December 5, 2007

I heard about this tribe that ...

In 2002, the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for murderers with IQs below, typically, 70. If you are a justice of the Supreme Court, any relative of yours or of a friend of yours with an IQ below 70 is likely to suffer from a visible organic syndrome of mental retardation, such as Down's. They are what doctors abbreviate in their notes as FLKs -- Funny Looking Kids.

But in sizable swaths of American society, an IQ below 70 doesn't mean you are retarded in a medical sense -- it just means you're dimmer than normal. You walk and talk like everybody else on your block. You just aren't any better at abstract reasoning than the Supreme Court Justice's nephew with Down's Syndrome.

Lack of understanding of this leads to the widespread incredulity at hearing of the low average IQ scores in some Third World countries, and the even lower IQ scores found among some hunter-gatherers, such as the Australian Aborigines: "You're saying that half the people in the country are retarded! That's insane!"

Some poor people overseas are physically retarded, due to lack of micronutrients like iron or iodine. But a lot just don't do much abstract thinking. This doesn't mean their offspring wouldn't be able to, but they don't. So they score low on IQ tests, and perform poorly at real-world tasks that require higher IQs.

I've heard of an anthropologist who has spent years with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert who can't recall ever hearing a conversation among them about something abstract.

An extreme example of concrete, here-and-now, nonabstract thinking appears to be a tribe in the Amazon called the Pirahã. They've been known to Portuguese-speakers since the 1700s, but they've successfully resisted being assimilated by their remarkable lack of curiosity about and contempt for anything outside their own time and place.

John Colapinto reported in the New Yorker last spring in "The Interpreter" on a linguist named Dan Everett:

The article described the extreme simplicity of the tribe’s living conditions and culture. The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition. ...

Unlike other hunter-gatherer tribes of the Amazon, the Pirahã have resisted efforts by missionaries and government agencies to teach them farming. They maintain tiny, weed-infested patches of ground a few steps into the forest, where they cultivate scraggly manioc plants. “The stuff that’s growing in this village was either planted by somebody else or it’s what grows when you spit the seed out,” Everett said to me one morning as we walked through the village. Subsisting almost entirely on fish and game, which they catch and hunt daily, the Pirahã have ignored lessons in preserving meats by salting or smoking, and they produce only enough manioc flour to last a few days. (The Kawahiv, another Amazonian tribe that Everett has studied, make enough to last for months.) ...

The tribe, he maintains, has no collective memory that extends back more than one or two generations, and no original creation myths. ... Everett also learned that the Pirahã have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change from one moment to the next. “So if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say, ‘This looks like blood,’ ” Everett said. “Or they could say, ‘This is like vrvcum’—a local berry that they use to extract a red dye.”

Gordon had visited the tribe with Everett in the early nineties, after Everett told him about the Pirahã’s limited “one,” “two,” and “many” counting system. Other tribes, in Australia, the South Sea Islands, Africa, and the Amazon, have a “one-two-many” numerical system, but with an important difference: they are able to learn to count in another language. The Pirahã have never been able to do this, despite concerted efforts by the Everetts to teach them to count to ten in Portuguese.

During a two-month stay with the Pirahã in 1992, Gordon ran several experiments with tribe members. In one, he sat across from a Pirahã subject and placed in front of himself an array of objects—nuts, AA batteries—and had the Pirahã match the array. The Pirahã could perform the task accurately when the array consisted of two or three items, but their performance with larger groupings was, Gordon later wrote, “remarkably poor.” Gordon also showed subjects nuts, placed them in a can, and withdrew them one at a time. Each time he removed a nut, he asked the subject whether there were any left in the can. The Pirahã answered correctly only with quantities of three or fewer. Through these and other tests, Gordon concluded that Everett was right: the people could not perform tasks involving quantities greater than three. Gordon ruled out mass retardation. Though the Pirahã do not allow marriage outside their tribe, they have long kept their gene pool refreshed by permitting women to sleep with outsiders. “Besides,” Gordon said, “if there was some kind of Appalachian inbreeding or retardation going on, you’d see it in hairlines, facial features, motor ability. It bleeds over. They don’t show any of that.”

