Useful Fictions Becoming Less Useful

Humanity has long been under the shadow of the Axial Age, no less true today than in centuries past. But what has this meant in both our self-understanding and in the kind of societies we have created? Ideas, as memes, can survive and even dominate for millennia. This can happen even when they are wrong, as long as they are useful to the social order.

One such idea involves nativism and essentialism, made possible through highly developed abstract thought. This notion of something inherent went along with the notion of division, from mind-body dualism to brain modules (what is inherent in one area being separate from what is inherent elsewhere). It goes back at least to the ancient Greeks such as with Platonic idealism (each ideal an abstract thing unto itself), although abstract thought required two millennia of development before it gained its most powerful form through modern science. As Elisa J. Sobo noted, “Ironically, prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern university, most thinkers took a very comprehensive view of the human condition. It was only afterward that fragmented, factorial, compartmental thinking began to undermine our ability to understand ourselves and our place in— and connection with— the world.”

Maybe we are finally coming around to more fully questioning these useful fictions because they have become less useful as the social order changes, as the entire world shifts around us with globalization, climate change, mass immigration, etc. We saw emotions as so essentialist that we decided to start a war against one of them with the War on Terror, as if this emotion was definitive of our shared reality (and a great example of metonymy, by the way), but obviously fighting wars against a reified abstraction isn’t the most optimal strategy for societal progress. Maybe we need new ways of thinking.

The main problem with useful fictions isn’t necessarily that they are false, partial, or misleading. A useful fiction wouldn’t last for millennia if it weren’t, first and foremost, useful (especially true in relation to the views of human nature found in folk psychology). It is true that our seeing these fictions for what they are is a major change, but more importantly what led us to question their validity is that some of them have stopped being as useful as they once were. The nativists, essentialists, and modularists argued that such things as emotional experience, color perception, and language learning were inborn abilities and natural instincts: genetically-determined, biologically-constrained, and neurocognitively-formed. Based on theory, immense amounts of time, energy, and resources were invested into the promises made.

This motivated the entire search to connect everything observable in humans back to a gene, a biological structure, or an evolutionary trait (with the brain getting outsized attention). Yet reality has turned out to be much more complex with environmental factors, epigenetics, brain plasticity, etc. The original quest hasn’t been as fruitful as hoped for, partly because of problems in conceptual frameworks and the scientific research itself, and this has led some to give up on the search. Consider how when one part of the brain is missing or damaged, other parts of the brain often compensate and take over the correlated function. There have been examples of people lacking most of their brain matter and still able to function in what appears to be outwardly normal behavior. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, such that the whole can maintain its integrity even without all of the parts.

The past view of the human mind and body has been too simplistic to an extreme. This is because we’ve lacked the capacity to see most of what goes on in making it possible. Our conscious minds, including our rational thought, is far more limited than many assumed. And the unconscious mind, the dark matter of the mind, is so much more amazing in what it accomplishes. In discussing what they call conceptual blending, Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner write (The Way We Think, p. 18):

“It might seem strange that the systematicity and intricacy of some of our most basic and common mental abilities could go unrecognized for so long. Perhaps the forming of these important mechanisms early in life makes them invisible to consciousness. Even more interestingly, it may be part of the evolutionary adaptiveness of these mechanisms that they should be invisible to consciousness, just as the backstage labor involved in putting on a play works best if it is unnoticed. Whatever the reason, we ignore these common operations in everyday life and seem reluctant to investigate them even as objects of scientific inquiry. Even after training, the mind seems to have only feeble abilities to represent to itself consciously what the unconscious mind does easily. This limit presents a difficulty to professional cognitive scientists, but it may be a desirable feature in the evolution of the species. One reason for the limit is that the operations we are talking about occur at lightning speed, presumably because they involve distributed spreading activation in the nervous system, and conscious attention would interrupt that flow.”

As they argue, conceptual blending helps us understand why a language module or instinct isn’t necessary. Research has shown that there is no single part of the brain nor any single gene that is solely responsible for much of anything. The constituent functions and abilities that form language likely evolved separately for other reasons that were advantageous to survival and social life. Language isn’t built into the brain as an evolutionary leap; rather, it was an emergent property that couldn’t have been predicted from any prior neurocognitive development, which is to say language was built on abilities that by themselves would not have been linguistic in nature.

Of course, Fauconnier and Turner are far from being the only proponents of such theories, as this perspective has become increasingly attractive. Another example is Mark Changizi’s theory presented in Harnessed where he argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature” (see more about this here and here). Whatever theory one goes with, what is required is to explain the research challenging and undermining earlier models of cognition, affect, linguistics, and related areas.

