Monday, 7 June 2010

695 - Whirred

[photo by giuss95]

Notwithstanding The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker, that we are essentially a-verbal suggests to me that we can become, perhaps already are becoming, post-verbal.

This, wryly, from Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence: "'Communication' (which always means talk) is the sine qua non of 'good relationships'. 'Alone' and 'lonely' have become almost synonymous; worse, perhaps, 'silent' and 'bored' seem to be moving closer together too.' (p.3)

I was at a discussion at which Sara Maitland spoke, and one of us who had come to listen argued that we are a noisy species, that we survive because of noise - warnings and attraction calls and the like - and that not speaking is therefore unnatural. But I wonder (following Maitland) if it is not quite as simple as that.

I follow Pinker's ideas that our relationship with language, indeed the whole of culture, is sustained through our having evolved brains that can comprehend and develop it; that, to the extent that it is evolutionarily desirable to be fluent, those of us who have an optimum capacity to handle words will, over eons, have passed our capacities down, through genes and culture, so that this generation is likely to be the most fluent ever.

And yet two thoughts intrude. First, what is evolved is the capacity to handle language, rather than language itself; second, verbal communication is incredibly effective, but not necessarily in all (even, perhaps, most) evolutionary niches.

I'll take these in turn (and I know I am using words to do so). It is true that we do, by and large, all speak, but we are not born speaking. What gets us speaking is exposure to parents and peers who can teach us. So whilst there might be a thirst to learn to speak, as there is a hunger for food, what this reveals is a brain fine-tuned to apprehend and adopt words, as a mouth can suck a teat. If every word was suddenly expunged, we would continue to be born with brains to listen for words, at least until evolution had worked its winnowing magic and replacement expressions of life, taking advantage of the distress our word-thirst placed us in, started to prevail.

Therefore a question arises: if our brains' verbal apprehension, creation and distribution technologies were combined with other neural technologies, to effect new communication (or wider than that, life) tools, might we not allow these to grow in place of modern human verbosity. Because not to do so would be to restrict our humanity. This is what has happened with the spread of reading, after all, which co-opts the brain's visual system into working with its language systems. Arguably something similar is happening as text-based communication widens into virtual reality - a phenomenon that neuroscientists are engaged in documenting.

But modern life throws more at us than electronic interfaces. Not least it continues to throw big questions from past eras about our capacity, for example, to adapt to new physical environments. Speech is great, but it'll never work, unmediated, underwater or in space or, perhaps, in noisy, jam-packed cities, where we preserve our personal space only by raising walls through which conversation cannot effectively pierce. And there is always the potential for us to create new neural technologies and subsequently to identify the niches where they can take us, for the sheer joy of it.

Evolutionary niches like cityscapes or wind-swept deserts are presently on the increase. There is no guarantee that the optimum conditions under which our language instinct evolved should continue to prevail. This drives us back to consider what the essence of humanity is. Our modern culture is, certainly, word-based; our post-modern culture less so. Perhaps it becomes more important for us to read one another's emotions projected alongside and concurrent with the brands we are wearing.

Or to adopt opportunities offered by our growing genetic or environmental awareness. If understanding is defined simply as the act of engaging with information packaged and sent between each other, and if we can package that information with greater dexterity and beauty in the form of a butterfly than a word, then our future conversations might be lepidoptic, rather than auditory.

With the hum of insect wings, in future days, words may have whirred into obsolescence.

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