Edge 213 — June 14, 2007
(15,100 words)





PEONY
By Katinka Matson

THE THIRD CULTURE

PEONY
By Katinka Matson

RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT: WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS
A Talk With Daniel L. Everett

WHEN ONLY THE ENLIGHTENED SPEAK OUT, REASON IS BOUND TO LOSE
By Andrian Kreye, Editor, the Feuilleton, Süddeutsche Zeitung

IN THE NEWS

THE NEW REPUBLIC
The Great Mutator
By Jerry Coyne

NATURE
Evolution and the brain

THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
Think of England
Christopher Hitchens

THE GUARDIAN
Tome Truths
By A.C. Grayling

THE GALLUP POLL
Majority of Republicans Doubt Theory of Evolution
By Frank Newport

NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION
Behe's latest scrutinized

THE NATION
The New Atheists
Ronald Aronson

NEWSWEEK
Belief Watch: Smackdown
By Lisa Miller

SEED
Don't Know Much Biology (re-posted)

PAGE 3.14 THE BEST OF SCIENCE BLOGS
Don't Know Much Biology
By Katherine Sharpe

THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Shaking Language to the Core
Ron Grossman

THE WASHINGTON POST
Baptists Warned About Islam, Atheism
By Eric Gorski
The Associated Press

THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Three Atheists
Stanley Fish

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Israel Discovers Oil
By Tom Friedman

THE NEW YORK TIMES
In Corporations They Don't Trust
By Paul Brown

THE TIMES
Can we really learn to love people who aren't like us?
By Jonathan Sacks

BLOGGINGHEADS TV
John Horgan & George Johnson

THE NEW REPUBLIC
Coyne vs. Brownback
By Jason Zengerle

WIRED SCIENCE
Breaking Down Brownback's Anti-Science Op-Ed
By Brandon Keim

ARTS & LETTERS DAILY
Essays and Opinion

BOINGBOING
Coyne shreds Brownback's antiscience op-ed
By David Pescovitz

NEW SCIENTIST
Perspectives: The secret power of things we hold dear
By Sherry Turkle

PROSPECT
Challenging Chomsky
ByPhilip Oltermann


DER SPIEGEL
Der Kreuzzeug Der Gottlosen
(The Crusade of the New Atheists: God is to Blame for Everything)



RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT:
WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS

A Talk With Daniel L. Everett


Daniel L. Everett

As I look through the structure of the words and the structure of the sentences, it just becomes clear that they don't have recursion. If recursion is what Chomsky and Mark Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch have called 'the essential property of language', the essential building block—in fact they've gone so far as to claim that that might be all there really is to human language that makes it different from other kinds of systems—then, the fact that recursion is absent in a language—Pirahã—means that this language is fundamentally different from their predictions. 

The Reality Club: Steven Pinker, Dan Everett

[More]


WHEN ONLY THE ENLIGHTENED SPEAK OUT, REASON IS BOUND TO LOSE

Is religion a destructive force? The debate over Fundamentalism and the new Atheists overshadows the scientific research on faith.

By Andrian Kreye, Editor, the Feuilleton, Süddeutsche Zeitung

Natural scientists are now and are daring to study one of the last fields to have eluded them for so long: faith itself. This, of course, threatens faith and philosophy’s hold on the definition of man and his place in the world. This is a main reason why Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett are debated so fervently.

[More]


PEONY



New digital image by Katinka Matson, Edge cofounder and resident artist.

(Copyright © 2007 by Katinka Matson)


Re: "RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT: WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS" A Talk With Daniel L. Everett

Steven Pinker, Dan Everett


STEVEN PINKER

I have favorably cited Daniel Everett’s work with the Pirahã, both in a scholarly article and in my forthcoming book, and believe that linguists should take his criticisms of the field seriously. But I have become increasingly skeptical of the strong version of his claims, and of the importance that has been attached to his work by the media. ...

