News: The supernatural and natural selection

A recent book by anthropologists Craig Palmer and Lyle Steadman, The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success (Steadman and Palmer 2008) attempts to account for the evolution of religion in a novel way, linking sociality, communicative practice, and reproductive fitness.   I will be very interested to see the book (whose publication date is this week) and may give it a more thorough review then; for now, I am relying on a recent report in ScienceDaily.

The claim that interests me most is the assertion that religion does not primarily serve an individual, cognitive function – that its evolutionary basis is not that it explains the unexplainable or gives comfort in times of need.  Rather, they argue, religious belief serves to increase social cohesion and cooperative behavior among non-kin because of the kin-like model of society it creates.  This, so far, is not a novel claim, and can be found in anthropologists as far back as Edward Tylor (1920 [1871]).

Palmer and Steadman go further, however, using observable instances of communication of the acceptance of supernatural claims as analogues to the way that children accept their parents’ influence.  Rather than focusing about what people say about what they believe as evidence for what they believe, they treat what people say as communicative acts and observe what consequences these acts have on other human beings. In other words, they assert, religion creates kin-like social ties through the mutual acceptance of otherwise unobservable social realities.  Further evidence for this position, they assert, is found in the widespread use of basic kin terms (especially for parents, siblings, and children) in religions throughout the world.  This is an interesting combination of linguistic, anthropological, and evolutionary-psychological insights that deserves

Now, this theory is bound to cause controversy.  I don’t even want to address whether I think it is correct until I have a look at the book.  I’ve been interested in the rather different theory espoused by Pascal Boyer in his The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (Boyer 1994), which focuses on the evidence from child development and is essentially a cognitive account rather than a social one.   I’ll be particularly interested to see how Palmer and Steadman have handled the cross-cultural evidence, and the extent to which they are able to deal with differences as well as similarities among the world’s religious systems.

Works cited

Boyer, Pascal. 1994. The naturalness of religious ideas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steadman, Lyle B. and Craig T. Palmer. 2008. The supernatural and natural selection: religion and evolutionary success. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Tylor, Edward B. 1920 [1871]. Primitive culture. New York: Putnam.

Teaching linguistic anthropology as integrative science

Linguistic anthropology is often treated as a ‘kid brother’ subfield of cultural anthropology.  The working assumption is that if you are working on anthropological issues relating to language, you must be an ethnographer first and foremost.   Part of the reason why I have started this blog is that I just don’t buy into this view.  Anthropology in North America has been conceptualized as a four-field subject – biological, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology – and I’m a four-field guy through and through, so I don’t see linguistic anthropology as naturally or inherently linked to any of the other three fields.  If it were, we wouldn’t have four fields, and linguistic anthropology would be just another cultural subject, like economic anthropology or the anthropology of religion, tied to linguistics as the others are to economics or religious studies, but ethnographic nonetheless.  I call shenanigans on that, and am more than happy to use my archaeological and evolutionary training to set out a better path for linguistic anthropology (or ‘anthropological linguistics’, but that’s a post for another day).

This year I’m teaching a course entitled ‘Language and Culture’, which I conceptualize as a cross-cultural investigation of the cognitive and social aspects of language within an unapologetically four-field anthropology.   (It helps that, as a required course for all majors, the class has plenty of archaeologists and biological anthropologists.)  To make my point, I’ve started out with a set of aggressively evolutionary readings on language origins, challenging the students to deal with the paucity of archaeological and fossil evidence without dismissing it entirely, and to acknowledge the utility of comparative primatology and child development studies to fill in some of the gaps.  I adopt an unapologetically evolutionary approach to most of my teaching, which I no doubt picked up from my mentor, the late Bruce Trigger (himself an archaeologist and ethnohistorian), and my aim is to really get the class to think about what exactly language does for us (selectively speaking) that other forms of communication do not.

I begin with a high-theory article (D’Andrade 2002), an imperfect and speculative article that nonetheless forces the reader to acknowledge the interlinked nature of language and culture while addressing the very big question, “If language is so great, why don’t all sorts of species talk?”  But D’Andrade is a cognitive anthropologist, and we really need some data to address the where, when, and how questions.   Buckley and Steele’s (2002) evolutionary-ecological (yet fundamentally social) argument connects the dots using anatomical and archaeological data, but lack the direct behavioural foundation needed to test their hypotheses.   So I turn to our evolutionary cousins, the nonhuman primates, and the old master Robbins Burling presents a complex if ultimately unconvincing argument (Burling 1993) that human language is radically distinct from primate gestures and calls, and in fact originated as a non-communicative cognitive system for thought before any ape ever spoke a word.  We wrap up with perhaps the tightest and most curious account, Greg Urban’s (2002) account that links ape calls to human language through the intermediary of ‘metasignals’, signs that make reference to other signs.

There is a lot of other material I could have presented, and perhaps in future years if I am feeling like giving the students a greater mental workout, I may do so.  Certainly there is absolutely no agreement even among anthropologists as to the likely origins of language, and I’ve hardly addressed the massive literature in linguistics and evolutionary psychology.  But for now I am quite happy with the tone and scientific emphasis I have set for the course, and although I certainly won’t ignore the more humanistic side of the subfield in the weeks to come, I’m aiming for something really innovative here and won’t blindly follow anyone’s party line.

Works cited

Buckley, Carina and James Steele. 2002. Evolutionary ecology of spoken language: co-evolutionary hypotheses are testable. World Archaeology 34: 26-46.

