Monday, December 26, 2011

Preface to Homer

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and euill, thou ſhalt not eate of it: for in the day that thou eateſt thereof, thou ſhalt ſurely die.
Genesis 2:17 (King James Version)

I'm going to suggest a hypothesis on the evolution of societies, natural languages, and memetic organisms.  Relating human language and human thought to programming is a straightforward exercise left to the student.

Eric Havelock in his magnum opus Preface to Plato (fascinating stuff) describes two profoundly different stages in the evolution of human societies, which he calls oral society and literate society.  Greek society, reckons Havelock, was transforming from oral to literate around the time of Plato; the epics of Homer are characteristic of oral culture.  I suggest that there is a stage of societal evolution before that of oral poetry such as Homer's — and that just as Afghan culture is a surviving example of oral society, the Pirahã culture recently studied in the Amazon is a surviving example of... verbal society.  (I can't bring myself to call it "pre-oral", since language is still spoken; but it does have words, and is missing oration, so "verbal" will do till something better comes along.)

Scientific organisms need a literate environment to survive; religious organisms don't need literacy, and were, I reckon, the giants that roamed the ideosphere in the age of orality.  But in the age before Homer's, religions could not have survived either.  If ever there were an actual event that fits beautifully with the myth of Adam and Eve eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the transition from verbal to oral society would be it.

Oral thought

In an oral society (in Havelock's vision — I've also read parts of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy, which follows Havelock's paradigm), knowledge is preserved through an oral tradition.  The form of the account matters; facts are mutated as convenient to put them in a form that will be successfully replicated over many retellings.  Standard patterns are used.  Repetition is used.  A good story also always has an actor:  things don't just happen, they are done, by somebody, which may favor a polytheistic society, with deities personifying what we (in a literate society) would call "abstract" forces.  One might well end up with some such pattern as

And God said, let there be x.  And there was x.  And God saw the x, and saw that it was good.  And the morning and the evening were the nth day.

And God said, let there be y.  And there was y.  And God saw the y, and saw that it was good.  And the morning and the evening were the n+1st day.

(Note the repetition of each item, repetition of the pattern, and the actor.)  For a more concrete example, here is the start of Thomas Hobbes's 1676 translation of Homer's Iliad:
O goddess sing what woe the discontent
Of Thetis’ son brought to the Greeks; what souls
Of heroes down to Erebus it sent,
Leaving their bodies unto dogs and fowls;
Whilst the two princes of the army strove,
King Agamemnon and Achilles stout.
Notice that things here don't happen, somebody/something does them.  The goddess sings.  The discontent (of Thetis' son) brings, sends, leaves.  The two princes strive.

The things that are acted on are concrete as well; nothing is abstract in our literate sense.

Such oral tradition can be written down, and was written down, without disrupting the orality of the society.  Literate society is what happens when the culture itself embraces writing as a means of preserving knowledge instead of an oral tradition.  Once literacy is assimilated, set patterns are no longer needed, repetition is no longer needed, pervasive actors are no longer needed, and details become reliably stable in a way that simply doesn't happen in oral society — the keepers of an oral tradition are apt to believe they tell a story exactly the same way each time, but only because they and their telling change as one.  When the actors go away, it becomes possible to conceive of abstract entities.  Plato, with his descriptions of shadows on a cave wall, and Ideal Forms, and such, was (Havelock reckoned) trying to explain literate abstraction in a way that might be understood by someone with an oral worldview.

Note that science can't possibly survive in an oral environment.  It relies on an objectively fixed record of phenomena, against which to judge theories; and it centrally studies abstract forces.  Religion, on the other hand, is ideally suited to an oral environment.  I suggest that religious organisms were the dominant taxon of memetic organisms in oral society, and the taxon of scientific organisms evolved once literate society made it possible.  Leading to a classic Darwinian struggle for survival between the two taxa.

Verbal thought

Those who study natural languages have a luxury not afforded to artlangers, those who create languages artistically:  When a natural language crops up that violates the "natural" rules that linguists thought they understood, new rules can be invented to fit.  But, if an artlanger creates a language that violates the rules linguists think they understand, their creation is likely to be ridiculed.  This was the observation of David J. Peterson in an essay in 2007 (he gives a "Smiley award" to a conlang each year, and does so in essays containing some brilliant deep insights into conlanging).