[More]

DANIEL EVERETT

...It is always interesting to me to see how people read into what I am saying about Pirahã based on their own theoretical backgrounds. The influence of our theoretical and other biases on the way that we interpret the world around us is further illustration of my general point that language and grammar can be deeply affected by culture. But let me be more specific. I will respond to each section of his criticism. ...

[More]


 

Re: "RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT: WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS" A Talk With Daniel L. Everett

Steven Pinker, Dan Everett


As I look through the structure of the words and the structure of the sentences, it just becomes clear that they don't have recursion. If recursion is what Chomsky and Mark Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch have called 'the essential property of language', the essential building block—in fact they've gone so far as to claim that that might be all there really is to human language that makes it different from other kinds of systems—then, the fact that recursion is absent in a language—Pirahã—means that this language is fundamentally different from their predictions. 

RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT:
WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS

A Talk With Daniel L. Everett


Daniel Everett

DANIEL L. EVERETT, a former evangelical Christian missionary to the Pirahãs in the Brazilian Amazon for more than 20 years, is Chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at Illinois State University.

Dan Everett's Edge Bio Page

The Reality Club: Steven Pinker, Dan Everett


NEW YORKER
April 16, 2007

In this issue, John Colapinto reports on his visit to the Pirahã tribe in the rain forest of northwestern Brazil. Here is a portfolio of Martin Schoeller’s images of the trip, along with one of Schoeller at work, taken by his assistant, Markian Lozowchuk.

SLIDE SHOW
A TRIBE APART


A REPORTER AT LARGE
The Interpreter
John Colapinto

Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?

Dan Everett believes that Pirahã undermines Noam Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar.

[ED. NOTE: Thanks to the New Yorker for making available the link to John Colapinto's article.]



CHICAGO TRIBUNE
June 10, 2007

Shaking language to the core
By Ron Grossman

NORMAL, Ill. -- To get some idea of the brouhaha currently enveloping linguists, occupants of a usually quiet corner of the ivory tower, suppose a high-school physics teacher found a hole in the theory of relativity.

Students of language consider Noam Chomsky the Einstein of their discipline. Linguistics is a very old science, but beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky so revolutionized the field that linguists refer to the time prior to his work as B.C., or before Chomsky.

They may have to add another marker: A.D., after Dan.

Daniel Everett, a faculty member at Illinois State University, has done field work among a tiny tribe in the Amazon. He reports that their obscure language lacks a fundamental characteristic that, according to Chomsky's theory, underlies all human language.

With that declaration, Everett pitted himself against a giant in the field, and modest ISU against the nation's elite universities. In the process, he drew national attention to this arcane field and enveloped scholars around the world in a battle that plays out over and over in -- this is academia, after all -- conferences and seminars.



PROSPECT MAGAZINE
June xx, 2007

Challenging Chomsky
Universal grammar is the most important theory in linguistics. Has the language of one tribe now disproved it?
By Philip Oltermann

In 2005, the American anthropologist Daniel Everett published an article in Current Anthropology in which he presented his insights into Pirahã life, acquired over years spent living with the tribe. Pirahã culture, Everett claimed, was unique: it was totally focused on immediate experience and it lacked basic number skills, a vocabulary for colours, a past perfect tense and a creation myth....


RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT:
WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS
|
A Talk With Daniel L. Everett

The research question that has motivated my work for the last 25–30 years has been, what is the nature of language. This is the question that motivates most linguistics research. But I started off asking it one way and came to the conclusion that asking it that way was probably wrong and I now have a different way of approaching the problem. 

My original concern was to think about Language with a capital 'L'. Human Language, what it's like in the brain, what the brain has to be like to sustain the capacity for Language. The most influential ideas for me in my early research were the ideas of Noam Chomsky, principally the proposal that there is an innate capacity for grammar in our genes, and that the acquisition of any given language is simply learning what the different parameter-settings are. What is a parameter?