Shortly after Gordon’s article appeared, Everett began outlining a paper correcting what he believed were Gordon’s errors. Its scope grew as Everett concluded that the Pirahã’s lack of numerals was part of a larger constellation of “gaps.” Over the course of three weeks, Everett wrote what would become his Cultural Anthropology article, twenty-five thousand words in which he advanced a novel explanation for the many mysteries that had bedevilled him. Inspired by Sapir’s cultural approach to language, he hypothesized that the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word xibipío as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience—which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío—‘gone out of experience,’ ” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’ ”

To Everett, the Pirahã’s unswerving dedication to empirical reality—he called it the “immediacy-of-experience principle”—explained their resistance to Christianity, since the Pirahã had always reacted to stories about Christ by asking, “Have you met this man?” Told that Christ died two thousand years ago, the Pirahã would react much as they did to my using bug repellent. It explained their failure to build up food stocks, since this required planning for a future that did not yet exist; it explained the failure of the boys’ model airplanes to foster a tradition of sculpture-making, since the models expressed only the momentary burst of excitement that accompanied the sight of an actual plane. It explained the Pirahã’s lack of original stories about how they came into being, since this was a conundrum buried in a past outside the experience of parents and grandparents.

Personally, I haven't met any Pirahãs, so I can't tell you if Everett's theories are true or not. Anthropologists have gotten things wrong before.

The Pirahãs survive fine in the jungle -- there are about 250-300 of them -- and they seem to amuse each other no end, although they find outsiders boring, unless they bring them stuff.

They're kind of reminiscent of that NYT Magazine article about the Syrian Jews in Brooklyn: about IQ 50 points lower, but just as xenophobic (although that's not quite the right word -- the Amazonians appear to be not scared or repulsed by the outside world, but simply uninterested in it). The Syrian Jews aren't very interested in science, higher education, or other creations of abstract thought, either, although they have no problem using abstract thinking to make lots of money.

Maybe that's the future of the human race. If we curious moderns can't keep up our birthrates, the distant future may belong to cultures that raise their members to be not curious.

By the way, the article has a long section on how this one tribe supposedly undermines Noam Chomsky's venerable theory of Universal Grammar. I don't really see that. We know that a really bad environment, like being chained to the water heater in the basement for your whole childhood, can severely retard a child so that he might never catch up after he is freed. Perhaps this tribe's culture is the cultural equivalent of being chained to the water heater. It sounds like they more or less intentionally create a stupid cultural environment to dampen curiosity about the outside world. Maybe it's not intentional but it seems to work -- they appear to have survived intact for over 200 years of contact with the Western world, whereas tribes with what we think of as better cultures, more conducive to curiosity, have just blended into the mestizo mass by now. It shouldn't invalidate Chomsky's general theory of Universal Grammar that some tribe has constructed a culture that keeps themselves too stupid to use useful features of the Universal Grammar.

I'm not sure if a culture can make you smarter, but I bet it can make you less interested in abstract thinking.

But, I don't know anything about linguistics, so don't take my word for it.

Anyway, you aren't supposed to think like that:

"Some scholars believe that Everett’s claim that the Pirahã do not use recursion is tantamount to calling them stupid. Stephen Levinson, the neo-Whorfian director of the Language and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in the Netherlands, excoriated Everett in print for “having made the Pirahã sound like the mindless bearers of an almost subhumanly simple culture.” Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist at the Australian National University, was also troubled by the paper, and told me, “I think from the point of view of—I don’t know—human solidarity, human rights, and so on, it’s really very important to know that it’s a question that many people don’t dare to raise, whether we have the same cognitive abilities or not, we humans.”"

Okay, Dr. Wierzbicka, you don't sound real comfortable with where this could be going, and we don't want to get you Watsoned.

I was, however, amused by Steven Pinker's reflections on his old mentor:

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist, who wrote admiringly about some of Chomsky’s ideas in his 1994 best-seller, “The Language Instinct,” told me, “There’s a lot of strange stuff going on in the Chomskyan program. He’s a guru, he makes pronouncements that his disciples accept on faith and that he doesn’t feel compelled to defend in the conventional scientific manner. Some of them become accepted within his circle as God’s truth without really being properly evaluated, and, surprisingly for someone who talks about universal grammar, he hasn’t actually done the spadework of seeing how it works in some weird little language that they speak in New Guinea.”

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

I know several persons, including two inlaws in my family, who started life in the middle middle-class and have become wealthy. One is a partner in a famous consulting firm, and the other started a business that now employs over two thousand persons. Neither one of them has an innate sense of curiosity. The smartest member of my family, an attorney, has made little money because he has an insatiable thirst for learning, especially abstract learning. In my observations, most self-made wealthy persons have tunnel-vision for the specific, concrete tasks at hand. Now, regarding abstract learning and reproduction: serious abstract thinking is almost incompatible with raising children and being a part of the social life of a community. This is one reason why, regarding university professors: (1) only one-half of the tenured profs in the U.S. have children, (2) few profs participate in their non-academic communities.

the Narrator... said...