Another book I was reading is How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. She is covering similar territory, despite her focus being on something so seemingly simple as emotions. We rarely give emotions much thought, taking them for granted, but we shouldn’t. How we understand our experience and expression of emotion is part and parcel of a deeper view that our society holds about human nature, a view that also goes back millennia. This ancient lineage of inherited thought is what makes it problematic, since it feels intuitively true in it being so entrenched within our culture (Kindle Locations 91-93):

“And yet . .  . despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classical view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true. Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.”

“So what are they, really?,” Barret asks about emotions (Kindle Locations 99-104):

“When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real— that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.”

This goes along with an area of thought that arose out of philology, classical studies, consciousness studies, Jungian psychology, and anthropology. As always, I’m particularly thinking of the bicameral mind theory of Julian Jaynes. In the most ancient civilizations, there weren’t monetary systems nor according to Jaynes was there consciousness as we know it. He argues that individual self-consciousness was built on an abstract metaphorical space that was internalized and narratized. This privatization of personal space led to the possibility of self-ownership, the later basis of capitalism (and hence capitalist realism). It’s abstractions upon abstractions, until all of modern civilization bootstrapped itself into existence.

The initial potentials within human nature could and have been used to build diverse cultures, but modern society has genocidally wiped out most of this once existing diversity, leaving behind a near total dominance of WEIRD monoculture. This allows us modern Westerners to mistake our own culture for universal human nature. Our imaginations are constrained by a reality tunnel, which further strengthens the social order (control of the mind is the basis for control of society). Maybe this is why certain abstractions have been so central in conflating our social reality with physical reality, as Barret explains (Kindle Locations 2999-3002):

“Essentialism is the culprit that has made the classical view supremely difficult to set aside. It encourages people to believe that their senses reveal objective boundaries in nature. Happiness and sadness look and feel different, the argument goes, so they must have different essences in the brain. People are almost always unaware that they essentialize; they fail to see their own hands in motion as they carve dividing lines in the natural world.”

We make the world in our own image. And then we force this social order on everyone, imprinting it onto not just onto the culture but onto biology itself. With epigenetics, brain plasticity, microbiomes, etc, biology readily accepts this imprinting of the social order (Kindle Locations 5499-5503):

“By virtue of our values and practices, we restrict options and narrow possibilities for some people while widening them for others, and then we say that stereotypes are accurate. They are accurate only in relation to a shared social reality that our collective concepts created in the first place. People aren’t a bunch of billiard balls knocking one another around. We are a bunch of brains regulating each other’s body budgets, building concepts and social reality together, and thereby helping to construct each other’s minds and determine each other’s outcomes.”

There are clear consequences to humans as individuals and communities. But there are other costs as well (Kindle Locations 129-132):

“Not long ago, a training program called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) taught those TSA agents to detect deception and assess risk based on facial and bodily movements, on the theory that such movements reveal your innermost feelings. It didn’t work, and the program cost taxpayers $ 900 million. We need to understand emotion scientifically so government agents won’t detain us— or overlook those who actually do pose a threat— based on an incorrect view of emotion.”

This is one of the ways in which our fictions have become less than useful. As long as societies were relatively isolated, they could maintain their separate fictions and treat them as reality. But in a global society, these fictions end up clashing with each other in not just unuseful ways but in wasteful and dangerous ways. If TSA agents were only trying to observe people who shared a common culture of social constructs, the standard set of WEIRD emotional behaviors would apply. The problem is TSA agents have to deal with people from diverse cultures that have different ways of experiencing, processing, perceiving, and expressing what we call emotions. It would be like trying to understand world cuisine, diet, and eating habits by studying the American patrons of fast food restaurants.

Barret points to the historical record of ancient societies and to studies done on non-WEIRD cultures. What was assumed to be true based on WEIRD scientists studying WEIRD subjects turns out not to be true for the rest of the world. But there is an interesting catch to the research, the reason so much confusion prevailed for so long. It is easy to teach people cultural categories of emotion and how to identify them. Some of the initial research on non-WEIRD populations unintentionally taught the subjects the very WEIRD emotions that they were attempting to study. The structure of the studies themselves had WEIRD biases built into them. It was only with later research that they were able to filter out these biases and observe the actual non-WEIRD responses of non-WEIRD populations.

Researchers only came to understand this problem quite recently. Noam Chomsky, for example, thought it unnecessary to study actual languages in the field. Based on his own theorizing, he believed that studying a single language such as English would tell us everything we needed to know about the basic workings of all languages in the world. This belief proved massively wrong, as field research demonstrated. There was also an idealism in the early Cold War era that lead to false optimism, as Americans felt on top of the world. Chris Knight made this point in Decoding Chomsky (from the Preface):

“Pentagon’s scientists at this time were in an almost euphoric state, fresh from victory in the recent war, conscious of the potential of nuclear weaponry and imagining that they held ultimate power in their hands. Among the most heady of their dreams was the vision of a universal language to which they held the key. […] Unbelievable as it may nowadays sound, American computer scientists in the late 1950s really were seized by the dream of restoring to humanity its lost common tongue. They would do this by designing and constructing a machine equipped with the underlying code of all the world’s languages, instantly and automatically translating from one to the other. The Pentagon pumped vast sums into the proposed ‘New Tower’.”