Here's an example, called the 'pro-drop' parameter. In English we always have to have a subject, even when it doesn't mean anything, like in "it rains"—'it' doesn't really refer to anything. 'It' just is necessary because English has to have subjects. But in a language like Spanish or Portuguese, I don't say "it rains," I say just "rains"—chuva—in Portuguese, because Portuguese has a positive setting for the pro-drop parameter identified in Chomskyan research. All languages have either a positive (as Portuguese) or negative (as English) setting for this parameter. And it has other effects as well in addition to allowing a language to drop subjects; it entails a number of other characteristics.

It's a very attractive idea that people are born with a genetic pre-specification to set parameters in different ways, the environment serving as a 'trigger'. As Pinker put it, we have an instinct to learn language, and the environment triggers and shapes that instinct. But the environment is nothing more than that in this view—a shaper and a trigger; it is not fundamental to the actual final product in the Pinker-Chomsky view in the way that I have to come to think it actually is. Parameters and language as an instinct are very attractive ideas. Yet at the same time there are a number of components of languages that I've looked at that just don't seem to follow from these ideas.

The essence of human language is, according to Chomsky, the ability of finite brains to produce what he considers to be infinite grammars. By this he means not only that there is no upper limit on what we can say, but that there is no upper limit on the number of sentences our language has, there's no upper limit on the size of any particular sentence. Chomsky has claimed that the fundamental tool that underlies all of this creativity of human language is recursion: the ability for one phrase to reoccur inside another phrase of the same type. If I say "John's brother's house", I have a noun, "house", which occurs in a noun phrase, "brother's house", and that noun phrase occurs in another noun phrase, "John's brother's house". This makes a lot of sense, and it's an interesting property of human language.

But what if a language didn't show recursion? What would be the significance of that? First of all, it would mean that the language is not infinite—it would be a finite language, there could only be limited number of sentences in that language. It would also mean that you could specify the upper size of a particular sentence in that language. That sounds bizarre, until we think of something like chess, which has also got a finite number of moves, but chess is an enormously productive game, it can be played and has been played for centuries, and many of these moves are novel, and the fact that it's finite really doesn't tell us much about its richness, or its importance.

If there were a finite language, because of the lack of recursion, that wouldn't mean that it wasn't spoken by normal humans, nor would it mean that it wasn't a very rich source of communication. But if you lived in an environment in which culture restricted the topics that you talked about, and not only just your general environmental limitations on the topics you talked about, but if there were a value in the culture that said, don't talk about topics that go beyond, say, immediate experience—in other words, don't talk about anything that you haven't seen or that hasn't been told to you by an eyewitness—this would severely limit what you could talk about. If that's the case, then that language might be finite, but it wouldn't be a poor language; it could be a very rich language. The fact that it's finite doesn't mean it's not a very rich language. And if that's the case, then you would look for evidence that this language lacked recursion.

So in the case of Pirahã, the language I've worked with the longest of the 24 languages I've worked with in the Amazon, for about 30 years, Pirahã doesn't have expressions like "John's brother's house". You can say "John's house", you can say "John's brother", but if you want to say "John's brother's house", you have to say "John has a brother. This brother has a house". They have to say it in separate sentences.

As I look through the structure of the words and the structure of the sentences, it just becomes clear that they don't have recursion. If recursion is what Chomsky and Mark Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch have called 'the essential property of language', the essential building block—in fact they've gone so far as to claim that that might be all there really is to human language that makes it different from other kinds of systems—then, the fact that recursion is absent in a language—Pirahã—means that this language is fundamentally different from their predictions. 

One answer that's been given when I claim that Pirahã lacks recursion, is that recursion is a tool that's made available by the brain, but it doesn't have to be used. But then that's very difficult to reconcile with the idea that it's an essential property of human language—if it doesn't have to appear in a given language then, in principle, it doesn't have to appear in any language. If it doesn't have to appear in one part of a language, it doesn't have to appear in any part of a language.

