September 28, 2013

Culture As Superorganism - Neurobiologist's Speculation Is Misleading




I don't mind when I read an occasional knocking us humans down a peg or two, or the elevation of other creatures in our estimation.  In fact I also find it useful and enjoyable to occasionally point out our sweaty, butt-scratching animalness.  I have not read evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi's book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man but his essay linked above, which explains the main theses of his book, shows a most glaring misunderstanding of culture and cultural evolution on his part.

His rhetorical question “what if spoken language got structured via cultural evolution to sound like the events occurring among solid objects” expresses a profound misunderstanding of language – that is, in particular, its almost total arbitrariness.  In comparative linguistics of current and past languages such an onomatopoeic theory of the evolutionary emergence of language is unsupported.  Worse is his notion that cultural evolution in humans was somehow underway before language emerged.  A better argument can be made that they co-evolved.  His statement “speech would have gotten rigged to harness the solid-object auditory processing mechanisms we already possessed” begs the question of what was going on in the mind of our proto-language ancestors when this rigging of speech sounds to the sounds occurring in the natural environment took place?  What kinds of mental abilities did they have to do such “rigging?”  Again, the co-evolution of language and culture provides a more parsimonious model.

When he proposes that “music having itself culturally evolved” I was done.  Music does not on its own evolve.  Music is a cultural artifact that when “made” by humans becomes an expression of a certain range of sound wave pitches and tempos that are acceptable or not acceptable to others.  Humans act on music and music thereby evolves.  It does not evolve by itself.

Finally, when Changizi writes “language and the arts developed to fit the capabilities of our ancient, non-language, non-musical brains by mimicking fundamental aspects of nature. Culture evolved to harness us, and it did so, in a sense, by ‘dumbing down’ language, writing, and music into shapes we could process” I had to close the link to his essay and find more productive reading.  In this statement he separates “culture” from language, writing, and music.  His statement implies that language, writing, and music appeared in our evolutionary history then, somehow, our super-organic “culture” got revved up and dumbed them down into something our basal primate brains could handle.  Language, writing, and music, in all their diversely expressed forms, are human artifacts and therefore are part of the cultural repertoire of our species, not emergent behaviors separate from culture that culture somehow turns its attention to and modifies.

I doubt that I will be reading “Harnessed” unless a very compelling review comes along.

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