Chomsky’s modular theory dominated linguistics for more than a half century. It still is held in high esteem, even as the evidence increasingly is stacked against it. This wasn’t just a waste of immense amount of funding. It derailed an entire field of research and stunted the development of a more accurate understanding. Generations of linguists went chasing after a mirage. No brain module of language has been found nor is there any hope of ever finding one. Many researchers wasted their entire careers on a theory that proved false and many of these researchers continue to defend it, maybe in the hope that another half century of research will finally prove it to be true after all.

There is no doubt that Chomsky has a brilliant mind. He is highly skilled in debate and persuasion. He won the battle of ideas, at least for a time. Through sheer power of his intellect, he was able to overwhelm his academic adversaries. His ideas came to dominate the field of linguistics, in what came to be known as the cognitive revolution. But Daniel Everett has stated that “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Dark Matter of the Mind, Kindle Location 306). If anything, Chomsky’s version of essentialism caused the temporary suppression of a revolution that was initiated by linguistic relativists and social constructionists, among others. The revolution was strangled in the crib, partly because it was fighting against an entrenched ideological framework that was millennia old. The initial attempts at research struggled to offer a competing ideological framework and they lost that struggle. Then they were quickly forgotten about, as if the evidence they brought forth was irrelevant.

Barret explains the tragedy of this situation. She is speaking of essentialism in terms of emotions, but it applies to the entire scientific project of essentialism. It has been a failed project that refuses to accept its failure, a paradigm that refuses to die in order to make way for something else. She laments all of the waste and lost opportunities (Kindle Locations 3245-3293):

“Now that the final nails are being driven into the classical view’s coffin in this era of neuroscience, I would like to believe that this time, we’ll actually push aside essentialism and begin to understand the mind and brain without ideology. That’s a nice thought, but history is against it. The last time that construction had the upper hand, it lost the battle anyway and its practitioners vanished into obscurity. To paraphrase a favorite sci-fi TV show, Battlestar Galactica, “All this has happened before and could happen again.” And since the last occurrence, the cost to society has been billions of dollars, countless person-hours of wasted effort, and real lives lost. […]

“The official history of emotion research, from Darwin to James to behaviorism to salvation, is a byproduct of the classical view. In reality, the alleged dark ages included an outpouring of research demonstrating that emotion essences don’t exist. Yes, the same kind of counterevidence that we saw in chapter 1 was discovered seventy years earlier . .  . and then forgotten. As a result, massive amounts of time and money are being wasted today in a redundant search for fingerprints of emotion. […]

“It’s hard to give up the classical view when it represents deeply held beliefs about what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the facts remain that no one has found even a single reliable, broadly replicable, objectively measurable essence of emotion. When mountains of contrary data don’t force people to give up their ideas, then they are no longer following the scientific method. They are following an ideology. And as an ideology, the classical view has wasted billions of research dollars and misdirected the course of scientific inquiry for over a hundred years. If people had followed evidence instead of ideology seventy years ago, when the Lost Chorus pretty solidly did away with emotion essences, who knows where we’d be today regarding treatments for mental illness or best practices for rearing our children.”

 

What is the Blank Slate of the Mind?

In Dark Matter of the Mind, Daniel Everett contrasts Plato and Aristotle. He sides with the latter, specifically in terms of a blank slate view of the human mind. But most people wouldn’t understand what is meant by a blank slate in this context. He explains that (Kindle Locations 1140-1143),

Like Aristotle, Locke did not believe that the absence of knowledge on a tablet means that the tablet has no other properties. It has the capacity to receive and store information and more. Neither philosopher thought of the tabula rasa as devoid of capacity to be written on, not even of capacity to write upon itself. In my reading, they meant by tabula rasa not that there were no innate abilities, but that there were no innate specific concepts.

This is hard to grasp the exact distinction. It’s not an argument that nothing is preexisting. All that it means is nothing is predetermined, as already formed (i.e., Platonic forms). So, what exactly might be already present at birth and innate to all human minds?

I’m still not entirely sure about Everett’s answer to that question. He is critical of someone like Jung, based on the claim of Platonic error or overreach. Here is his description (Kindle Locations 971-973):

Jung (1875– 1961), another of the leading dark matter theorists in the Platonic tradition, was the founder of “analytical psychology” (Jung [1916] 2003). Fundamental to this form of therapy and the theory behind it was, again, Bastian’s elementary ideas, which Jung reconceived as the “collective unconscious,” that is, innate tacit information common to all humans.

