We’re the Same, You And Me
Recently I’ve been reading this fascinating book by Steven Pinker, called “The Language Instinct.” If you are at all interested in language, psychology, or how the human brain is structured, you can’t go wrong with this book. In it he treats language as an instinct, rather than a learned ability. One of his supporting arguments is the existence of what seems to be a universal grammar that is common throughout all languages. There is an underlying structure that all languages follow, regardless of how isolated the culture is, how advanced or how archaic. This suggests that we have some kind of structure pre-wired into our brains for learning language.
There have been many scientists and psychologists who maintained that the human mind was a relatively blank slate, and it could be filled in depending on the environment and the surrounding adults. This argument holds that children need to be explicitly taught things like grammar and word order, and how to correctly identify dogs and trees. What Pinker argues very successfully in “The Language Instinct,” is that there is a structure that already exists, a structure that already has the blueprint for nouns, verbs adjectives and so out.
While there are about a billion different tangents I could go off on, there is one thing in particular that I’d like to talk about in today’s post. Chomsky is a linguist who made fantastic advanced in linguistic theory. He was the one that first suggested that if an alien came to Earth, and analyzed all the world’s languages, they would determine that we all speak the same language, just many different dialects. The structure of all of the world’s languages can easily described as on similarly structured language.
Other scientists have studied various cultures, with the intent to find, or uncover a “universal culture” like the “universal grammar” described by Chomsky and others. The results are striking. If you’ve ever traveled to another country, especially one where English wasn’t the primary language, perhaps you’ve experienced some kind of “culture shock.” Or even if you’ve watched documentaries on TV of some guys running around in loincloths in the jungle, still living like they did hundreds of generations ago. You might come to the conclusion that those cultures can’t be more different than modern western culture.
In Pinker’s book, he lists two full pages of elements of the “universal culture” on Earth (determined by anthropologist Donald E. Brown), and here are some highlights (purely chosen at random):
Value placed on articulateness, gossip, lying, manipulation, humor, humorous insults, poetry with respective words of similar nature (e.g. rhymes).
Non Verbal Communication
Meaningless sounds used to convey meaning (e.g. cries, squeals, etc), generalized facial expressions communicating basic emotions (fear, happiness etc), guessing intent from actions, flirtation with the eyes, use of smiles as a friendly greeting.
Huge interest in sex, various methods of expressing sexual attraction, sexual jealousy.
Families centered around the mother and the children, and one or more men.
Fear of loud noises, fear of snakes, fear of strangers.
Social status based on age, and economic achievement. A fair amount of economic inequality, division of labor by sex and age. Domination of men in the public sphere.
Coalitions, reasoning, generally non dictatorial leaders, (usually temporary, e.g. new leaders every so often), a common agreement of right and wrong, laws, retaliation, punishment, the existence of conflict (which is usually avoided at all costs). Property, inheritance of property.
Hospitality, special feast days, sexual modesty (e.g. sex in private), discrete elimination of bodily wastes, supernatural beliefs, magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex, rituals, rites of passage, dream interpretation.
I’m reminded of a story (passed around on the Internet, sourced to some book on sociology) of a strange culture that practiced a particularly odd custom. It was described in great detail and sounded very strange and out there. Until the end, when you read the punch line. It was a description of the procedure westerners use when we go to the bathroom to take a dump. But the way it was described sounded like supremely spiritual and superstitions custom that only some goofball tribesmen do in National Geographic.
The takeaway, at least for me, is that no matter who you compare yourself to, some guy chasing his dinner with a poison blow dart gun in some South American jungle, or some uptight trader on Wall Street wearing a five thousand dollar suit, you can’t help but to realize that we humans are much, much more similar that we are different.
As Joseph Campbell concluded after his life’s work studying the world’s various mythological stories, we all come from the same factory. We all have the same hopes, fears, dreams and obstacles to overcome in our daily life. In every chest, beats the same heart. At the end of the day, we all just want some peace and safety, and hopefully a few people to share it with. Something to think about when you bump into that weird guy on the street that you swear is from another planet.