What is it to a linguist if Pirahã exists? "That sounds totally fake," says the skeptic. Says the linguist, "Yeah, doesn't it?" But in a world where Pirahã doesn't exist, imagine the conlanger who created it. "I just made up a language with no temporal vocabulary or tense whatsoever, no number system, and a culture of people who have no oral history, no art, and no appreciation for storytelling. Oh, yeah, and the language can just as easily be whistled, hummed or drummed as spoken. Oh, and the men and women have different phonologies. Oh yeah, and it's spoken in an area with a dominant language, but nobody speaks it, because they think their language is the best. Oh yeah, and it's supposed to be a naturalistic language." Suddenly when someone counters and says, "That sounds totally fake," the conlanger is put on the defensive, because they do have to account for it—in other words, "Yeah, doesn't it?" isn't going to fly.
— David J. Peterson, The 2007 Smiley Award Winner: Teonaht
Which is interesting for a conlanger, but fascinating in light of Havelock's notion of oral society.  That list of features is pretty much explicitly saying the language doesn't and can't support an oral society:  "no oral history, no art, and no appreciation for storytelling" (doesn't), "no temporal vocabulary or tense whatsoever, no number sytem" (can't).  And for a verbal society to survive in a world where the main Darwinian memetic struggle is between literacy and orality, of course it would have to be an extraordinarily compelling instance of verbality — "nobody speaks" the dominant language of the area, "because they think their language is the best."

The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

The Pirahã were studied by Daniel Everett, who originally approached them with an evangelical mission — the point of such efforts is to learn an isolated people's language, then translate the teachings of Christianity into that language.  Of course this failed miserably with the Pirahã, with their compellingly verbal language and culture (J.R.R. Tolkien criticized the international auxilliary language Esperanto as sterile because it had no mythology behind it (one could argue Esperanto now does have a mythology of a sort (but I digress))).  Within a few years after completing his dissertation, Everett became an atheist.  (Everett's 2008 book on his experiences with the Pirahã is Don't Sleep There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle.)

All of which goes to show that the myth of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge can be handily applied to the transition from verbal to oral society.  However, as I pointed out in my earlier post on memetic organisms, religious teachings are naturally selected for their ambiguity, their ability to be given a wide variety of different interpretations.  The plausibility of an interpretation of the myth is, therefore, pretty much meaningless — the myth is a contextual chamelion, expected to blend plausibly into different belief systems.  But it is interesting to consider how the myth might have evolved.  The early Judaic written tradition is evidently a written record of an originally oral tradition, and an oral tradition mutates events into a good story (i.e., a highly replicable one).  If the verbality conjecture is somewhere in the general neighborhood of the truth, there may once have been a vast cultural upheaval as orality supplanted verbality, perhaps (or perhaps not) on a par with the modern struggle between scientific and religious thinking (a major theme of current geopolitics).  Such an upheaval might be expected to make a lasting impression on the oral societies that emerged; the lasting impression would be a myth; and the myth would be shaped into the forms of orality, with concrete actors and objects.  What sort of myth do you think might result?

[Update:  I further discuss the timing of the verbal/oral transition in a 2015 post Sapience and language.]


  1. Do you think you could expand a bit on what you call a verbal society. What would the dominant taxon(s) likely be?

    As an aside I have thought the garden of Eden might refer to a transition from hunter gatherer to agricultural food production. Perhaps explicitly so in the contrast of garden of fruit vs. sweating and working for your food. Would that line up with a transition from verbal to oral society?

  2. Both fun questions, and I'll have something to say on each.

    From my admittedly sketchy understanding of genetic evolution, about half a billion years ago something happened that caused evolution to shift into a higher gear.  A slew of new lifeforms emerged, many of which apparently didn't last long in the resulting heightened competition.  As if genetic evolution had hit upon a device that made genetic evolution itself more potent.  I've some half-baked ideas about what that might have been, but my point here is that orality may have been like that, a device that made memetic evolution more potent.  Before the genetic event, genetic life seems to have languished at the single-cell stage.  So perhaps in the verbal age, memetic life was limited to the equivalent of single-cell.  I've also a suggestion for what that equivalent might be.  It seems a language is itself a sort of memetic organism, a very primitive one, obviously exists in a verbal society, and even provides basic elements for more sophisticated organisms (in the case of sciences, think technical jargon).  So perhaps language itself was the dominant taxon before orality.

    I've heard the agriculture interpretation of the myth suggested, and it does fit very well, even to the use of a fruit as the concrete object.  The transition to agriculture may be facilitated by orality, so that the two are likely to correspond.  One might even speculate that the transitions to agriculture and to orality would tend to catalyze each other, but perhaps that's going a bit far.

  3. Interesting to put next to James C. Scott's observations in The Art of Not Being Governed. Most tribal communities around today are preserved in reaction to the state and built from waves of migration into and out of nearby states. All sorts of seemingly primitive features of these societies become explicable when put in terms of avoidance of the state. Scott argues this extends even to literacy - a non-literate group will find it easier to adjust their oral traditions and histories to best suit the survival needs of today.

    Thinking of these as different modes to be chosen by a society then allows a loop back to say small software teams. Why not document? - because the bureaucratic overhead of literacy is or was historically too high.

  4. One wonders to what extent bureaucracy can exist in an oral society; having never asked the question before, I've not even a provisional answer ready to hand.

    But, inability to support science is a terrible price to pay.

  5. Bureaucracy would seem to be an affliction of the literate.

    Weirdly, this would make science a state effect.