It’s the last part that is relevant, “innate tacit information common to all humans”. But is that an accurate interpretation of Jung? Let’s turn to Jung’s explanation of his own view (“Concerning the Archetypes with Special Reference to the Anima Concept”):

It is in my view a great mistake to suppose that the psyche of a new-born child is a tabula rasa in the sense that there is absolutely nothing in it. In so far as the child is born with a differentiated brain that is predetermined by heredity and therefore individualized, it meets sensory stimuli coming from outside not with any aptitudes, but with specific ones, and this necessarily results in a particular, individual choice and pattern of apperception. These aptitudes can be shown to be inherited instincts and preformed patterns, the latter being the a priori and formal conditions of apperception that are based on instinct. Their presence gives the world of the child and the dreamer its anthropomorphic stamp. They are the archetypes, which direct all fantasy activity into its appointed paths and in this way produce, in the fantasy-images of children’s dreams as well as in the delusions of schizophrenia, astonishing mythological parallels such as can also be found, though in lesser degree, in the dreams of normal persons and neurotics. It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas.

Everett says that Jung is claiming “innate tacit information” and speaks of this in terms of Bastian’s “elementary ideas”. That seems to be the same as inherited ideas. If so, Jung is denying Everett’s allegation before it ever was made. “It is not, therefore, a question of inherited ideas but of inherited possibilities of ideas.” That doesn’t sound all that different in how Everett discusses the topic (Kindle Locations 349-355):

The theses of learned tacit knowledge and nativism need not be opposed, of course. It is possible that both learned and innate forms of tacit knowledge are crucially implicated in human cognition and behavior. What we are genuinely interested in is not a false dichotomy of extremes but in a continuum of possibilities— where do the most important or even the most overlooked contributions to knowledge come from?

I am here particularly concerned with difference, however, rather than sameness among the members of our species— with variation rather than homeostasis. This is because the variability in dark matter from one society to another is fundamental to human survival, arising from and sustaining our species’ ecological diversity. The range of possibilities produces a variety of “human natures”

That in turn sounds much like Jung. A variety of “human natures”. Well, Jung developed an entire theory about this, not just a variety through archetypes as inherited possibilities but more specifically a variety of human personality types (i.e., “human natures”). The potentials within humanity could constellate into many patterns, according to Jung. And his book about personality types was directly influential on anthropology in developing a modern understanding of the variety of cultures, of which Everett writes much about.

So, if a supposedly Platonic thinker like Jung can make a basic argument that isn’t necessarily and clearly distinct from a supposedly Aristotelian thinker like Everett, then what precisely is the distinction being proposed? How does one differentiate innate ideas and innate possibilities of ideas? Is anyone “genuinely interested in… a false dichotomy of extremes”?

Dark Matter of the Mind

The past half year has been spent in anticipation. Daniel Everett has a new book that finally came out the other day: Dark Matter of the Mind. I was so curious to read it because Everett is the newest and most well known challenger to mainstream linguistics theory. This is only an interest to me because it so happens to directly touch upon every aspect of our humanity: human nature (vs nurture), self-identity, consciousness, cognition, perception, behavior, culture, philosophy, etc.

The leading opponent to Everett’s theory is Noam Chomsky, a well-known and well-respected public intellectual. Chomsky is the founder of the so-called cognitive revolution — not that Everett sees it as all that revolutionary: “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Kindle Location 306). That brings into the conflict issues of personality, academia, politics, and funding. It’s two paradigms clashing, one of the paradigms having been dominant for more than a half century.

Now that I’ve been reading the book, I find my response to be mixed. Everett is running headlong into difficult terrain and I must admit he does so competently. He is doing the tough scholarly work that needs to be done. As Bill Benzon explained (at 3 Quarks Daily):

“While the intellectual world is rife with specialized argumentation arrayed around culture and associated concepts (nature, nurture, instinct, learning) these concepts themselves do not have well-defined technical meanings. In fact, I often feel they are destined to go the way of phlogiston, except that, alas, we’ve not yet discovered the oxygen that will allow us to replace them [4]. These concepts are foundational, but the foundation is crumbling. Everett is attempting to clear away the rubble and start anew on cleared ground. That’s what dark matter is, the cleared ground that becomes visible once the rubble has been pushed to the side. Just what we’ll build on it, and how, that’s another question.”

This explanation points to a fundamental problem, if we are to consider it a problem. Earlier in the piece, Benzon wrote that, “OK, I get it, I think, you say, but this dark matter stuff is so vague and metaphorical. You’re right. And it remains that way to the end of the book. And that, I suppose, is my major criticism, though it’s a minor one. “Dark matter” does a lot of conceptual work for Everett, but he discusses it indirectly.” Basically, Everett struggles with a limited framework of terminology and concepts. But that isn’t entirely his fault. It’s not exactly new territory that Everett discovered, just not yet fully explored and mapped out. The main thing he did, in his earliest work, was to bring up evidence that simply did not fit into prevailing theories. And now in a book like this he is trying to make sense of what that evidence indicates and what theory better explains it.