"We know that a really bad environment, like being chained to the water heater in the basement for your whole childhood, can severely retard a child so that he might never catch up after he is freed. Perhaps this tribe's culture is the cultural equivalent of being chained to the water heater"
-Steve Sailer


I don't know if thats quite how to put it. Their condition is not something that was inflicted upon them. They simply adapted/evolved to the level at which they could sustain their existence and then stopped, because that is all their environment demanded of them. All humans did this. Some races found themselves in a more rigorous environment and were forced to evolve more sophisticated thinking to survive.
That advanced thinking allowed for survival but also facilitated the ability to be creative in ways not necessarily survival-related. In other words all the advances in technology, medicine, science, engineering, art et.. were just the icing on the cake. Human life on earth would go on with or without them.

Evolution is not about progressing towards perfection, its about adapting to best survive an environment. And the conditions that gave rise to modern man (both white and non-white) are now gone; thus we cannot make the entire world over in the white man's image (our notions of law and order, morality, way-of-thinking et...) We are what we are today because of conditions that existed for many thousands of years in ages long since gone...

Anonymous said...

"I've heard of an anthropologist who has spent years with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert who can't recall ever hearing a conversation among them about something abstract."
Steve - that's jusy a hearsay anecdote - No proof.

Anonymous said...

Xibipío - would be an excellent name for a wine, beer & coffe bar in Williamsburg or Greenpoint.

The whole leaving experience thing works for that kind of thing - Tuck in some Rainforest agitprop and some trendy wines and you could really go with it

It's unlikely the Piraha would sue.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Dr. Wierzbicka, or anyone else involved, is in much danger of getting Watsoned. The Piraha are too bad at abstract thinking to produce any activists. Lacking art, they are too boring and depressing for anyone to fetishize their culture and become an activist for them.

Anonymous said...

"the narrator" wrote:
"Some races found themselves in a more rigorous environment and were forced to evolve more sophisticated thinking to survive. That advanced thinking allowed for survival but also facilitated the ability to be creative in ways not necessarily survival-related."

That's a lame argument for explaining modern technological societies. Surely we don't need most of the technology surrounding us if survival was the main aim. We could then get by using the tech of the Middle Ages for instance. I mean what do you really need a plane for? Or a rocket which goes to the moon. Surely all the food we need grows around us and we can build homes with wooden logs. Or is there a vegetable which only grows on the moon, and which we need for our immune system? So this time we forgot to switch on the survival only mode?
Evolution does not really explain much of what drives modern society since so much of it has nothing to do with immediate survival.

Anonymous said...

We are what we are today because of conditions that existed for many thousands of years in ages long since gone...

Those conditions could return, given a pandemic or a global economic collapse followed/accompanied by racial nationalism. I like to think that we were unimaginably advanced some time prior to the last Ice Age, which wiped the slate almost entirely clean...If this is true, it's another reason to preserve the right genes, in order to get up to speed more quickly after the next global catastrophe.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree with the professor. Not to be Piraha, but I've seen it my self. Thinking about abstract subjects is for the most part not of benefit to the individual in the short term. The sum of those thoughts and the use that concrete thinkers put them to is. We fall into this trap of thinking that "self made" individuals exist. Bosh, they take more than they give in many respects and don't even have the awareness to notice. Take away the cultural scaffold that abstract thinking generates and the entire society collapses.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor,

It sounds like you are mapping the personality issues professors have onto abstract thinking generally. You can't generalize about abstract learning from the data-points you have presented. You're really talking about efficiency and obsession, not IQ and abstract learning.

Efficiency, because most professors are incredibly inefficient at what they do, since they don't feel market pressure, but political pressure. Obsession, because only an obsession with some ideal of truth could make abstract learning more important than family and community. But obsession with abstract ideas is no measurement of capability with them, which is what IQ actually measures.

Anonymous said...

Personally I thing that IQ and culture are intertwined.

A group like the Piraha have managed to exist for a long time with a fairly simple culture and have lost any hardware support for a more sophisticated culture.

You can actually see the same thing in most societies. They segregate into three broad cultural groups based on the innate cognitive abilities of the members to participate in the cultures constructed by those groups.

Anonymous said...

By the way, the article has a long section on how this one tribe supposedly undermines Noam Chomsky's venerable theory of Universal Grammar. I don't really see that.