It's not clear what causes recursion; in fact, just two weeks ago, at Illinois State University, we held an international conference on recursion in human language, which was the first conference of its kind ever held, and we had researchers from all around the world come and talk about recursion. One interesting thing that emerged from this is that the linguists, mathematicians and computer scientists disagree on what recursion is, and how significant it is. Also, there are many examples of recursion lacking in a number of structures in languages where we otherwise would expect it. So recursion as the essential building block of human language, if Chomsky's correct, is difficult for me to apply as an intellectual trying to build a theory of human language, because it's not clear what it is, and it's not clear that it is in fact essential to different languages.

So as an alternative, what might we say?  Well, recursion could occur because human beings are just smarter than species without it. In fact, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Herbert Simon, who taught psychology for many years at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote an important article in 1962 called "The Architecture of Complexity," and in effect, although he doesn't use this word, he argued that recursive structures are fundamental to information processing. He argued that these are just part of the human brain, and we use them not just in language, but in economy, and discussion of problem-solving, and the stories that we tell. 

If you go back to the Pirahã language, and you look at the stories that they tell, you do find recursion. You find that ideas are built inside of other ideas, and one part of the story is subordinate to another part of the story. That's not part of the grammar per se, that's part of the way that they tell their stories. So my idea is that recursion is absolutely essential to the human brain, and it's a part of the fact that humans have larger brains than other species. In fact, one of the papers at the recursion conference was on recursion in other species, and it talked about how when deer look for food in the forest, they often use recursive strategies to map their way across the forest and back, and take little side paths that can be analyzed as recursive paths. So it's not clear, first of all that recursion is unique to humans, and it's certainly not clear that recursion is part of language as opposed to part of the brain's general processing.

I am engaging in ongoing research on Pirahã, along with other researchers, including some from MIT's Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, led by Professor Ted Gibson, and other researchers from the University of Manchester. But my research is also part of a larger project funded by the European Commission, on characterizing human language by structural complexity, and the question we seek to answer there, with a number of researchers from Holland, Germany, and England, is, what is it that makes humans so smart, compared to other species?  Is it just bigger brains? That might be the case. Or, are there particular ways that our brain operates that makes it very different from the way that other kinds of brains operate? 

Recursion has been proposed in human thinking to be the way that we think that other animals don't. That's very much an open empirical question, but let's say that it's right, in which case recursion once again underlies human thought, but doesn't have to make the jump into human language. You could in principle have a human language that is constrained by the culture, so that the language proper lacks recursion, but the brain has recursion. And that's very difficult to reconcile with Chomsky's ideas on where recursion comes from. Chomsky's absolutely correct to recognize the importance of recursion, but the role that he gives it, and the role that Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch give it, to me has got things backwards. In other words, rather than going from language to the brain, we have to have recursion in language, and then it starts to make its manifestation in other thought processes. It starts in the thought processes and it might or might not jump to language. It does not seem to be an essential property of language, certainly not the essential property of language.

One prediction that this makes in Pirahã follows from the suggestions of people who worked on number theory and the nature of number in human speech: that counting systems—numerical systems—are based on recursion, and that this recursion follows from recursion in the language. This predicts in turn that if a language lacked recursion, then that language would also lack a number system and a counting system. I've claimed for years that the Pirahã don't have numbers or accounting, and this has been verified in two recent sets of experiments, one of which was published in Science three years ago by Peter Gordon, arguing that the Pirahã don't count, and then a new set of experiments which was just carried out in January by people from Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, which establishes pretty clearly that the Pirahã have no numbers, and, again, that they don't count at all.

So the evidence is still being collected, the claims that I have made about Pirahã lacking recursion and the fact that Pirahã is an evidence that there probably isn't a need for universal grammar. Contrary to Chomsky's proposal that universal grammar is the best way to think about where language comes from, another possibility is just that humans have different brains that are different globally from those of other species, that they have a greater general intelligence that can be exploited for all sorts of purposes in human thinking and human problem-solving. And one of the biggest problems we have to solve is how to communicate with other people—our conspecifics—and communication with our conspecifics is a problem that's often solved by recursion, but it doesn't have to be solved that way, it can be solved in other ways, especially in very small societies where so much information is implicit and held in common.