It would have been useful if Everett had been able to give a fuller survey of the relevant scholarship. But if he had, it would have been a larger and more academic book. It is already difficult enough for most readers not familiar with the topic. Besides, I suspect that Everett was pushing against the boundaries of his own knowledge and readings. It was easy for me to see everything that was left out, in relation to numerous other fields beyond his focus of linguistics and anthropology — such as: neurocognitive research, consciousness studies, classical studies of ancient texts, voice-hearing and mental health, etc.

The book sometimes felt like reinventing the wheel. Everett’s expertise is in linguistics, and apparently that has has been an insular field of study defended by a powerful and entrenched academic establishment. My sense is that linguistics is far behind in development, compared to many other fields. The paradigm shift that is just now happening in linguistics has been for decades creating seismic shifts elsewhere in academia. Some argue that this is because linguistics became enmeshed in Pentagon-funded computer research and so has had a hard time disentangling itself in order to become an independent field once again. Chomsky as leader of the cognitive revolution has effectively dissuaded a generation of linguists from doing social science, instead promoting the hard sciences, a problematic position to hold about a rather soft field like linguistics. As anthropologist Chris Knight explains it, in Decoding Chomsky (Chapter 1):

“[O]ne bedrock assumption underlies his work. If you want to be a scientist, Chomsky advises, restrict your efforts to natural science. Social science is mostly fraud. In fact, there is no such thing as social science.[49] As Chomsky asks: ‘Is there anything in the social sciences that even merits the term “theory”? That is, some explanatory system involving hidden structures with non-trivial principles that provide understanding of phenomena? If so, I’ve missed it.’[50]

“So how is it that Chomsky himself is able to break the mould? What special factor permits him to develop insights which do merit the term ‘theory’? In his view, ‘the area of human language . . . is one of the very few areas of complex human functioning’ in which theoretical work is possible.[51] The explanation is simple: language as he defines it is neither social nor cultural, but purely individual and natural. Provided you acknowledge this, you can develop theories about hidden structures – proceeding as in any other natural science. Whatever else has changed over the years, this fundamental assumption has not.”

This makes Everett’s job harder than it should be, in breaking new ground in linguistics and in trying to connect it to the work already done elsewhere, most often in the social sciences. As humans are complex social animals living in a complex world, it is bizarre and plain counterproductive to study humans in the way one studies a hard science like geology. Humans aren’t isolated biological computers that can operate outside of the larger context of specific cultures and environments. But Chomsky simply assumes all of that is irrelevant on principle. Field research of actual functioning languages, as Everett has done, can be dismissed because it is mere social science. One can sense how difficult it is for Everett in struggling against this dominant paradigm.

Still, even with these limitations of the linguistics field, the book remains a more than worthy read. His using Plato and Aristotle to frame the issue was helpful to an extent, although it also added another variety of limitation. I got a better sense of the conflict of worldviews and how they relate to the larger history of ideas. But in doing so, I became more aware of the problems of that frame, very closely related to the problems of the nature vs nurture debate (for, in reality, nature and nurture are inseparable). He describes linguistic theoreticians like Chomsky as being in the Platonic school of thought. Chomsky surely would agree, as he has already made that connection in his own writings, what he discusses as Plato’s problem and Plato’s answer. Chomsky’s universal grammar are Platonic in nature, for as he has written such “knowledge is ‘remembered’” (“Linguistics, a personal view” from The Chomskyan Turn). This is Plato’s ananmesis and alethia, an unforgetting of what is true, based on the belief that humans are born with certain kinds of innate knowledge.

That is interesting to think about. But in the end I felt that something was being oversimplified or entirely left out. Everett is arguing against nativism, that there is an inborn predetermined human nature. It’s not so much that he is arguing for a blank slate as he is trying to explain the immense diversity and potential that exists across cultures. But the duality of nativism vs non-nativism lacks the nuance to wrestle down complex realities.

I’m sympathetic to Everett’s view and to his criticisms of the nativist view. But there are cross-cultural patterns that need to be made sense of, even with the exceptions that deviate from those patterns. Dismissing evidence is never satisfying. Along with Chomsky, he throws in the likes of Carl Jung. But the difference between Chomsky and Jung is that the former is an academic devoted to pure theory unsullied by field research while the latter was a practicing psychotherapist who began with the particulars of individual cases. Everett is arguing for a focus on the particulars, upon which to build theory, but that is what Jung did. The criticisms of Chomsky can’t be shifted over to Jung, no matter what one thinks of Jung’s theories.