I didn't see anything in the article that would really undermine the idea of a UG either, but I guess I would have to see the actual paper. The exact nature of the UG has long been a source of debate and it wouldn't surprise me if some of Chomsky's own theories on how it's supposed to work are dead wrong. Still, a major realization in linguistics over the past few decades has been the discovery that the world's languages are really a lot less grammatically diverse than they once seemed. The UG may be a lot more complicated, flexible, and multifaceted than many people imagine. It may also be the case that there is something like a core UG that is relatively natural coexisting with more artificial and difficult to learn structures that are partial substitutes for that natural UG (and perhaps a tendency for languages to regress to that more natural standard when opportunities for linguistic change arise).

You've always got to exercise skepticism when it comes to anthropology involving far-flung tribes. There is a long history of anthropologists seriously revising their thinking when tribes are subjected to further scrutiny and anthropological claims that sound incredible often turn out to be false.

Anonymous said...

Gypsies are some of the most inward looking people I have ever encountered as well.

But I guess that is how you have to be to keep your "culture" for so long within another larger culture.

neil craig said...

I couldn't find how close to the equator they live but really close there is no difference between seasons & little weather (the Doldrums). If you live in an area where food is considerably easier to find in summer there is a strong pressure to be aware of time & to make preparations for hard times not yet visible (applies to squirrels as well as humans). Tribes who face harsh winters without preparation would be unlikely to last long. This may be an important pressure in cultural & even biological evolution.

Anonymous said...

What's the history of this tribe? I read once about an Amazonian tribe that had a similar "one, two, many" counting system and didn't know how to make fire -- they had previously been a more advanced agricultural tribe, but had been chased into the jungle centuries ago and had lost some of their previous knowledge. I wonder if it's the same tribe.

Anonymous said...

I have heard our own President being referred to as "incurious". It was not meant as a compliment.

Anonymous said...

"neo-Whorfian"? I thought the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had been discarded. Maybe it's time to reread The Languages of Pao or Babel-17...

Anonymous said...

I think the tribe's type being literal-minded and avoiding nominalizations has its advantages. It reminds me of this allegory from Frederick Mann:
Two Tribes
Consider two different isolated tribes somewhere in the jungles of South America. Call them Tribe 1 and Tribe 2. Each has its unique language with its own structure. The language of tribe 1 (language 1) tends to be very literal. A man who fishes, for example, is called "man-who-fishes." The same man, while sleeping, is called "man-who-sleeps"; while talking, "man-who-talks"; while running, -"man-who-runs"; while eating, man-who-eats"; while writing, "man-who-writes"; while making a chair, "man-who-makes-chair"; while giving orders, "man-who-gives-orders"; etc. In language 1, distinctions are made between different kinds of words: "Thing-words," "Do-words," "How-words," "Story-words," "Funny-words," "order-words," "Panic-words," "What-words," "Who-words," "Why-words," "When-words," "Where-words," etc. Abstractions are rare in language 1. To the people of tribe 1, any word that doesn't refer to something physically perceivable, is highly suspect. Their test for reality is physical.

The language of Tribe 2 (Language 2) is very different. A man who obtains his wherewithal mostly by fishing, is called "fisherman." (This system of nomenclature would seem absurd to the people of Tribe 1 - how can you call someone a "fisherman" when he is not fishing, but sleeping?) Language 2 contains many abstractions - like "happiness." People from Tribe 2 can talk for hours about "happiness." (To someone from Tribe 1, this would be incomprehensible - they only talk about "woman-who-is-happy" while she is happy, and "woman-who-is-sad" while she is sad. The notion that you could separate "happiness" from a real person being happy, and talk about "happiness" as if it existed by itself, would be completely unthinkable to someone from Tribe 1.)

To the people from Tribe 2, any word being used is automatically assumed to be part of existence, otherwise people wouldn't use it. (To someone from Tribe 1, the word "existence" would be a meaningless absurdity, because in their mentality only particular objects exist.) In Tribe 2, the test for reality is agreement. If other people agree with a word and the way it seems to be used, then that word is automatically accepted as valid and useful. They suffer from hypostatization.

One day a strange man arrives at the place where the people of Tribe 1 live. They ask him: "Who you?" He: "I King". They: "your name King?". He: "No; my name John." They: "Why call self King if name John?" He: "I special person, agent of God." They: "You look different but not special; who God?" He: "God creator of world." They: "Where God?; How create world?" He: "God everywhere; God all-powerful." They: "How we see God?" He: "Can't see God." They: "You speak crazy." He: "No; I special; I show you." Whereupon the stranger performs various tricks like apparently making objects appear and disappear. They: "You clever man-who tricks." He: "I special; I King." They: "You speak funny; you clever John-who-tricks." He: "I King; my word law." They: "What law? - special word?" He: "Yes; my word law - you must obey." They: "Ah! You mean order-word!" He: "Yes; I King; I make law." They: "No; you speak order-word?" He: "Yes; I special". They: "What special? - Anybody speak order-word?" He: "You not understand." They: "No."