The ongoing investigation of these claims and alternatives to universal grammar, an architectonic effect of culture on grammar as whole, and the implications of this for the way that we've thought about language for the last 50 years are serious. If I am correct then the research so ably summarized in Steve Pinker's book The Language Instinct might not be the best way to think about things. Maybe there is no language instinct. So this is very controversial, and a lot more research has to be done. My colleagues and I are writing grants to test these claims. The only way that you can check out what I am saying is just to test the claims. Clearly formulate the claims and counterproposals, and go out and test them. If Everett's right, they ought to have this; and if he's wrong, we ought to find this. It's very simple conceptually to test the claims; you just have the logistical problems of the Amazon and a group that's monolingual and speaks no language but their own.

I don't think Pirahã is the only language that exhibits these qualities. What I think is that a lot of people are just like me in my beginning years of work there; they are given a set of categories to work with from their theories, and are told, these are the categories that languages have. So if you don't find a certain category, you just have to keep looking according to the theory. It takes a lot of courage, or, as in my case, frustration more than courage to say, Look, I'm not finding these things, so I'm just going to say they don't have the categories the theory predicts. Period. Say I am right about this. What are the implications? 

I think that if we look at other groups—maybe groups in New Guinea and Australia, and some groups in Africa—what we have to find are groups that have been isolated, for various reasons, from larger cultures. The Pirahã's isolation is due to their very strong sense of superiority, and disdain for other cultures. Far from thinking of themselves as inferior because they lack counting, they consider their way of life the best possible way of life, and so they're not interested in assimilating other values.

They have another interesting value, which is 'no coercion'. That's one of the strongest Pirahã values; no coercion; you don't tell other people what to do.

I originally went to the Amazon to convert the Pirahã, to see them all become Christians, to translate the New Testament into their language. My only degree was an undergraduate degree from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and I went down there with the knowledge of New Testament Greek and a little bit of anthropology and linguistics. 

When I first started working with the Pirahã, I realized that I needed more linguistics if I was going to understand their language. When I began to tell them the stories from the Bible, they didn't have much of an impact. I wondered, was I telling the story incorrectly?  Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus?  How tall is he?  When did he tell you these things?  And I said, well, you know, I've never seen him, I don't know what color he was, I don't know how tall he was. Well, if you have never seen him, why are you telling us this?  

I started thinking about what I had been doing all along, which was, give myself a social environment in which I could say things that I really didn't have any evidence for—assertions about religion and beliefs that I had in the Bible. And because I had this social environment that supported my being able to say these things, I never really got around to asking whether I knew what I was talking about. Whether there was any real empirical evidence for these claims. 

The Pirahã, who in some ways are the ultimate empiricists—they need evidence for every claim you make—helped me realize that I hadn't been thinking very scientifically about my own beliefs. At the same time, I had started a Ph.D. program in linguistics at the University of Campinas in southern Brazil, and I was now in the middle of a group of very intelligent Brazilian intellectuals, who were always astounded that someone at a university doing a Ph.D. in linguistics could believe in the things I claimed to believe in at the time. So it was a big mixture of things involving the Pirahã, and at some point I realized that not only do I not have any evidence for these beliefs, but they have absolutely no applicability to these people, and my explanation of the universe.

I sat with a Pirahã once and he said, what does your god do? What does he do?  And I said, well, he made the stars, and he made the Earth. And I asked, what do you say?  He said, well, you know, nobody made these things, they just always were here. They have no concept of God. They have individual spirits, but they believe that they have seen these spirits, and they believe they see them regularly. In fact, when you look into it, these aren't sort of half-invisible spirits that they're seeing, they just take on the shape of things in the environment. They'll call a jaguar a spirit, or a tree a spirit, depending on the kinds of properties that it has. "Spirit" doesn't really mean for them what it means for us, and everything they say they have to evaluate empirically. This is what I hadn't been doing, and this challenged the faith that I thought I had, to the extent that I realized that it wasn't honest for me to continue to claim to believe these things when I realized how little investigation I had done into the nature of the things I claimed to believe.