Part of the problem is that the kind of evidence Jung dealt with remains to be explained. It’s simply a fact that certain repeating patterns are found in human experience, across place and time. That is evidence to be considered, not dismissed, however one wishes to interpret it. Not even most respectable nativist thinkers want to confront this kind of evidence that challenges conventional understandings on all sides. Maybe Jungian theories of archetypes, personality types, etc are incorrect. But how do we study and test such things, going from direct observation to scientific research? And how is the frame of nativism/non-nativism helpful at all?

Maybe there are patterns, not unlike gravity and other natural laws, that are simply native to the world humans inhabit and so might not be entirely or at all native to the human mind, which is to say not in the way that Chomsky makes nativist claims about universal grammar. Rather, these patterns would be native to to humans in the way and to the extent humans are native to the world. This could be made to fit into Everett’s own theorizing, as he is attempting to situate the human within larger contexts of culture, environment, and such.

Consider an example from psychedelic studies. It has been found that people under the influence of particular psychedelics often have similar experiences. This is why shamanic cultures speak of psychedelic plants as having spirits that reside within or are expressed through them.

Let me be more specific. DMT is the most common psychedelic in the world, it being found in numerous plants and even is produced in small quantities by the human brain. It’s an example of interspecies co-evolution, plants and humans having chemicals in common. Plants are chemistry factories and they use chemicals for various purposes, including communication with other plants (e.g., chemically telling nearby plants that something is nibbling on its leaves and so put up your chemical defenses) and communicating with non-plants (e.g., sending out bitter chemicals to help inform the nibbler that they might want to eat elsewhere). Animals didn’t just co-evolve with edible plants but also psychedelic plants. And humans aren’t the only species to imbibe. Maybe chemicals like DMT serve a purpose. And maybe there is a reason so many humans tripping on DMT experience what some describe as self-replicating machine elves or self-transforming fractal elves. Humans have been tripping on DMT for longer than civilization has existed.

DMT is far from being the only psychedelic plant like this. It’s just one of the more common. The reason plant psychedelics do what they do to our brains is because our brains were shaped by evolution to interact with chemicals like this. These chemicals almost seem designed for animal brains, especially DMT which our own brains produce.

That brings up some issues about the whole nativism/non-nativism conflict. Is a common experience many humans have with a psychedelic plant native to humans, native to the plant, or native to the inter-species relationship between human and plant? Where do the machine/fractal elves live, in the plant or in our brain? My tendency is to say that they in some sense ‘exist’ in the relationship between plants and humans, an experiential expression of that relationship, as immaterial and ephemeral as the love felt by two humans. These weird psychedelic beings are a plant-human hybrid, a shared creation of our shared evolution. They are native to our humanity to the extent that we are native to the ecosystems we share with those psychedelic plants.

Other areas of human experience lead down similar strange avenues. Take as another example the observations of Jacques Vallée. When he was a practicing astronomer, he became interested in UFOs as some of his fellow astronomers would destroy rather than investigate anomalous observational data. This led him to look into the UFO field and that led to his studying those claiming alien abduction experiences. What he noted was that the stories told were quite similar to fairy abduction folktales and shamanic accounts of initiation. There seemed to be a shared pattern of experience that was interpreted differently according to culture but that in a large number of cases the basic pattern held.

Or take yet another example. Judith Weissman has noted patterns among the stated experiences of voice-hearers. Another researcher on voice-hearing, Tanya Luhrmann, has studied how voice-hearing both has commonalities and differences across cultures. John Geiger has shown how common voice-hearing can be, even if for most people it is usually only elicited during times of stress. Based on this and the work of others, it is obvious that voice-hearing is a normal capacity existing within all humans. It is actually quite common among children and some theorize it was more common for adults in other societies. Is pointing out the surprisingly common experience of voice-hearing an argument for nativism?

These aspects of our humanity are plain weird. It was the kind of thing that always fascinated Jung. But what do we do with such evidence? It doesn’t prove a universal human nature that is inborn and predetermined. Not everyone has these experiences. But it appears everyone is capable of having these experiences.

This is where mainstream thinking in the field of linguistics shows its limitations. Going by Everett’s descriptions of the Pirahã, it seems likely that voice-hearing is common among them, although they wouldn’t interpret it that way. For them, voice-hearing appears to manifest as full possession and what, to Western outsiders, seems like a shared state of dissociation. It’s odd that as a linguist it didn’t occur to Everett to study the way of speaking of those who were possessed or to think more deeply about the experiential significance of the use of language indicating dissociation. Maybe it was too far outside of his own cultural biases, the same cultural biases that causes many Western voice-hearers to be medicated and institutionalized.

