The Evolution of Language

Robin Dunbar is amazing. I just finished his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, and it was an eye-opening, insightful and compelling read. The main points of the book are that language evolved as a result of the pressure to keep and maintain social ties in larger primate groups. Once that begins to happen, personal information becomes a means of trade not only for identifying bad behavior but also in lauding good behavior. This certainly supports why praise and blame are such powerful social motivators.

Dunbar and his graduate students did a lot of eavesdropping in order to get to the heart of what people talk about, in order to get to the why. From this field evidence, he begins to weave in the narratives of biological anthropology, archeology and neuro-linguistics to get to the heart of the matter. His propositions are compelling in regards to human group sizes, social cohesion and even how the very same knowledge has come upon abuse by individuals in the modern media.

Considering we’re in the middle of the age of facebook, I think the explosion of digital social networking is a confirmation on a certain level of Dunbar’s theorizing in the book. Although, it would require some neurological studies to nail down whether or not the endorphins released during touching or talking are activated by “facebooking”. That would certainly be an Orwellian consideration on some level. This book has definitely revealed another amazing layer of human interaction for me.

In regards to improvisation, it’s compelling to note why learners and performers have a natural tendency to talk about things or people who are not in their scene. According to Dunbar, that’s how we can win favor with people we’re unfamiliar with. It’s our way to triangulate the values, knowledge and concerns of the person we’re interacting with in order to find out how we can bond.

There was another tidbit that I found fascinating. It was how the different genders communicated. In mixed social interaction, women talk about themselves only about 1/3 of the time, whereas men talk about themselves about 2/3 of the time. Dunbar proposes that this is because the genders have different goals in the evolutionary scheme of things. Women seek to create networks to share knowledge and seek aid in birth and child rearing. Men are advertising their availability and potency in order to find mates. For men, language has become a display like the tail feathers of a peacock. For women, language is the glue for their communities. With a little reflection, there might be some insight into dating in this paragraph.


Smelling a Rat on Easter Island

Tonight I attended a talk by Terry Hunt, an archeologist whose done a lot of research on Easter Island. Let me preface this by noting that I’ve been interested in Easter Island since watching an episode of “In Search Of” back in the late 70’s. My curiosity was further piqued by the historical fiction film about the island called Rapa Nui. Jared Diamond also used it to help illustrate his ideas in his book Collapse.

However, tonight’s talk was a great example of how the constant review and revision process of science can lead us to better understandings through maintaining a critical approach to ‘established’ realities. The big ideas behind the ‘collapse’ of Easter Island (that supposedly left a society of people who built the great stone statues) are that they deforested, overfished, and drastically degraded the ecology of the island due to self-aggrandizing competition between zealous leaders of these people. The iconic statues were a product of elite pride which drove the populous to carve these giants to serve their chieftain.

The narrative that Dr. Hunt wove from his years of research on the island turned out to be quite different. Strangely, at the beginning of his research, he truly believed he was merely going to catalog the evidence that was going to support the assumptions of previous researchers who had proposed the human driven ecological collapse. A different picture began to emerge.

One of the first things that got dealt with was the movement of those giant statues. Originally, when Europeans first landed on the island, they had asked the inhabitants how the monuments had been moved from the stone quarry to their standing sites, which can be up to several miles away. The native residents said in essence ‘They walked there’. This answer was considered a humorous ruse by the early Europeans, and it was dismissed and left a mystery. Through a closer analysis, as well as some collaboration with a design program in Washington, they came to discover that the statues could be easily moved by a simple process of rocking them right to left. The way that the statues were constructed gave them the perfect center of gravity for just such movement. The reason that this discovery is important is because it meant that deforestation wasn’t truly necessary to construct any kind of sled or rollers in order to transport the statues. The natives had not lied. The statues had indeed walked there (with a little help from the islanders, of course).

So what made the trees disappear? Were they making a bunch of boats for fishing? The answer is no. The species of palm that covered the island when the Polynesians first colonized it were soft and fibrous on the inside with a very thin bark, which made them terrible material for dugout canoes. This situation, coupled with the fact that the nearest island was over a thousand miles away, essentially left them stranded. However, there were some stow aways that arrived on the island with them, the pacific rat.

This rat is different from its old world cousins in that it isn’t really a disease vector. Instead, it is a natural deforester AND a fast growing source of protein. Like other rats, they are prolific breeders. To illustrate this, Dr. Hunt presented the figure that the amount of time it takes to go from one breeding pair of rats to 1 million in an environment with no predators only takes a couple of years because the number of rats doubles every 47 days. 47 days! The rats feed on the yummy seeds and fruit dropped by the palms. So within a couple of years of the Polynesians making landfall at Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the process of renewal in this palm jungle was brought to a screeching halt. The abundance of rat bones in the soil layers that date to this period support this notion.

