The grammar of civilization
Romanticism and nostalgia are two afflictions of the intellect against which I have tried to be particularly vigilant. The reason is obvious and requires little explanation. “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, is a cliche, but it is nonetheless true. Also, I have come to be an enemy in my thinking of all counterfactuals. Though I have given up on any idea of “Divine Providence”, nevertheless I think that things happen for a reason, especially from our point of view. Or rather, our point of view is the result of things happening in a certain way, in a certain sequence, and so on. Thinking that they could have happened otherwise is a pointless exercise.
Nevertheless, it could be argued that one can be too vigilant against these afflictions, especially if you become blinded to other realities that exist in the here and now. That of course is the mentality of the imperialist conqueror who destroyed indigenous peoples throughout the world and committed genocide all under the impression that the world could not be otherwise. The danger among some leftist tendencies is to “baptize” such imperialist ideologies under the pretense that the destruction of other cultures is needed and inevitable. It is easy to wash ones hands like Pontius Pilate over the broken body of Jesus, stating that we didn’t bring this evil upon the world, but we shouldn’t let a good catastrophe go unexploited. That might be a “realistic” approach, but arguably it is not an ethical one.
It is in that light that I discuss hDr. Daniel Everett’s work, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. The book is the result of a unique story of one missionary’s encounter with a unique tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, the Pirahã. Dr. Everett arrived with his family to try to learn the Pirahã’s language in order to translate the Bible for them and thus convert them to Christianity. Many had tried to learn the Pirahã language, but few had been successful, and none to the point of being able to interact with the tribe and learn about their culture. In the process of learning their language, Everett discovered that it had no relation to any known language, and that Pirahã culture had aspects that made it unique among all of the world’s tribes. For one thing, the Pirahã have no words for or concept of numbers, colors, cardinal direction, or history. They have no religion, no gods, no sense of the afterlife, and no creation myths. According to Everett, they are natural empiricists and pragmatists: when Everett tries to tell the Pirahã about Jesus, they immediately ask him if he has ever met him. When he says that he hasn’t, the Pirahã response was, “Then why are you telling us about him?” Most significantly from a scholarly perspective, the Pirahã language has no recursion as far as most scholars can tell. This was the main thrust of Everett’s polemic with Noam Chomsky as the father of modern linguistics, and the primary theme of the documentary based on Everett’s book entitled, The Grammar of Happiness, that can be viewed in its entirety above.
Everett’s polemic against Chomsky summarizes the point that I would like to make here as well. Chomsky has written that recursion is an essential characteristic of human language because it reflects how the brain works; it is practically embedded in our DNA. Everett and many scholars trying to study the Pirahã have concluded that this is the one language in the world that is documented not to have recursion. According to Everett, if the Pirahã language doesn’t have recursion, then it could hardly be something essential to language. When talking about what is essential to language, especially in the Chomskyan schema wherein language is almost genetically encoded, exceptions don’t prove rules, they nullify them. In that sense, if something as basic as recursion is not essential to human nature, it is perhaps the case that neither are number, direction, history, or any other abstraction. Pace Neoplatonism, modern evolutionary ideologies, or any number of thought systems, the things that are embedded in the human mind that make us truly human may be few and of great variation.
The effect that this has on Pirahã life is quite noticeable as one might expect. The Pirahã live entirely in the present according to Everett, and don’t save for tomorrow. The Pirahã don’t have any rituals to speak of, or any ceremonies. Marriages are contracted and dissolved with little societal drama. Children are not physically disciplined, and there is no “baby talk” in Pirahã: a child is treated like an adult practically from birth, taking into account only physical limitations. The Pirahã live a rather Spartan lifestyle, working when they have to and often going a day or two without eating. In spite of having no sense of abstraction, they have a name for everything in their surroundings. And one thing that Everett asserts at the end of the book is that the Pirahã are probably the happiest people on earth. Anthropologists have measured the amount of time that the Pirahã are smiling or laughing, and it is by far greater than the sullen dispositions of many of the tribes and Brazilians around them. This encounter with the Pirahã results in Everett losing the faith that he was supposed to be sharing with the Pirahã in the first place.
That is not to say that they don’t have their problems. Everett casually comments on how one girls was gang raped by the men of the village, though he doesn’t elaborate why. Brazilian traders often try to give the Pirahã alcohol in exchange for various goods, and this results in drunken parties by the men in which the women and children flee the village for their own safety. Everett also describes various harrowing scenes in Pirahã life that seem cruel and almost inhuman to outsiders, specifically letting women and children die for reasons of benign and not-so-benign neglect. Their lives may be comparatively happy, but they are by far not easy. Rather ominously, however, at the end of the above documentary it is shown that the Brazilian government is trying to reach out to the Pirahã in the form of schools, building projects, and the introduction of modern technology into their lives.
The question here for me arises is how much of the sufferings of indigenous people throughout the world is caused not by their primordial poverty and ignorance but is rather as the result of outside violence of civilization and empire. Could the lack of abstraction and the seeming natural happiness of the Pirahã be due to the fact that their impenetrable language limited their contact with colonization and European influence? It is of course impossible to say. I have been thinking recently of the indigenous people who inhabited the place where I grew up. The Ohlone Indians were the tribe that inhabited the central coast of the state of California where I was born and raised. Of course, I have no blood relation to them, but I cannot help but wonder what the land must have looked like when they inhabited it. This brief segment highlights an oratorio based on the life of the last speaker of the Ohlone language. Ascención Solórsano de Cervantes:
From my reading of Ohlone life, they pretty much had it made before the Spanish came. The mild climate and the abundant flora and fauna made for a life in which they had to do little to get by. True, they didn’t live longer than we do, but they didn’t spend most of their time giving their life energy to feed the surplus of others who were not immediately part of their lives. Indeed, the first task of the missionaries was to get the Ohlone to develop a concept of work, because only in getting them sedentary and subjugated could they be properly “catechized”. Instead, they were pretty much wiped out.
I suppose I should wrap up my reflections in terms of formulating briefly the contrasts that I am discussing here. “Primitive” people are not by nature superstitious, as is seen in the Pirahã’s complete lack of religion. Nor is it possible to separate what we see as pernicious in “primitive” societies from their interaction with “civilization”. It is at least a supportable hypothesis that what we see in the Pirahã is the best example of a human society under-influenced by civilization: the impenetrability of their language made such influence virtually impossible. Thus, any philosophical idea of development or evolution is impossible: when something is not present, it cannot evolve. Indeed, these abstractions that are the foundation of our politics, our sciences, and our history could very well not exist, and we would be perfectly fine without them. We might even be happier if they didn’t exist. There is no way of knowing either way, but at the very least we should be aware that they might be in large part due to genocidal violence and thus are far from “natural”.