And if we’re going to talk about voice-hearing, we have to bring up Julian Jaynes. Everett probably doesn’t realize it, but his views seem to be in line with the bicameral theory or at least not in explicit contradiction with it on conceptual grounds. He seems to be coming out of the cultural school of thought within anthropology, the same influence on Jaynes. It is precisely Everett’s anthropological field research that distinguishes him from a theoretical linguist like Chomsky who has never formally studied any foreign language nor gone out into the field to test his theories. It was from studying the Pirahã firsthand over many years that the power of culture was impressed upon him. Maybe that is a commonality with Jaynes who began his career doing scientific research, not theorizing.

As I was reading the book, I kept being reminded of Jaynes, despite Everett never mentioning him or related thinkers. It’s largely how he talks about individuals situated in a world and worldview, along with his mentioning of Bordieu’s habitus. This fits into his emphasis on the culture and nurture side of influences, arguing that people (and languages) are products of their environments. Also, when Everett wrote that his view was there is “nothing to an individual but one’s body” (Kindle Location 328), it occurred to me how this fit into the proposed experience of hypothetical ancient bicameral humans. My thought was confirmed when he stated that his own understanding was most in line with the Buddhist anatnam, ‘non-self’. Just a week ago, I wrote the following in reference to Jaynes’ bicameral theory:

“We modern Westerners identify ourselves with our thoughts, the internalized voice of egoic consciousness. And we see this as the greatest prize of civilization, the hard-won rights and freedoms of the heroic individual. It’s the story we tell. But in other societies, such as in the East, there are traditions that teach the self is distinct from thought. From the Buddhist perspective of dependent (co-)origination, it is a much less radical notion that the self arises out of thought, instead of the other way around, and that thought itself simply arises. A Buddhist would have a much easier time intuitively grasping the theory of bicameralism, that thoughts are greater than and precede the self.”

Jaynes considered self-consciousness and self-identity to be products of thought, rather than the other way around. Like Everett, this is an argument against the old Western belief in a human soul that is eternal and immortal, that Platonically precedes individual corporality. But notions like Chomsky’s universal grammar feel like an attempt to revamp the soul for a scientific era, a universal human nature that precedes any individual, a soul as the spark of God and the divine expressed as a language imprinted on the soul. If I must believe in something existing within me that pre-exists me, then I’d rather go with alien-fairy-elves hiding out in the tangled undergrowth of my neurons.

Anyway, how might Everett’s views of nativism/non-nativism been different if he had been more familiar with the work of these other researchers and thinkers? The problem is that the nativism/non-nativism framework is itself culturally biased. It’s related to the problem of anthropologists who try to test the color perception of other cultures using tests that are based on Western color perception. Everett’s observations of the Pirahã, by the way, have also challenged that field of study — as he has made the claim that the Pirahã have no color terms and no particular use in discriminating colors. That deals with the relationship of language to cognition and perception. Does language limit our minds? If so, how and to what extent? If not, are we to assume that such things as ‘colors’ are native to how the human brain functions? Would an individual born into and raised in a completely dark room still ‘see’ colors in their mind’s eye?

Maybe the fractal elves produce the colors, consuming the DMT and defecating rainbows. Maybe the alien-fairies abduct us in our sleep and use advanced technology to implant the colors into our brains. Maybe without the fractal elves and alien-fairies, we would finally all be colorblind and our society would be free from racism. Just some alternative theories to consider.

Talking about cultural biases, I was fascinated by some of the details he threw out about the Pirahã, the tribe he had spent the most years studying. He wrote that (Kindle Locations 147-148), “Looking back, I can identify many of the hidden problems it took me years to recognize, problems based in contrasting sets of tacit assumptions held by the Pirahãs and me.” He then lists some of the tacit assumptions held by these people he came to know.

They don’t appear to have any concepts, language, or interest in God or gods, in religion, or anything spiritual/supernatural that wasn’t personally experienced by them or someone they personally know. Their language is very direct and precise about all experience and the source of claims. But they don’t feel like they’re spiritually lost or somehow lacking anything. In fact, Everett describes them as being extremely happy and easygoing, except on the rare occasion when a trader gives them alcohol.

They don’t have any concern or fear about nor do they seek out and talk about death, the dead, ancestral spirits, or the afterlife. They apparently are entirely focused on present experience. They don’t speculate, worry, or even have curiosity about what is outside their experience. Foreign cultures are irrelevant to them, this being an indifference and not hatred of foreigners. It’s just that foreign cultures is thought of as good for foreigners, as Pirahã culture is good for Pirahã. Generally, they seem to lack the standard anxiety that is typical of our society, despite living in and walking around barefoot in one of the most dangerous environments on the planet surrounded by poisonous and deadly creatures. It’s actually malaria that tends to cut their lives short. But they don’t much comparison in thinking that their lives are cut short.