Eventually John-the-stranger gives up trying to convince the people of Tribe 1 that he has a "special status" and that his words are different from the words of anyone else - so he leaves, to search for more gullible and impressionable victims elsewhere...

For many days and nights he trudges through the jungle before discovering the people of Tribe 2. They: "Who you?" He: "I King." They: "Your name King?" He: "No, my name John." They: "Why call self King if name John?" He: "I special person, agent of God." They: "You look different; what God?" He: "God creator of world." They: Where God?; How create world?" He "God everywhere; God all-powerful." They: "Show special?" Whereupon the stranger performs various tricks like apparently making objects appear and disappear. They: "You King, agent of God." He: "Yes, my word law." They: "What law?" He: "Law special word of God through me; you must obey." Whereupon the people of Tribe 2 bow down and kiss the feet of John - they do not habitually test abstractions against reality, so they readily accept John-the-stranger as their "King" and his word as "law." Thereafter all he has to do to control and dominate them, is to open his mouth...

Anonymous said...

How long would such a tribe exist if another group with abstract thinking skills decided the world would be a better place without them in it? Or simply wanted their land?

Being non-competitive with other groups usually has it's own Darwinian penalty. I suspect the tribe survived because of the extreme mobility of hunter-gatherers -- they can simply run away from more powerful, abstract thinking neighbors. As both Keeley (War Before Civilization) and Wade make clear. They also seem optimized for survival on low-resource areas and extreme mobility. There could well be Darwinian pressure there.

If the Brazilians just decided it would be better to put them all in some camp somewhere, there is little they could do about.

Given human history, I suspect not just reproduction but the other side of the equation enters into Darwinian fitness. Abstract thinking allows better, more "efficient" ways to kill lots and lots of people.

Anonymous said...

Someone asked what is the Darwinian fitness of the rapid technological advances of modern, mostly Western Society?

I would think that would be obvious. And quite ugly but then that's Darwinian fitness. Kill competitors off and take their resources.

What modern Western society has done is created a mostly "flat" non-hierarchical (as opposed to say the Ottoman or Ming Courts, or even the Romans and Greeks) society that mobilizes as much as it can the resources of non-socially dominant males. Who provide things like new radar systems to find the enemy and people to man weapons systems to kill them.

This is why "Westernization" has been so widespread and often (to the consternation of non-Western peoples, "deep") because it DOES provide massive resource mobilization superiority. Even though it costs quite a bit in upending traditional society. Even in the West the societal revulsions, from the peasant rebellions in the Late Middle Ages to say, October 1917 or 1968 show that this constant resource improvement creates a lot societal stress.

Anonymous said...

Steve, 70 is the very top of the IQ range for downs kids -- it can get a lot lower. I don't know what the median is.

Anonymous said...

The obvious question here is: what happens when you raise one of these people in a traditionally typical Western environment?

Steve Sailer said...

One possibility is that the more curious, smarter, more open members of the tribe have been leaving over the 10 generations since European boats started showing up on their rivers.

Steve Sailer said...

"The obvious question here is: what happens when you raise one of these people in a traditionally typical Western environment?"

I'm sure some missionaries have adopted a few Amazonian orphans and taken them back to the U.S., but I've never heard about them.

Anonymous said...

He: "I special person, agent of God." They: "You look different but not special; who God?" He: "God creator of world." They: "Where God?; How create world?" He: "God everywhere; God all-powerful." They: "How we see God?" He: "Can't see God." They: "You speak crazy."

Tribe 1 was once extremely religious. Then Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins dropped in one day,...,

Anonymous said...

This intractable symbiosis between the Piraha and their tropical environment could be the result of their being cultivated by bacteria, viruses, or possibly social insects. Had they retained their ancestors abstract reasoning perhaps they would modify their behavior\culture in some way that would destabilize the symbiosis.
Perhaps there are other cultures who also suffer from this form of symbiotic slavery.

Do the Piraha cook their food?

What would be the abstract capacity of a Piraha child who, while a fetus, benefited from her mother enjoying a modern diet and a regiment of antibiotics?

Or do they simply enjoy the good life and we are too obtuse to realize their achievement.

Anonymous said...

