.H. Mead, suggests that infant “somebody”, joins or virtually becomes the m/ other who sees somebody there. This will radically alter how we understand how the child develops language and knowledge, as we further study the more actual development and experience of each child (us).

Mead – a “symbolic-interactionist – noted that we are essentially social creatures who “emerge” transformed into our individual self – the I that I am, you are. Attachment Theory goes even “further” – suggesting that the infant “joins” or “becomes” the m/other; does not merely study the world, but gains knowledge by studying m/other.

M/other presents the world and knowledge to her infant: in what I dub the “Question-Response” System: the few questions about the world (Who, what, when, where, how many…), are responded to by “open” sets of responses: essentially infinite in number when combined in syntax.
Thus finite and infinite: don’t need to go outside the human condition to explain how we are and how we know.

As the child develops – becomes abler, stronger, faster, dangerous to itself – the m/other needs and wishes the child to emerge into its “self” – an increasingly less dependent, more its-self, eventually the “I” who each of us sees as our-self.

“Somebody” there: a most powerful moment in the human experience – essentially neglected in the depiction and understanding of human nature. Hopefully this insight will enable us to more fully describe the human as-we-are, rather than how our ancient theories have claimed (still claim) that we are.

Sniff! Sniff? The odor and smells of racist thought – the modernist forms of Social Darwinism – are hangin’ round. And in some of the most interesting and influential places and forms.Recently, the illustrious Wall St. Journal (WSJ) ran three straight days of editorials about who should get to partake of our exalted Higher Education opportunities. Charles Murray – the sometimes extinguished purveyor of IQ (“The Bell Curve” – with R. Herrnstein, ’94) – seems to make the case that half of us are smarter than the other half. Smarter, that is, by our “nature,” born better, born worser; smart-stupid.

Too-tired mothers, not very involved or intellectual families, kids who don’t “appear” like your college stars, cultures of poverty, immigrants? Never mind!

Training for the menial, clean up the slop…not enough. Our schools have gone from not many, no child-labor laws, to universal schooling in less than a century. In that period, a few years of school transformed into high school for most, and college has become almost a necessity: K-16. Education, at least the credential, is now crucial for qualifying for decent paying jobs.

Who deserves…who deserves what? Murray simply assumes that the Bell Curve and IQ portray the human condition both correctly and adequately.

When the more mature amongst us were young, IQ was the mantra of once a year. Mensa was the gathering group of those who had the highest IQ’s. But the “Rosenthal effect” showed in 1978 that teacher’s expectations were very powerful in predicting and shaping IQ. And we no longer got “tested” very often. (Who gets to make up IQ tests, anyway?)

The truth? Or are we talking mostly politics, culture, history, class…? Lurking is Social Darwinism, the idea from a century ago and more, that much of life is predetermined. Going back to thinker who is most revealed in Murray’s push to teach the “Great Books” is Aristotle. We find in his politics which preach the necessity of monarchy to maintain the world in peace and politeness that: “some men are destined by nature to be kings, and others to be slaves.”

Don’t the rich deserve to be rich: smarter (and they work “harder”)! The survival of the socially “fittest.” (I don’t think so).

Democracy…under attack? Murray showed up on Bookspan about a year ago when Harvard’s beleagured late president – Larry Summers – played a similar card in claiming that men are a bit “smarter” than women…a very old story as well. This time Summers got fired. But the ideas lurk in these times of political oddness and unrest.

Whose America? Whose world? Who deserves what? Are we born free and equal, or are we “prewired?” The tabula rasa or Blank Slate which began American democracy: or arranged about the depiction which the Bell Curve conveys?

I think Democracy, however complicated and changing, is more human, more “interesting,” more of what schools and teaching are toward. Read Aristotle! – surely, but critically, and with a sense of what his ideas have wrought, and continue to ring in the Wall Street Journal…of all places.

Begin with the idea that we’re all (ALL!) born geniuses, and we’ll be teaching toward a common-good future. Inspire the future: that’s what we teachers try to do, as we try to inspire our kids to grow, and grow beyond today.

With the idea of IQ already having determined the future, we teachers are prone to celebrate those who already appear talented, and to neglect or dismiss those who haven’t already blossomed. This is a bad idea for future Democracy, and a negation of the joys of life…to come.

So now we have 6 people going into a zoo in Adelaide, Australia. Going, not to look at (other) animals, but to be looked at – as if they are animals. A form of monkey, perhaps, they are there to be seen in all the places, and at all their places. Alone, sort of, with one or more of the others. Privacy…gone. They are on public display (AP video spot via USA Today). These 6 people are the zoo.

