Friday, November 14, 2008

Monkey see, monkey do

This goes on a bit: it’s a book review but also the janglings of my brain in my sparer moments of man flu. Sorry.

After the invasion of 1066, England was pretty much divided between lords and peasants. The lords swanked around in trendy new castles, feasting and speaking French. The peasants either starved or ate root vegetables and spoke Anglo-Saxon. And these two factions saw the same objects and stuff in completely different ways.

To the Anglo-Saxons, a four-legged, mooing animal was something you herded and tended, not something you got to eat. They used the Germanic word, “cow”. When the cow was served up as dinner to the lords, they called it by the French word for the mooing animal, “beef”. Uniquely (I think) English still differentiates between an animal in its state of being alive and one in its state of lunch. By having two words for the same thing, the same thing becomes two distinct entities.

This may, of course, have something to do with how weird we are generally compared to them foreign-speaking fellows about eating things that run and jump. But I shall evangelise St Hugh’s Philosophy of Meat another time.

The point is that our use of language defines our perception and behaviour – what’s called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even though its more of an axiom. Speaking a different language, or using the same language differently, means living in a different world.

Cow/beef is an example of a physical, tangible creature being perceived differently. In general, nouns are easy to translate – languages just have a different word for the same object. But idioms and more metaphysical concepts are trickier. There’s often something uncomfortable about a literal translation (a “calque”); it doesn’t quite fit. (English tends to dodge this problem by just adopting the foreign term.)

It might then, seem, that we can’t imagine something without having a word for it – that’s how Sapir-Whorf is sometimes explained. So which came first: the ability to name things or our conception of the world around us? Can we think without a language?

This metaphysical conundrum has foxed a good few clever fellows. Charles Darwin, for example, wrote in Notebook M on Thursday, 16 August 1838:
“Origin of man now proved.—Metaphysic must flourish.—He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”
This oddment of jotting has been pinched as the title for a very good book indeed, Baboon Metaphysics – the Evolution of a Social Mind by Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M Seyfarth. It compiles years of research and close observation of a group of baboons to make sense of what might be going through their minds.
“Roughly 30 million years ago, baboons, chimpanzees, and humans shared the same ancestor. The ancestral line leading to baboons and other Old World monkeys then diverged. For almost 20 million years thereafter, chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor, before separating roughly five to seven million years ago. In what ways have baboon and chimpanzee minds diverged since their separation? And what selective pressures might have resulted in the obvious differences between the chimpanzee and human minds?”

Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics – the Evolution of a Social Mind, p. 278.

As the authors say, it’s hard enough to know what a human being is thinking, and they can answer direct questions. So the book details a series of clever experiments, each one revealing one more tiny piece of proof. They monitor stress levels by testing for adrenalin levels in the baboons’ poo. They record one baboon's grunts and wahoos and play them back in different situations to see how others react. Slowly an evidence base is built up.

This might sound pretty gruelling but it’s a remarkably easy read. The first hundred pages or so chart the history of man’s interactions with baboons, from the days the ancient Egyptians used them as police dogs and recognised their ability to learn. The evidence of experiments is compared to other animals and human children, but also – brilliantly – to the social observation of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and Jonathan Swift.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged in baboon society that, while success in the male world is determined by sex, fighting and posturing, success in the female world depends on family, social networks and intrigue.”

Ibid, p. 62.

It’s a nicely packaged book, too, full of photos of the baboons in question – though it's not always self-evident that the photos really show us the behaviour that the captions claim. The baboons might just as well be sun-bathing.

(The look and feel of the thing as a physical object add to the ease of the reading. I’m intrigued by the note in the legal indicia, that:
“the paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences – Permanence of Paper for Printed Materials ANSI Z39.48-1992.”
How splendid – a book that’s built to last.)

The authors are chiefly interested in giving evidence for the ways the baboons model the world around them than how they behave: the processes going through their heads. While we never get close to what or how they’re thinking, there’s clear evidence of social knowledge (i.e. keeping up with gossip), complex modelling and unconscious workings out. The authors admit to a wide range of gaps in their own knowledge, and the book lays out the areas for future research. But the complex stuff the baboons are doing is all without a language.

Language isn’t just how we talk to other people, it’s how we explain objects in relation to one another. It’s how we talk to ourselves. It is the mechanism for considering our position and our actions, and not just reacting. Because humans are capable of more than just reacting. It’s just we don’t often show it.
“Words tell us what stuff is doing and where it is. The simplest proper sentence is a thing and what it’s doing … Pretty much everything else – adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions – is just qualifying this construction, placing the thing and what it’s doing in the context of other things and actions. It’s all about making sense of where things are.”

Me, 2 April 2008.

Interestingly, the authors also conclude that baboons don't really have a sense of empathy. They don't seem to be able to see things from another individual's point of view, which leads to infanticide, abandonment and generally callous behaviour. They appear mean though they don't know any better – it's just that us humans do.

That said, a review by Frans de Waal in New Scientist says:
“Curiously, their book omits the work of half a dozen luminaries of earlier baboon fieldwork, including that of Barbara Smuts and Shirley Strum, who have given us a glimpse of a gentler baboon.”
But I wonder if language – as an abstract model of the world around us, a way of distancing ourselves from the immediate – is then the key to empathy. We can only imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling by having the language to model it.

There's a constant effort to stick to only what the evidence shows, a struggle not to anthropomorphise. But the book is less about how much the apes are like us, but how little different we are from them. We’re disturbingly similar – I kept reading the book thinking how true its conclusions were of humans, too. How much one particular baboon behaves like someone I used to work with, that sort of thing.

I made the links but not wholly kindly. Acting like an ape is still a pejorative term. “Humans,” said Douglas Adams, “are not proud of their ancestors, and rarely invite them round to dinner.” (In the TV version of the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, this pearly is accompanied by a tea party for humans and chimpanzees, with the caption “This never happens”.)

At our worst, at our most petty and mean and unthinking, we're very much like apes. We're only better than them when we judge the consequences of our actions, the affect on other people and from their perspective. When we squabble and fight and jockey for position, we're like the baboons; but manners really do make man. We’re no better than apes in our wars but better in our remembrance. And we can only do that because we have language.
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Stephen Hawking, er, hawking British telephony in 1993.


Le Mc said...

Interesting book, interesting review. I'll tell my friend who studies anthropology about it (assuming she doesn't already know). The comment about baboon and human similarity brought "Ghost Light" to mind--the Reverend's Darwinian descent always struck me as grotesque and emblematic, yet I could find no reason for its occurrence in the plot.

0tralala said...

I think it's Josiah proving a point, isn't it?

Nyssa1968 said...

Very interesting stuff. Dutch adopts words from all sorts of languages, too. If I understood that correctly, it's because of the Dutch history as a huge trading and sea-faring nation. It's interesting, though, when they use a word from another language, but adapt the definition. Like looking at a cow, meaning a cow, but calling it a bison...