Yet another data point for a possible dissertation... the aboriginal population of the western hemisphere are all descended from either a limited number of migrations from Siberia during a short climate window, or were descended from the participants of a single migration. This months genetic study claims the evidence points to a single migration for all but the Aleut, showing probable common ancestry for groups from eastern Canada, Mesoamerica and South American points scattered from the Caribbean to Patagonia. (Interestingly they left out people in the Na-Dene, Salish and Wakashan language groups, identified as culturally, linguistically and phenotypically separate from other "Indian" groups as early as the late 1880s; Boas didn't feel he was among "real Indians" until he crossed the Rockies on his way back to New York from British Columbia. "American Indians" are always Plains Indians, who freely share their egalitarian cultural practices. The natives of British Columbia and Washington State have intellectual property laws they observe with respect to their culture that long predates contact with Europeans; but go to a pow-wow and you'll see them dressed up as Plains, with only "public domain" cultural items visible. You won't see a Skwey-kwey mask.)

There are hundreds of wildly different cultures that evolved over the last ten thousand years in the Americas, so when a single trait appears to be common amongst them a good starting point to consider is their common genetic bottleneck. It'll be hypothetical for a few years yet, but from all evidence it won't be too many. The one trait that has infuriated European attempts to enslave or assimilate natives is their conception of time. It is very difficult to get Indians to work to a schedule. Ask any government bureaucrat who has to deal with a Western Hemisphere aboriginal government. Ask an academic financial aid officer who has to get tribal office documents. Go to a pow-wow and listen to the loudspeaker messages when the local dignitaries arrive for the photo-op and you hear someone say "right now, not Indian time."

There was a native group in the North American Southwest who were described in initial reports as having no words to describe the passage of time, but this was later shown to be a misunderstanding on the part of the anthropologists. One native group in the Andes drove linguists batty for years until it was finally discovered that their geometrical view of the passage of time was the reverse of Western civilization's expectations. Their words for time were based on the geometrical conception that the future, not being visible, was behind them, and that it was the fully observed past that lay in front of them.

I am swayed by the empirical evidence in favor of a theory of Universal ("hardwired") Grammar. There are just too many cases from around the world of large groupings of linguistically diverse immigrants forced to intermarry across language boundaries, developing a "pidgin" common vocabulary with minimal syntax rules. Their children are reared in the pidgin lexicon, but create their own complex grammatical structures in the next generation, which is then called a "creole" language. No matter the primary lexifer, be it indo-european, semitic or siniatic or whatever, the creole will share its grammatical structure with every other creole around the world.

Only the strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been disproved, easily; if it were true it would be impossible to learn a second language. One implication of a weak interpretation of the S-W hypothesis is that if a language doesn't have a word in its lexicon, then the speakers of that language are not capable of thinking of that concept in their language. This is most useful to science fiction writers creating extra terrestrial non-human cultures.

If Western Hemisphere aboriginals have a genetic disposition towards creating a geometric conception of time different from that of other world populations then perhaps a statistical outlier group would have no interest or benefit in creating words to describe something that to them doesn't exist.

I look at Steve's comment; they can easily amuse each other, but find you white eyes boring. Looked at through Boasian cultural relativity their world view isn't better or worse, but different and equally valid.

Bumped up against a group that began minting coins in the middle of the 6th century BC (hats off to King Croesus of Lydia) that has been under brutal natural selection pressures for abstract symbol manipulation for at least one thousand years and we have another case of the brown people taking the involuntary and less desirable role in the big paleface gangbang.

Anonymous said...

So are there any fans of Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels who immediately thought of the Bikura when they read this?

Anonymous said...

“There’s a lot of strange stuff going on in the Chomskyan program. He’s a guru, he makes pronouncements that his disciples accept on faith and that he doesn’t feel compelled to defend in the conventional scientific manner. Some of them become accepted within his circle as God’s truth without really being properly evaluated...”

jews and high IQ gentiles frequently seem to end up involved a cult of personality. even alan greenspan.

at least the pirahãs have avoided that mistake.

the Narrator... said...

"I mean what do you really need a plane for? Or a rocket which goes to the moon."
-anonymous

Which was my point.

The Pirahã do not need airplanes to survive and thus they do not have airplanes.
Western Man does not need airplanes to survive, never-the-less we have airplanes.

why?

The reason Africa is Africa is because it has Africans in it.
Western Civilization is Western Civilization because it has Western Man (whites) in it, et....
Different groups evolved and adapted in different environments giving rise to different IQ by group. Thus the technologies we have today were developed and/or advanced by the Western Man's Mind which developed over a long period of time in a more rigorous environment than others.
Hence the IQ gaps...