  6. I'd tentatively accept the conjecture that all bureaucracy is literate, but the conclusion about science doesn't follow from that. Instead, it follows from a stipulation that all literacy is bureaucratic.

  7. This post sets off some of my "probably wrong" detectors. It seems to turn one or two simplified vignettes into sweeping theories of how things work.

    First the Pirahã culture is obviously an innovation from the more standard mode and therefore is not a good model of ancient cultures. If there was a sudden transition from not storytelling to storytelling it would have to have occurred long before the neolithic revolution. (The way people transition to agriculture is a personal interest of mine.)

    The cambrian explosion is a messy thing that may not be a real phenomenon exacerbated by the fact that lineages exist for a long time without fossil record (I feel qualified to talk about this because I am at school for applied evolution).
    I can believe that literacy makes scientific investigation more efficient but it seems vastly implausible that science cannot exist without writing. Here is a paper about science in pre literate societies

    Before you can have a sweeping theory, you need the hundreds of nitpicking details to make it probable. Your thesis has those but this does not.

  8. "Pirahã culture is obviously an innovation from the more standard mode" — that use of the word "obvious", in relation to something as controversial as the Pirahã, puts me in mind of an old joke involving the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

    "...not a good model of ancient cultures." — As noted in the post, if Pirahã were a survival (or recurrence) of verbal society, one would expect it to be atypical of its kind, since others of its kind are not in evidence.  That doesn't preclude getting insights from it (see the quote attributed to Twain, from my first blog post).

    "a sudden transition from not storytelling to storytelling ... would have to have occurred long before the neolithic revolution." — I'm inclined to agree, hence my remark about going a bit far.  Catalysis in both directions isn't entirely precluded by a long time gap, though, hence my caution against dismissing the idea either.  There's also some question about what the word "sudden" should mean, on the time scales involved.

    Cambrian explosion — interesting to hear about the controversies going on in that field (it's a good sign, surely, that there's vigorous probing of hypotheses going on there; suggests a healthy scientific community :-).  I'm using the analogy illustratively, of course; whether the verbality hypothesis is 'somewhere in the neighborhood of the truth' clearly doesn't hinge on the Cambrian explosion; like all of this, though, the analogy is interesting to contemplate.

    Oral science (and much else here, actually) — An initial exploration of a new idea is guaranteed to be less precise, and less complete, that an established paradigm; to expect otherwise would be unrealistic.  My first-approximation expectation of science vs orality is that they wouldn't mix; my second would be that science would be stunted, because the orality would tend to undermine the reliable precision of data records needed for advanced science.  Development of primitive scientific organisms in the oral age does seem a real possibility, though.  I'll be interested to take a look at that article.

    I'm reminded that I really need to get around to my planned blog post on the theme of how to go about exploring extra-paradigmatic scientific ideas — and the pitfalls to beware of.

  9. Oh, one other point I should clarify.

    "Before you can have a sweeping theory, you need the hundreds of nitpicking details to make it probable. Your thesis has those but this does not." — That's talking about a much later stage in development of a theory.  All 'sweeping theories' begin as simple ideas; it's not possible for such things to be born with all the nitpicking details already in place.  My thesis (thank you :-) certain started this way.  The difference is being willing to put a really young idea out on a blog, for contemplation and feedback from others at a much earlier-than-traditional stage.  It seems an excitingly new approach to scientific exploration, and may eventually settle into a new and more potent mode of scientific growth.

  10. I'm now taking a philosophy of science class so by the end of the semester I should know enough to agree or disagree.

  11. Sorry, this is rather off-topic, but I can't help to think that Plato had his metaphor backwards.

    I mean, it seems more natural to think of real life objects and phenomena as colorful dolls, and then the light of mind projects a shadow from this doll, which is an idea evoked by this real-life situation. For instance, a just veredict is the doll, and the shadow is the idea of justice.

    When you think in abstract terms, or when you use symbols, those mental pictures and symbols will tend to have less features than the things whose properties they intend to capture. For instance, think of the stop/walk pedestrian lights. They look very much like shadows. Of course, forgetting about particular details of the myriad different instances is exactly what you want to do when you use a symbol.

    But then maybe that's why most people are turned off by philosophy, science, math and symbolic thought in general. Who wants to spend their lives looking at shadows?

  12. A little late to the game here, but there are many innovations or changes in the ways information is replicated that radically escalate evolution. The current DNA system is highly refined, but so ubiquitous today we can scarcely imagine what it must have evolved from, some earlier system that had lower fidelity and slower duplication, probably. At some point, sex appeared, which made recombination many times faster. And so on and so on.

    The same thing happens memetically. Remember that a meme is simply a behaviour that is passed on from mind to mind by imitation. Language is a highly developed memetic organism itself, but there were memes before language. Then writing, then the printing press. In my own lifetime I've seen very rapid evolution of chain letters from the old paper forms (I actually received a couple in the mail when I was younger), through to email versions, and now they've exploded again in the form of shared Facebook images.