I went to Brazil in 1977 as a missionary. I started my graduate program in 1979. By 1982, I was pretty sure that I didn't believe in the tenets of Christianity or any other religion or creeds based on the supernatural. But there's a social structure when you're a missionary, one that includes the income for you and your entire family as well as all of the relationships you've built up over the years. All the people you know and like and depend on are extremely religious and fundamentalist in their religion. It's very difficult to come out and say, "I don't believe this stuff any more". When I did say that, which was probably 13 years later, it had severe consequences for me personally. It's a difficult decision for anyone. I have a couple of friends whom I've told that it must be something like what it's like to come out as gay, to finally admit to your family that your values are just very very different from theirs.

My wife is still a missionary in Brazil to the Pirahã, and we've been separated for three years, and my view is pretty much irreconcilable with hers. It's difficult—it means that I don't go to that village when she's there. I don't go there and tell the Pirahãs not to believe in Jesus or anything like that. Actually I don't need to tell them that, because there's no danger that they ever will. They just find the entire concept—our beliefs—useless for them.

They wouldn't find the Pope remotely impressive; they would find his clothes very impractical, and they would find it very funny. I took a Pirahã to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, for health reasons once, to go to a hospital, and I took him to the Presidential Palace. As the president of Brazil was coming out, there was all this fanfare and I said, That's the chief of all Brazilians. Uh huh. Can we go eat now?  He was totally uninterested; the whole concept just sounds silly to them.

The first time I took a Pirahã on an airplane, I got a similar reaction. I was flying a man out for health reasons; he had a niece who needed surgery and he was accompanying her. We're flying above the clouds, and I know that he's never seen clouds from the top before, so I point down and I say, those are clouds down there. Uh huh. He was completely uninterested; he acted like he flew in planes every day. The Pirahã are not that curious about what we have. They haven't shown interest in a number of things that other indigenous groups, even Amazonian groups, that have come out and had contact with in civilization for the first time are curious about. The Pirahã have been in regular contact for a couple of hundred years now, and they have assimilated almost nothing. It's very unusual.

The reason that I believe that the Pirahã are like this is because of the strong cultural values that they have—a series of cultural values. One principle is immediacy of experience; they aren't interested in things if they don't know the history behind them. If they haven't seen it done. But there's also just a strong conservative core to the culture; they don't change, and they don't change the environment around them much either. They don't make canoes. They live on the river, and they depend on canoes for their daily existence—someone's always fishing, someone's always crossing the river to hunt and gather—but they don't make canoes. If there are no Brazilian canoes, they'll take the bark off a tree and just sit in that and paddle across. And that's only good for one or two uses.

I brought in a Brazilian canoe master, and spent days with them and him in the jungle; we selected the wood, and made a dugout canoe. The Pirahã did all the labor—so they knew how to make a canoe, and I gave them the tools—but they came to me and they said, we need you to buy us another canoe. I said, well we have the tools now, and you guys can make canoes. But they said, Pirahã don't make canoes. And that was the end of it. They never made a canoe like the Brazilians, even though I know that some of them have the skills to do that.

In the 1700s, the first Catholic mission to the Amazon area made contact with the Pirahã and the related people, the Muras, and abandoned them after a few years as the most recalcitrant group they had ever encountered. Other missionaries have worked with the Pirahã since then. Protestant missionaries have worked with them since about 1958, and there's not a single convert, there's not a single bit of interest.

A lot of people say that I'm a failure as a missionary. A lot of missionaries say I'm a failure—my ex-wife thinks I'm a failure as a missionary—and the reason they give is, I don't have enough faith. If you have enough faith, the story goes, God will overcome all of these things. But if you say that you should know that god is up against some serious cultural barriers. The Pirahã have a cultural taboo against talking about the world in certain ways, and the Christian message violates these.