Anonymous said...

the narrator:
Your argument is an old one: that environment determines genetics. However in Africa they have not really adapted that well because even in their pristine state Africans were dying like flies (eyewitness reports from missionaries and hunters). No one in Africa (except for the corrupt elite) is or has been doing well: Except the Rhodesians and white South Africans who have either been run out or are being run out and are genetically foreign. So the adaptation of Africans to Africa has been a failure, yet the adaptation of whites to Europe a success. Why?

Anonymous said...

It would be useful to see a good, evidence-based definition of what makes one environment more or less mentally demanding than another.

Sitting here in a centrally-heated office with a belly full of this morning's toast and eggs, I know nothing of the relative difficulties in making a living as a hunter-gatherer in a rainforest, compared to a savannah, sub-arctic tundra or desert.

Grumpy Old Man said...

My speculation is that to the extent the descriptions are accurate, the Pirahã are are fugitive remnant of a much more populous lowland South American population, living in what's sometimes termed a "refuge area."

Imagine a group of people who flee into the forest as refugees from war and persecution, and survive to reproduce. Whatever their genes, they're not likely to produce a Wittgenstein, Bach, or Bill Gates.

Remember what curiosity did to the cat.

Anonymous said...

Evolution does not really explain much of what drives modern society since so much of it has nothing to do with immediate survival.

Funny, I'm constantly reminded of how much our evolution has to do with modern society.

Btw, you should familiarize yourself with terms like "reproductive success."

Anonymous said...


It would be useful to see a good, evidence-based definition of what makes one environment more or less mentally demanding than another.


ha ha ha ha, plonk.

Sitting here in my office I have a very good idea of the difference between life as a hunter gatherer and being a programmer when can program firmware stuff and Unix stuff and Windows stuff so I can support my kids through college.

It's about as evidence-based as I need.

Anonymous said...

in Africa they have not really adapted that well because even in their pristine state Africans were dying like flies (eyewitness reports from missionaries and hunters). No one in Africa (except for the corrupt elite) is or has been doing well: Except the Rhodesians and white South Africans who have either been run out or are being run out and are genetically foreign. So the adaptation of Africans to Africa has been a failure, yet the adaptation of whites to Europe a success.

We Americans die like flies too... in our 80s. If enough Africans survive long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation, they've adapated sucessfully enough, from an evolutionary standpoint.

Anonymous said...

Ann On said...
We Americans die like flies too... in our 80s.

Not in Africa we don't.

(Which is Ann On's meaning, I believe.) Africans are successful in reproducing themselves in Africa's pathogen loaded climate, where Europeans are not. Europeans in the Western Hemisphere in latitudes south of Europe only succeeded by inbreeding to some extent with the native population. At European latitudes in North America they did quite nicely while maintaining genetic isolation from the aboriginal populace. (For the most part.)

You can't say that Africans in Africa aren't successful because they die in their late twenties or early thirties. They last long enough to reproduce themselves, which Europeans in Africa do not, or at least not without an extreme colonial support network.

Which is not to say that white Europeans couldn't survive in Africa if they were willing to give up the trappings of Western civilization. Things such as knowing the identities of your children, profiting from amassed capital without fear of brutal theft and murder, expectation of living into your third decade. That sort of thing. They'd be at an initial genetic disadvantage at first, but I doubt it would be for long (in generations.)

mnuez said...

From the mnuez files


Hey y'all, I just finished reading this interesting article in The New Yorker about an Amazonian tribe that appears to be making some waves owing to its distinctive language and how it appears to (be an exception to the rule of or) disprove Chomskian linguistics.

To me personally, as one almost entirely ignorant regarding the science of language I have to admit that the article's allure was primarily in its human interest qualities as well as in the thoughts and feelings that it arouses regarding the fundamental question of "what is Man", along with the more particular thoughts and feelings regarding my own interest in exploring what my own man (as in myself) might be or allow myself to become were I to visit these or similarly primitive folk (and of course whether I could get a lot of tail as a visiting god).

Yah, so anyway, the article is well-written and quite worthy of your perusal.

But that’s not really my point.

In addition, y’see, to bookmarking the article as a whole, I scrapbooked two paragraphs and added accompanying comments with regards to why they were scrapbooked. And here, without further ado, I present to you those contents of my hard drive - the scrapbooked paragraphs and accompanying comments.

