This is a GREEN LANGUAGE post.
New kid on the block niche construction course-corrects the previous scientific proposition that evolution is a one-way road: “Adaptation is always asymmetrical; organisms adapt to their environment, never vice versa” (Bickerton quoting George Williams, p. 92). The niche construction light switched on for Bickerton when he attended a conference where niche construction theory co-founder John Odling-Smee spoke on the idea. An avowed skeptic of “new theories,” Bickerton became a quick convert, snapping up niche construction and building it into his developing theories of language evolution. Here, in Bickerton’s words, is the gist of niche construction theory:
…animals themselves modify the environments they live in, and … these modified environments, in turn, select for further genetic variation in the animal. So a feedback process begins, a two-way street in which the animal is developing the niche and the niche is developing the animal, until you get the lock-and-key fit between animal and niche … (99)
As Bickerton points out, this new position permitting mutual trade between species and environment countermands previous evolutionary theory casting environment in the tyrannical “Adapt or die!” role it played for decades on evolution theory’s stage. It also relieves species of typecast roles of weak or strong contestants that died out if they failed to catch on quickly enough to insure genetic survival or that lived into the future if they found right answers to an environment’s capricious riddles. In niche construction theory, Bickerton found the missing link that helped him imagine how humans shattered the genetic glass ceiling of ACSs and began developing at an unprecedented speed, altering the world on a scale that no other species has the words and hence mind to dream of doing. Human language, says Bickerton, “is a prime example of niche construction, arising out of a specific niche and enabling us to construct more and more elaborate niches. It began as a behavior and drove genetic change and continued as a series of genetic changes that drove behavior” (107). Language sparked a capacity for adaptation that snowballed, becoming, as Bickerton puts it, an “autocatalytic process. Once it’s started, it drives itself; it creates and fulfills its own demands. The more you do, the more you can do, and indeed the more you have to do” (107).
I found many of Bickerton’s arguments compelling. For me, his critical focus on hold-up narratives about human and animal language as well as on famous attempts to establish seamless continuity in the rainbow relationship of great apes to humans in the family Hominoidea were a lot of fun. Whether I agreed or not, I saw them as well-taken steps in reasoning he pursued in order to set up his argument that niche construction is an important answer to the where-did-we-come-from and where-are-we-going questions human evolution poses.
However, other readers might find irritating the amount of time he spends balderdashing darling story lines in language evolution. Likewise the elaborate tale he spins out about how human forerunners gained the gift of gab. That bit of long ago and far away speculative prehistory involves an act of imagination of a sort that might provoke some readers to lose patience. But as I told a friend who chafed at some narrative strains in Adam’s Tongue, Bickerton’s take on language is not perfect (it doesn’t need to be) but is on the right track, because narratives like his are not about discovering what’s “The Truth” so much as they are about creating “What’s Possible.” The man holds his own thinking lightly, speaks from where he is at the moment, and builds from that spot toward his next narrative position. His point later in the book that “… language and human thought most certainly did coevolve” (p. 191) is a great gateway insight that can provide for language’s continued development–which development is a ceaseless struggle, because many there be who wish to promote their narrative strain as the dominant one–“The Truth.”
Does the book fall short? I think so, in an important way. While Bickerton enthusiastically embraces the concept that environments and species influence one another and coevolve, and he says that language and humans are coevolving, he doesn’t explicitly name language an environment. In this way, his comparison of the human-language relationship to the species-environment relationship seems incomplete. Because I already believe that language is an environment, I looked for just that meeting point and thought he was on course. Instead, at the end the book, he veered off into “negative niche construction” and angst about ants. That is, angst that humans, in their behavior, exhibit the constrained lifestyles of ants rather than the hunter-gatherer livelihoods of the greater apes. Ants, says Bickerton, operate under a high degree of social control, and so, now, do we, to a degree that “would have been both incomprehensible and intolerable to our hunting-and-gathering ancestors. Why is it, do you suppose, that when a hunter-gatherer group is sucked into the vortex of ‘civilization,’ so many of its members seem to undergo a kind of spiritual death, quickly falling victim to drugs, alcohol, irrational violence, or suicidal dispair? Think about it (p. 248).”
I have thought about it. I think that the environment in which human brains live and develop–human language–suffers underdevelopment in some quarters and exploitation and logosdegration in many other quarters analogous to what has occurred in the physical environment. In fact, problems in human language preceded and enabled despoiling lands and species and still do so. Despite language’s skyrocketing to become a force of nature on this planet, we’re still neophytes in this moving, living relationship we’re wrapped up in with it, and language is young with us. By virtue of language’s recombinant drive and intelligence’s native desire, we may develop and be developed by new narrative strains that open onto hitherto unimagined inspiring gardens and wild landscapes of expression. Finding these will lead to heightened relationship, people-to-nature and people-to-people. As that happens, we’ll likely drop by the wayside that romantic baggage that the vibrant lifeways of hunter-gatherers fell and are falling to the constraints and psychoses of civilization; there’ll be no comparison. Such nostalgia trembles on the tip of Adam’s Tongue but rises to a fever pitch in other environmental works. Amy Irvine’s Trespass is a good example, and the primitive-and-harmonious man apologue is fully present and accounted for in another work I’m reading, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.
So with all his energy for swapping some theories out and others in, and in spite of his pointing up the niche construction nature of language, Bickerton stops short of saying, Yessir, language is an environment. Which is a pity. Our best hope for human evolution is to treat is as such, so I’ll say it. If we attend to language as an environment, awarding it the same status of influence upon our species and acknowledging our reciprocal influence upon it–if we grant language full and engaged companionship in one of the most powerful niches currently evolving–we’ll really get going. We’ll no longer feel the need for hunter-gatherer language. More energetic and less anti-climatic language will permit livelier ways. As it is, there’s still popular in contemporary narratives the idea that language is only a tool, a stick for getting ants out of a log. Indeed, the sort of storying where environmentalists embrace the “hunter-gatherer good–civilization-agriculture bad” narrative strain wields quite a bit of language-as-tool prowess. It’s a narrative strategy that may be as old as hunting-gathering itself. Via hammered and sharpened words, some of its edges enable exploitation in all its actualities.
More on that later, back to Bickerton. I recommend Adam’s Tongue to anyone fascinated with language’s unique qualities of all qualities in the world. If you come prepared to be patient with the book, it will yield bits and pieces that you might find meaningful enough to build into your current view of language’s role in your life. To eager language beavers like me, Adam’s Tongue offers one very big missing language piece–the application of niche construction theory to language evolution theory–as well as many smaller ones that prompted me to take new steps in my thinking about language. It’s looking more and more as if the “truth” about language is one we’re making as language makes us; take it as an environmental concern, one of the biggest ones going, and its inherent sexiness will become irrepressible. What was the word Bickerton used? “Autocatalytic.”
So, everyone: keep compiling your list of brain foods–soy, tomatoes, avocados, fish. But add to it “human language”. Good language is brain food. If we can avoid impregnating it with the rhetorical equivalents of lead; arsenic; cadmium; the mercurial miasmas of guilt, shame, fear, and anger; the unyielding qualities of plastics; the sterilizing pesticides with which we treat the “Truth”; and a host of other rhetorical devices and concoctions that trickle down through human language to other humans, to other species, and to the land at large, everything will clean up nicely. We’ll hardly recognize the place. And that’s because it will have formed different grounds, something more fertile, vital, restorative, and fast–on the move toward nobody knows. We’ll have to find words as we get there.