This is not all new. In the 1800’s and extending into much of the early 20th century, most aboriginal peoples were considered to be “primitives” or “savages.” And some of them were “placed on display” – as if they were “animals.” Perhaps this current display is a “return” to the old days, as new brain science seems to be raising the question of human nature as more fixed or pre-determined than we have been considered, especially since the rise of human rights.

Maybe it is a way of seeing ourselves – and gaining some new insights into the human – maybe insights into other animals, to our ways of observing other species – maybe commentary on whether we should capture and display any species in places like zoos.

From my perspective as a continuing student of the human condition and human nature, this event raises all sorts of thoughts about how to see and observe ourselves:

First, there is little that will happen with or to these persons, that we haven’t already witnessed: nakedness, in or on the toilet, eating, peeing. Nothing that we all don’t do. Maybe sex, maybe clothed. Perhaps interacting with one another, in two’s or three’s or as six.

This moves me back to the question of how we observe humans (and oneself) – to Erving Goffman’s “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” Lots of what and who we are is kept out of the public domains: how do we observe the human, when so much of our being remains hidden, at least private. Even more complicated: how do others see us; how do we see ourselves’ seeing?

Much of the study of the human has been done quite narrowly in fairly public domains where even the politics of our being are often masked or not obvious.

Politics are always there, and perhaps clearer or more obvious than they are usually – perhaps quite obscure in the contexts of enclosed spaces. Politics may develop or evolve: an alpha male – or female – might emerge: out of ambition, boredom, wishes to control oneself or others.

Confined to particular space – a kind of prison: a kind of deep freedom since the possibilities of movement and surrounds are so completely determined that they are driven into their own “heads” rather than finding much new or risky to explore as in the ordinary world.

It also reminds me of how I/we observe zoo behavior. I love seeing other animals – except I mourn the fact that they are captives, and in a kind of jail. Then – as an anthropologist-of-the ordinary – I begin to note who’s there (and “who isn’t” – pace Goffman). Kids, kids, kids and their parents of most ages. So much fun to watch them, the politics of different families – different ages of kids, interactions, control…

The Gorilla Viewing Area: photo by John Morton

And there, almost always, there are couples (male and female – in my notings, but then, today might be a different day). And these couples seem to be “into” the kids in a very loving and “hot” way, as if love and procreation are most imminent.

And so the idea of a group of humans (all sort of grown-up from reports so far – and not too far in age from one another, or social class, or ethnicity?) – may help cast new insights into the human condition.

For me, this situation raises many questions: a study of the “zoo,” in its own complicated terms; ways to lead us all to ask ourselves harder questions about observing, beginning with ongoing and historical observations of the observer, namely myself; to ask about the nature of the “zoos” in which all of us live. Why is this happening now: what is the nature of the human condition as it changes in a rapidly changing world?

Most important, it pushes us toward the really tough and historical questions: what ideas are already afloat in our thinking which frame or shape our questions and observations? And, the most difficult: what is the human – nature, behavior, language? The central problems of these times!?

The human body is an amazing instrument. Not to be merely or simply compared with the bodies of other species, we live “out of balance,” love the faces by which we note and remember others, and are deeply interactive. We have vastly underestimated the human body (Dewey, Nietzsche), and need to appreciate that human language is about our so-complicated tongues and expressive parts. As violin-teacher Suzuki claimed, anyone who can speak language is a genius – speaking is much more complicated than learning the violin. I think we have underestimated the intelligence of other creatures, and by extrapolation to human uniqueness primarily as language, have depreciated the human.

We “emerge” from a deep “attachment” with our m/others, as the self, the “I” develops. (G.H. Mead) Who we are and how we know are not directly from the world, but from our being as and with our m/others. How this happens: the Question-Response System by which our m/others frame questions (who, what, when, where, etc.) to which we learn responses as “open sets.” How a finite being (you and I), comes to be able to phrase all the ideas and syntax: development, not fixed.

The questions of this moment remain: how do we think and know, what is the human?

With Pinker’s recent claims that the brain is all, then Lakoff that our mind and thought are full of metaphors, most recently Goleman that the brain is “wired” for social intelligence, these questions seem to be taking on a sense of urgency. Left out in all cases is the fact that humans “love faces,” that we are social in actuality from the moment of birth to the “emergence” of the self.

It’s time to rethink Dewey and Mead, and extend their ideas to the pursuit and understanding of doing and experience: we interact with others; not just or merely brains full of “stuff.” Life is more interesting than we have been letting on. Let’s take a look, beginning with ourselves, not just “make it all up!” How to go about this? Next posts.

« Older entries § Newer entries »