They have the other cultural value against coercion that I mentioned. Religion is all about coercion—telling people how they should live and giving them a list of rules to live by—and the Pirahã just don't have coercion in that form. If someone were really violent and disrupted the entire life of the community, they would be ostracized; they might even be killed. But that would be a very serious pathological case in the culture. By and large, they tolerate differences, and even children aren't told what they have to do that much. Life is hard enough; if children don't do what they have to do, they'll go hungry. There's just no place for the Western concept of religion in their culture at all.

When a group receives this much publicity; you get different reactions. First of all, you get a lot of people who want to go there and investigate, until they see how difficult it is to get there, and how in fact they don't speak Portuguese and it's going to take a couple of years to be able to communicate with the Pirahã, even at a fairly simple level. This discourages people.

There are also a number of people who are upset that the group that they've been working with for 10 or 15 or 20 years didn't get any publicity. Scientists—linguists and anthropologists in particular—are very reticent to say that one group is somehow more special than another group because if that's the case, then you've made discoveries that they haven't made. I really think that's probably right. I don't think the Pirahã are special in some deep sense. They're certainly very unusual, and they have characteristics that need to be explained, but all of the groups in the Amazon have different but equally interesting characteristics. I think that one reason we fail to notice, when we do field research, the fundamental differences between languages is because linguistic theory over the last 50 years—maybe even longer—has been primarily directed towards understanding how languages are alike, as opposed to how they are different. 

If we look at the differences between languages—not exclusively, because what makes them alike is also very very important—the differences can be just as important as the similarities. We have no place in modern linguistic theory for really incorporating the differences and having interesting things to say about the differences. So when you say that this language lacks X, we will say, well, that's just an exotic fact: so they lack it, no big deal. But when you begin to accumulate differences across languages around the world, maybe some of these things that we thought were so unusual aren't as unusual and could in fact turn out to be similarities. Or, the differences could be correlated with different components that we didn't expect before. Maybe there's something about the geography, or something about the culture, or something about other aspects of these people that account for these differences. Looking at differences doesn't mean you throw your hands up and say there's no explanation and that you have nothing more than a catalog of what exists in the world. But it does develop a very different way of looking at culture and looking at language.

Missionaries have gone to the Pirahãs, learned their language more or less, and then left after a few years. There is a Brazilian anthropologist, Marco Antonio Gonçalves, who teaches at the University of Rio. He spent 18 months off and on working with them, and he speaks the language at a very basic level. The tones are part of what make it so difficult for people who haven't had a lot of linguistic training, but it's just like Chinese, or Vietnamese, or Korean, in the fact that the tones are very important to the meanings of the words. This is really difficult for a lot of researchers without a significant linguistic background. I now have two researchers working with me from the University of Manchester: a Ph.D. student who's writing her Ph.D. on recursion or the absence thereof among the Pirahã; and a postdoc on a grant of mine whose research is looking at how well the Pirahã speak Portuguese, and if they do know some Portuguese, what kinds of grammatical characteristics does it have—does their Portuguese show anything that violates what I say about Pirahã itself? Both of these people, Jeannette Sakel and Engenie Stapert, are learning Pirahã, and I've encouraged them to learn the language, and given them some lessons.

What happens is with some people is that they go to the Pirahãs with me and I translate for them and help them get going. For people who do ongoing research of their own—many people have gone to the Pirahã with the idea that they're going to develop a multi-year research program and I'm going to be their partner every time they go. 

I don't have the time to go with every researcher who wants to work with the Pirahã; I have my own research agenda. I've tried to help them to start learning the language, and most people sort of disappear after that. Tecumseh Fitch went with me last summer and he would like to go again, and maybe he will. But I think that the best way for anyone to go again is to invest the time to learn enough of the language to do their own research. There's also the fact that if anybody has to go with me, people can then say that my influence is so pervasive that you could never test what I'm saying, because I'm behind every single experiment.