Some scholars believe that Everett’s claim that the Pirahã do not use recursion is tantamount to calling them stupid. Stephen Levinson, the neo-Whorfian director of the Language and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in the Netherlands, excoriated Everett in print for "having made the Pirahã sound like the mindless bearers of an almost subhumanly simple culture." Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist at the Australian National University, was also troubled by the paper, and told me, "I think from the point of view of—I don’t know—human solidarity, human rights, and so on, it’s really very important to know that it’s a question that many people don’t dare to raise, whether we have the same cognitive abilities or not, we humans."

Everett dismissed such criticisms, since he expressly states in the article that the unusual aspects of the Pirahã are not a result of mental deficiency. A Pirahã child removed from the jungle at birth and brought up in any city in the world, he said, would have no trouble learning the local tongue. Moreover, Everett pointed out, the Pirahã are supremely gifted in all the ways necessary to insure their continued survival in the jungle: they know the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area; they understand the behavior of local animals and how to catch and avoid them; and they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game. "They can out-survive anybody, any other Indian in this region," he said. "They’re very intelligent people. It never would occur to me that saying they lack things that Levinson or Wierzbicka predict they should have is calling them mindless idiots."



This is the state of matters at the present - that what matters most is not what's actually true but whether political correctness has been properly offered its tribute. Anything that might step outside the bounds of what's intellectually allowed by the prevailing political correctness is considered to be evil and thus outside the question of whether it is Right or Wrong. And forced to choose from within this binary offering, only Wrong can be chosen.

This is simply what religion has long called "heresy". Nothing more and nothing less.

And anyone who wishes to propose any intellectual offering that seems as though it might offend the Great and Mighty PC God must first prove his bona fides as a devotee by fellating the God. And then, satisfied, the God and His followers allow the newcomer the benefit of the doubt for a few minutes. - Until of course the newcomer grows a bit too frustrated with the cognitive dissonance demanded by his love of truth and the charade that he's putting on and this tension gets noticed by the God's followers and he's tossed out of the Temple on his ass anyway, for all his efforts.

The Priests' demands to see Everett's papers are portrayed in the first paragraph and Everett's defensive, whiny, "I'm more pious than the Pope!" fellating of the God is brought to color in the second paragraph.

-------

You may be able to get the Man out of any said religion, but you can not get the religion out of the Man - and certainly not out of the Community of Men.

mnuez



P.S.

Just to be clear: The summation is not a reference to Everett’s personal history as an evangelical missionary but simply to the fact that the areligious world may have thrown off the yoke of Jesus, Yahweh and Vishnu but all that they’ve actually freed themselves from is the trappings of religion. The underlying social and personal demands of religion (such as the intellectual conformity that is demanded lest one be considered a heretic and thus beyond the bounds of having his views considered) continue still and just wear different clothes. Replace ‘God’s omnipotence’ with ‘the fundamental equality of intelligence among all races of people’ and you have yourself a religious statement of faith – not to be contradicted, for certain, but not even to be allowable as a subject that may be discussed.

That’s just one (of a great great many) examples of where modern folk believe that they’ve successfully thrust off the confining nature of religion but where they’ve in actuality done nothing but replace ancient religious terms, ideas and subjects of worship with newer – and equally unlikely – ones.


mnuez
www.mnuez.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

"...regarding the fundamental question of "what is Man", along with the more particular thoughts and feelings regarding my own interest in exploring what my own man (as in myself) might be or allow myself to become were I to visit these or similarly primitive folk (and of course whether I could get a lot of tail as a visiting god)."


Long time no see, Mnuez.

My thought on your thoughts was to ask my vet if he can do a two for one when I get my dog neutered next month (or is that four for two?). He said ok as long as I pay the price for the bigger dog. And thereby hangs a tale...

Anonymous said...

"... "what is Man", along with the more particular thoughts and feelings regarding my own interest in exploring what my own man (as in myself) might be or allow myself to become were I to visit these or similarly primitive folk (and of course whether I could get a lot of tail as a visiting god)."

Your thoughts have an erie resonance with the life of Gauguin, Mneuz. Gauguin was fascinated with religion especially primitive religions as well as primitive peoples. I had offered a solution to prevent your wanderings among Amazon tribes from leaving us with a plethora of less intelligent possibly more atavastic (then again possibly not) Mnuezes but Sailer wouldn't publish it. So instead I'll leave you with the tale of Gauguin's end among the Polynesians.

"In 1903, due to a problem with the church and the government, he was sentenced to three months in prison, and charged a fine. At that time he was being supported by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard[3] He died of syphilis before he could start the prison sentence. His body had been weakened by alcohol and a dissipated life. He was 54 years old." from Wikipedia

Think on this Mnuez.