The early Polynesians who were colonizing the island probably didn’t mind. They were agriculturalists who preferred a clearing of the palms to make way for the planting of taro and yams, the main subsistence crops of many pacific island cultures. Once the trees were gone, though, there was nothing holding back the wind that swept over the island, and that wind carried salt spray onto the island’s soils making them unfit for cultivation. When the Europeans made landfall, the island looked rocky and forbidding, and from the European agricultural perspective, it looked unfit to grow crops.

This was the prevailing idea until Terry and his research uncovered a peculiar pattern. At numerous places across the island, it seemed as if rocks had been collected and concentrated in patches. As they looked into the patterns and began testing the conditions that these rock fields created, they came to find that these were actually cultivation plots. The subsurface conditions of these rocky fields were far more stable and nurturing to these cultivars than the soils.

The dispersal of these fields was fairly even, and it suggests that small bands merely tended their own plots. What this also implies on a social level is that they were more likely to be an island of friendly neighbors. Considering that the entire island gets to experience boom or drought together, there was little need for conflict. The experience of resource scarcity or abundance was island-wide rather than patch or range based like on larger land masses.

Because of the scarcity of resources on the island, there was a need to control the population. This usually meant maintaining the number of births either through birth control or infanticide. This is a common theme for island cultures. Limited land means limited resources. Too many mouths to feed leads to starvation. However, the creative energy and social satisfaction in a community that comes with having children regularly is missing. Dr. Hunt proposes that the creation of the idols was a way for people to gather, create and foster solidarity in a community where children are scarce by neccesity. The creation of the famous statues was a mechanism to keep peoples’ morale up.

So the 3000 or so residents, who greeted the first Europeans to arrive, were not the remnants of a once great people but rather living how people had been living for hundreds of years since colonizing the island originally. The real devastation came with the diseases from first contact with Europeans. This revised tale of Rapa Nui helps support the notion that the tools of improvisation (making do with what’s at hand, holding the frame of ‘we all win or lose together’, group collaboration being an avenue to fulfillment) really are the most apt approach for dealing with adversity and creating populations of people with a core mindset of sustainability. Easter Island is no longer an example of the dangers of overconsumption, but a testament to the tenacity, ingenuity and wisdom people can bring to potentially desperate situations.

Terry Hunt’s book about this subject comes out this June. Check it out.

Improvisation: the Original Survival Tool

When it came down to it, mother nature laid the smackdown on early Homo Sapiens. We arrive in the archeological record about 200,000 years ago. About 90,000 years ago, Africa’s climate became extremely arid in a very short time leading to a resource crisis. No food and no water means no surviving for many of the early Homo Sapiens. If you look at our genetic diversity, it tells the story. What this means is that contemporary Homo Sapiens, us, lack the kind of diversity seen prior to 70 to 90,000 years before the present.

How does the saying go? Hard Times bring a family together. Looking at the fossil record, along with the inferences of genetic evidence in our own DNA, suggests that we nearly didn’t make it. The estimate is that we dwindled to between 1,000 -10,000 individuals capable of reproducing, which created a genetic bottleneck. That’s smaller than most suburbs (heck, a neighborhood), and that is how many people survived to produce the 7 billion and rising on the planet today. Quite a comeback, I would say. The thing is that because there are so many people, it’s impossible to care about all of them. Because of the limits of our own abilities to connect meaningfully with more than about 150 people at any one time, we have no attachment to the hoards of others that blanket the planet despite attempts to connect us through media. We respond to tragic events when they happen because our brains’ mirror neuron systems allow us to feel their discomfort on some level. For most of us, once the check or cash is sent those feelings often dissipate, and we return to business as usual. These understandings would have been critical to people trying to survive. If your group doesn’t function well in times of scarcity and difficulty, it can tear apart the social fabric and lead to serious, sometimes fatal, consequences.

We have developed into beings whose state is situated in the median range of the immediate. We have developed to have the sensibilities of an improviser. What is in front of me? How can I build with this or on it or use it? How do these things or people connect, and what happens when they do? What are my companions feeling? How can I improve or change these relationships? The reason we have this legacy of improvisational sensibility is that these thoughts and behaviors were, more than likely, what led to the survival of those desperate 1,000-10,000 survivors who made it through that 20,000 year stretch of hard times to emerge from Africa to populate a world whose climate was returning to a time of abundance and seasonality. That’s the way selection works. It could have also been that we require less calories to live than the Neanderthal. Seems oxymoronic considering where we are now.