Burling, Robbins. 1993. Primate calls, human language, and nonverbal communication. Current Anthropology 34(1): 25-53.

D’Andrade, Roy. 2002. Cultural Darwinism and language. American Anthropologist 104(1): 223-232.

Urban, Greg. 2002. Metasignalling and language origins. American Anthropologist 104(1): 233-246.

Why numerals?

Over the past few weeks in my new job, I have had many opportunities to introduce myself or be introduced as an expert in the ‘anthropology of mathematics’, which is probably the simplest and most accurate way to describe my work (although I also have strong research interests in other areas, such as writing systems and cross-cultural theory).  The comments I receive on this are mostly of two sorts:

(a) Oh, how interesting! I had never imagined there was such a thing!

(b) Oh, how interesting! Are there many people working in that field?

Both of these are perfectly understandable responses, because there aren’t really very many of us out there; perhaps a dozen working anthropologists who publish regularly on numerals, and a couple dozen more linguists.   There are many more anthropologists and linguists who at some point have written something on the subject, but aren’t specialists in the field.   But in comparison to, say, psychologists working on mathematical cognition, or to historians of mathematics, there aren’t too many of us.  And honestly, I’m okay with that, because it means that there are plenty of great questions that are completely untouched.

The question of why one would study the anthropology of mathematics is actually more interesting, from my perspective, and usually it doesn’t take much to get me onto that subject, particularly with people who answer (a).  For me, the fantastic thing about the subject is that it is so often taken for granted that there is one thing called ‘number’, or one thing called ‘mathematics’, and that there should be limited cross-cultural difference in the domain.   But at the same time, anthropologists generally work in domains where there is a lot of variability and assume that there are few or no constraints on human behavior, but in numeral systems there are all sorts of constraints, some evolutionary, some functional, and some social.  So teasing out the differences and similarities, without assuming in advance that the phenomenon is highly regular or highly variable, is fascinating stuff.   In other words, the fact that I am a comparativist (rather than a cultural particularist) and the fact that I study mathematics are closely linked.

The other really fascinating thing about number systems, for me, is that numbers can be represented using spoken or written language, but can also be represented using graphic numerical notation systems (like the set of signs, 0123456789, which laypeople generally call Arabic numerals but I call Western numerals).  So you have one system that has its origins in auditory media and is linked to linguistic abilities, and another that gets away from directly representing language and is trans-linguistic, but is nonetheless probably linked somehow to language.  So from an anthropological perspective, you have one linguistic and one non-linguistic (graphic) representation of number, which allows you to ask all sorts of interesting questions about the intersection of language and culture.

The last thing that is really cool about number is that within the domain of numerical notation, we have a pretty good database of all the numerical notation systems that have ever been used, and can without too much difficulty reconstruct the relationships between them (i.e. which systems are ancestral to which others, or which systems replaced which others).   This allows us not only to look at each system as a structured system of signs in a synchronic fashion (omitting the time dimension) but also to engage in a diachronic analysis, examining how systems interact and change over 5000 years of written history.   This is why I describe my forthcoming book as a ‘comparative history’.  But I’m writing about numbers, not about cross-cultural theory, which will have to be an essay for another day, because right now my book manuscript isn’t going to edit itself.

Is your pet smarter than a first-grader?

(Originally posted at The Growlery, 2008/05/23)

Geoff Pullum over at Language Log has been raising issues with purported ‘animal language’ news stories for several years now, with very good reason.   In this case Pullum’s post is on target, taking on a BBC report on an African grey parrot in Japan that was reunited with its owner after it said its owner’s name and address, is a classic example of science journalism sensationalized.  The notion that biologists, linguists, or random ‘experts’ agree that grey parrots have the cognitive capacity of a six-year-old human child is laughable at best.   They (the experts) don’t, and they (the parrots) don’t.

I don’t always agree with Pullum’s reasoning or the extent of his arguments, however; I am cognizant that our species is an evolutionary cousin to apes that do possess considerable communicative capacities, and I try to remain equally cognizant of the fact that the definition of ‘language’ can be shifted to reaffirm one’s prejudices about humanity’s special place in the cosmos.  An evolutionary perspective always takes account of the fact that our capacities came from somewhere and that the antecedents of language must also have been adaptive for some purpose.   Unfortunately, several of the comments on the LL post seem to take the narrow perspective that animal communication can tell us very little about ‘language’, defined as ‘human language’ involving recursion, arbitrariness, ‘discrete infinity’, or whatever other feature is seen as necessary and sufficient to distinguish language from non-language.   There is an ongoing turf war, unstated for the most part, between evolutionary and non-evolutionary perspectives on language, and one of the key battlegrounds is this debate (now decades old) about whether the comparative evidence tells us much.   Don’t get me wrong: I do think there is a substantial difference between human language and whatever it is that other animals do; I don’t think that it is useful at all to borrow terms like ‘grammar’ and ‘syntax’ willy-nilly into nonhuman studies.  Nevertheless, unless you want to be a linguistic creationist, the evolutionary evidence (and the comparison with nonhuman animals) must be part of theory-building and the redefinition of language.

For my part, and here I don my anthropologist hat, my concern is that so much attention seems to be paid to cetacean and bird communication, when in fact, if we are looking for comparative material, we ought to rely heavily on material from African apes and only lightly from our more distant evolutionary cousins.    It seems to me almost as if, over the past five years or so, the apes have occupied a secondary role in animal communication debates in the popular press, which is a shame since I don’t think it accurately reflects the state of the field.

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