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My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
The island of Gaua, part of Vanuatu in the Pacific, is just 13
miles across, yet it has five distinct native languages. Papua New
Guinea, an area only slightly bigger than Texas, has 800 languages,
some spoken by just a few thousand people. "Wired for Culture," a remarkable new book by
Mark Pagel, an American evolutionary biologist based in England,
sets out to explain this peculiar human property of fragmenting
into mutually uncomprehending cultural groups. His explanation is
Evolutionary biologists have long gotten used to the idea that
bodies are just genes' ways of making more genes, survival machines
that carry genes to the next generation. Think of a salmon
struggling upstream just to expend its body (now expendable) in
spawning. Dr. Pagel's idea is that cultures are an extension of
this: that the way we use culture is to promote the long-term
interests of our genes.
It need not be this way. When human beings' lives became dominated
by culture, they could have adopted habits that did not lead to
having more descendants. But on the whole we did not; we set about
using culture to favor survival of those like us at the expense of
other groups, using religion, warfare, cooperation and social
allegiance. As Dr. Pagel comments: "Our genes' gamble at handing
over control to...ideas paid off handsomely" in the conquest of the
What this means, he argues, is that if our "cultures have promoted
our genetic interests throughout our history," then our "particular
culture is not for us, but for our genes."
We're expendable. The allegiance we feel to one tribe-religious,
sporting, political, linguistic, even racial-is a peculiar mixture
of altruism toward the group and hostility to other groups.
Throughout history, united groups have stood, while divided ones
Language is the most striking exemplar of Dr. Pagel's thesis. He
calls language "one of the most powerful, dangerous and subversive
traits that natural selection has ever devised." He draws attention
to the curious parallels between genetics and linguistics. Both are
digital systems, in which words or base pairs are recombined to
make an infinite possibility of messages. (Elsewhere I once noted
the numerical similarity between Shakespeare's vocabulary of about
20,000 distinct words and his genome of about 21,000 genes).
Dr. Pagel points out that language is a "technology for rewiring
other people's minds…without either of you having to perform
surgery." But natural section was unlikely to favor such a
technology if it helped just the speaker, or just the listener, at
the expense of the other. Rather, he says that, just as the
language of the genes promotes its own survival via a larger
cooperative entity called the body, so language itself endures via
the survival of the individual and the tribe. Being digital,
language has high fidelity and high variety, compared with any
other animal's communication system. We use it to operate the
cooperative but competitive system of social exchange that is a
society: to charm, forgive, manipulate, bewitch, embroider,
exaggerate, diminish, disparage-to choose just some of the verbs
from the key paragraph of Dr. Pagel's (beautifully written)
Languages evolve, just as genes do,changing gradually over time.
But 7,000 different human tongues nevertheless seems excessive. Dr.
Pagel's explanation is that, since language serves the interests of
the group, when a new tribe splits off from the rest of a society,
the people in the new tribe deliberately differentiate themselves
the better to unite.
Even Americans did this, when Noah Webster deliberately altered
the spelling of some English words (color, center, etc.) because
"as an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system
of our own, in language as well as government."