These folks didn’t survive because they were screwing each other over and hoarding resources to the ‘deserving’ few in their tribe. Quite the contrary, most foragers operating from a preconquest consciousness have an egalitarian ethos that puts the individual as subservient to the group; leaders are appointed and impeached by the group, as necessary. Couple this with the fact that we have cognitive mechanisms that intellectually and emotionally reward us for intensive organized collaboration, cooperation and creative exploration (communitas, absolute unitary experience, group flow, whatever you want to call it), and we’ve found some very compelling evidence to suggest that the ethos of support and generosity that is native to improvisation is at the core of our beings. Improvisers are trained specifically to look out for and support their partners and group in order to find success as a whole. Hoarding and self-aggrandizement are things that come out of agriculture, urbanism and consumerism. I think Jared Diamond has covered that subject pretty well. His explorations of the collapse of the Anasazi, Romans and Aztecs in his book Collapse help to clarify the outcomes of the self-centerdness and hierarchy that are the tendency of “civilization”.

The most common form of organized collaborative cooperative creative exploration across the globe is ritual, and a lot of things can fall into that category (music, theater, sports, even some games). Rituals often combine elements like music, dance, myth, and physical challenges in a communal setting. Is it any wonder then, when we look back at the things we find in ancient Homo Sapien sites on the coasts of Africa dated to around 70,000 years ago, that we find the first evidence of red ochre being harvested and stored? Red ochre is the most ancient form of symbolic adornment. To symbol, to create something outside of ourselves that communicates meaning, had almost never been seen in the archeological record until these sites. Throughout the archeological record, red ochre is commonly related to ritual and other symbolic behaviors. Considering that we are descended from these survivors, it is not surprising to see that ritualistic activities are one of the most common features of human society.

We, as a species, are in the business of creating occasions for these sorts of collaborative and sometimes ecstatic events. Our brains are geared to overload when we earnestly undertake these collaborations and provide us with a sublime and indescribable sense of unity and connection with each other and the world at large. What a wonderful adaptation for dealing with tremendous difficulty and adversity? The only other thing that can do this on a more common and less formalized scale is humor. This unifying state is also an amazing way for our brains to be networked, and find innovative solutions to the problems of the world at large.

So it stands to reason that improvisation is a secular road to our social and cultural health as beings on this planet. It also stands to reason that the tools of improvised theater help us find not only depth and detail in life and relationships, but they also help us find humor. Improvisation helps us exercise our brains’ mirror neuron systems, which are appearing to be integral to communication, learning and understanding. The training people receive while studying improvisation is focused on understanding human relationships; both what makes them succeed and what makes them fail. Improvised theater is igniting a sort of grass roots social rebooting. It has the power to awaken people to the present.

The challenges that are emerging in the 21st century will demand more than we’ve had to give in a long time as a species. The last big shift in global climate, the end of the ice age, led to the disappearance of all other hominid species; making us the lone hominids. Even though huge climatic shift events are what have led to great leaps in human brain evolution, it was because we were in a desperate fight to survive, and only those who figured out how to work together and enjoy it made it out alive. Certainly, there was inter-group competition for resources, but it was definitely rarer than the intra-group collaboration, cooperation and creativity that were employed in the daily struggle to survive. These are the very skills that are lacking in the upcoming generation of technologically-dependent and increasingly socially-inept children in the developed world. We are breeding a generation of social illiterates whose narcissism could lead to a dangerous turning point in human history. A point in history where we’ve gone so far away from genuinely connecting with each other and the planet that sustains us, that it becomes the final chapter in humanities book.

After all, Neanderthals were only on the planet for 300,000 years. We’ve only been here for a little over 200,000. If there’s one thing all species have in common, its extinction. To succeed in improvisation and evolution, one must accept and adapt to the new conditions. To deny the changes we observe is to invite being edited out of the scene and out of history. What kind of epitaph will our species have if that happens: Here lies Homo Sapien, the species who ‘blocked’ and ‘denied’ into oblivion?

Getting caught up.

I’ve been negligent about updating for a while. So here’s the skinny:

I’ve got 50 pages of my thesis draft written.  I’ve got to try to keep it under 100.

I’ve had to swear off improv until my thesis is finished because I got a day job doing archeology.

My good friend, Nate Halloran, has announced his engagement to his fiance.

I am a bit in turmoil as a transition from a financial aid economy back to an income economy, which means I will begin paying off my school debt in less than a year. Come on great job.

The archeology job is something I’m doing for quick income.  It’s ironic that I went away from archeology in my graduate work only to run to it for income at the end of my graduate studies. Yes, there is reasonable income to be had for trained archaeologists outside of the academy. I will attest. I don’t look forward to digging holes in the rain, which I’m sure will return once I start next week.

There is an overarching sense that I’ve cheated the system whenever I sit down to write more of my thesis on the anthropology of improv, and I love it!