Their society is based on personal relationships and “do not like for any individual to tell another individual how to live” (Kindle Locations 149-150). They don’t have governments or, as far as I know, governing councils. They don’t practice social coercion, community-mandated punishments, and enforced norms. They are very small tribe living in isolation with a way of life that has likely remained basically the same for millennia. Their culture and lifestyle is well-adapted to their environmental niche, and so they don’t tend to encounter many new problems that require them to act differently than in the past. They also don’t practice or comprehend incarceration, torture, capital punishment, mass war, genocide, etc. It’s not that violence never happens in their society, but I get the sense that it’s rare.

In the early years of life, infants and young toddlers live in near constant proximity to their mothers and other adults. They are given near ownership rights of their mothers’ bodies, freely suckling whenever they want without asking permission or being denied. But once weaned, Pirahã are the opposite of coddled. Their mothers simply cut them off from their bodies and the toddlers go through a tantrum period that is ignored by adults. They learn from experience and get little supervision in the process. They quickly become extremely knowledgeable and capable about living in and navigating the world around them. The parents have little fear about their children and it seems to be well-founded, as the children prove themselves able to easily learn self-sufficiency and a willingness to contribute. It reminded me of Jean Liedloff’s continuum concept.

Then, once they become teenagers, they don’t go through a rebellious phase. It seems a smooth transition into adulthood. As he described it in his first book (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, p. 99-100):

“I did not see Pirahã teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life. They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Pirahã sense of productivity (good fishermen, contributing generally to the security, food needs, and o ther aspects of the physical survival of the community). One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Pirahã youth. They do not seem to be searching for answers. They have them. And new questions rarely arise.

“Of course, this homeostasis can stifle creativity and individuality, two important Western values. If one considers cultural evolution to be a good thing, then this may not be something to emulate, since cultural evolution likely requires conflict, angst, and challenge. But if your life is unthreatened (so far as you know) and everyone in your society is satisfied, why would you desire change? How could things be improved? Especially if the outsiders you came into contact with seemed more irritable and less satisfied with life than you. I asked the Pirahãs once during my early missionary years if they knew why I was there. “You are here because this is a beautiful place. The water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahãs are nice people.” That was and is the Pirahãs’ perspective. Life is good. Their upbringing, everyone learning early on to pull their own weight, produces a society of satisfied members. That is hard to argue against.”

The most strange and even shocking aspect of Pirahã life is their sexuality. Kids quickly learn about sex. It’s not that people have sex out in the open. But it’s a lifestyle that provides limited privacy. Sexual activity isn’t considered a mere adult activity and children aren’t protected from it. Quite the opposite (Kindle Locations 2736-2745):

“Sexual behavior is another behavior distinguishing Pirahãs from most middle-class Westerners early on. A young Pirahã girl of about five years came up to me once many years ago as I was working and made crude sexual gestures, holding her genitalia and thrusting them at me repeatedly, laughing hysterically the whole time. The people who saw this behavior gave no sign that they were bothered. Just child behavior, like picking your nose or farting. Not worth commenting about.

“But the lesson is not that a child acted in a way that a Western adult might find vulgar. Rather, the lesson, as I looked into this, is that Pirahã children learn a lot more about sex early on, by observation, than most American children. Moreover, their acquisition of carnal knowledge early on is not limited to observation. A man once introduced me to a nine- or ten-year-old girl and presented her as his wife. “But just to play,” he quickly added. Pirahã young people begin to engage sexually, though apparently not in full intercourse, from early on. Touching and being touched seem to be common for Pirahã boys and girls from about seven years of age on. They are all sexually active by puberty, with older men and women frequently initiating younger girls and boys, respectively. There is no evidence that the children then or as adults find this pedophilia the least bit traumatic.”

This seems plain wrong to most Westerners. Then again, to the Pirahã, much of what Westerners do would seem plain wrong or simply incomprehensible. Which is worse, Pirahã pedophilia or Western mass violence and systematic oppression?

What is most odd is that, like death for adults, sexuality for children isn’t considered a traumatizing experience and they don’t act traumatized. It’s apparently not part of their culture to be traumatized. They aren’t a society based on and enmeshed in a worldview of violence, fear, and anxiety. That isn’t how they think about any aspect of their lifeworld. I would assume that, like most tribal people, they don’t have high rates of depression and other mental illnesses. Everett pointed out that in the thirty years he knew the Pirahã there never was a suicide. And when he told them about his stepmother killing herself, they burst out in laughter because it made absolutely no sense to them that someone would take their own life.

That demonstrates the power of culture, environment, and lifestyle. According to Everett, it also demonstrates the power of language, inseparable from the society that shapes and is shaped by it, and demonstrates how little we understand the dark matter of the mind.

* * *

The Amazon’s Pirahã People’s Secret to Happiness: Never Talk of the Past or Future
by Dominique Godrèche, Indian Country

Being Pirahã Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
by Christopher Ryan, Psychology Today

The Myth of Teenage Rebellion
by Suzanne Calulu, Patheos

The Suicide Paradox: Full Transcript
from Freakonomics