Peter Gordon and I were colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, and Peter did his Ph.D. at MIT in psychology, with a strong concern for numerosity. We were talking, and I said, there's a group that doesn't count—I work with a group that doesn't count—and he found that very difficult to believe, so he wanted to go do experiments. He went, and I helped him get going; he did the experiments, but his explanation for the reason that the Pirahã don't count is that they don't have words for numbers. They only have one to many. I claim that in fact they don't have any numbers. His idea is that the absence of counting in Pirahã has a Whorfian explanation—that there's a linguistic determinism: if you lack numbers, you lack counting—that is, that the absence of the words causes the absence of the concepts.   But this really doesn't explain a lot of things. There are a lot of groups that have been known not to have more than one to many—as soon as they got into a relationship where they needed it for trade, they borrowed the numbers from Portuguese or Spanish or English or whatever other language. 

The crucial thing is that the Pirahã have not borrowed any numbers—and they want to learn to count. They asked me to give them classes in Brazilian numbers, so for eight months I spent an hour every night trying to teach them how to count. And it never got anywhere, except for a few of the children. Some of the children learned to do reasonably well, but as soon as anybody started to perform well, they were sent away from the classes. It was just a fun time to eat popcorn and watch me write things on the board. So I don't think that the fact that they lack numbers is attributable to the linguistic determinism associated with Benjamin Lee Whorf, i.e. that language determines our thought—I don't really think that goes very far. It also doesn't explain their lack of color words, the simplest kinship system that's ever been documented, the lack of recursion, and the lack of quantifiers, and all of these other properties. Gordon has no explanation for the lack of these things, and he will just say, "I have no explanation, that's all a coincidence".

Some people have suggested that since this a small society it's not unreasonable to hypothesize that there's a lot of inbreeding, and that this has made one particular gene much more prevalent in the society. Maybe Pirahã uniqueness is genetic in origin. People have asked me to do DNA tests, but my research has already been attacked for being borderline racist, because I say that the people are so different. So the last thing that I want to do is be associated with DNA testing. Somebody else can go there and do that. I don't think they have a closed gene pool, even though it's a small group of people. River traders come up frequently, and it's not uncommon for Pirahã to trade sex for different items off the boat that they want. So I don't think that genetics is relevant at all here.

Most inhabitants of the Brazilian Amazon are descended from Brazilian Indians, but now they would just consider themselves Brazilians. The Brazilians the Pirahãs most often see have boats, and they just come up the Pirahãs' river to buy Brazil nuts. In exchange, they bring machetes, gunpowder, powdered milk, sugar, whiskey and so forth. The Pirahãs are usually interested in acquiring these things. They don't accumulate Western goods, but if you've got consumables, the Pirahã might buy, say, two pounds of sugar, pour it in a bowl and eat it all at once. They're not going to put it on the shelf and save it; they'll just eat it when they get it.

It depends on the river trader, but sex is also a very common trade item. So you see these foreign babies being raised among the Pirahã. It's mainly the husband who works out the deal. Single women can negotiate on their own; wives wouldn't make that offer unless their husband negotiated it. In their dealings with outsiders, men take the lead, and the women won't usually come around unless they're called by Pirahã men. But promiscuity is not a problem for the Pirahã. It doesn't violate any values that they have.

I remember one time sitting in a hut with the Pirahã and they came and they said, we understand that you want to tell us about Jesus and that Jesus tells us that we should live certain ways. Since you love Jesus, this is an American thing—but we don't want to live like you. We want to live like Pirahã, and we do lots of other things that you don't do, and we don't want to be like you. They've noticed these characteristics, and they much prefer to have the values that they have.

The paper I wrote that has attracted all the attention is "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã", published in the anthropology journal, Current Anthropology, in 2005. It would have been almost impossible to get this article—for one thing, it was 25,000 words, and for another thing it was so controversial—in a linguistics journal. Also, I chose this journal because it has a much higher circulation than any linguistics journal. And also the anthropology journal Current Anthropology invites commentators, a feature I really like. In my case, they had eight well-known linguists and anthropologists and psychologists comment on the paper. And the press picked up on it. You can never predict, obviously, when the press is going to pick up on something. But it started getting reported in magazines. And a lot of it was twisted; it wasn't exactly what I said, but it got a lot of play on radio, was in a lot of magazines. And everyone had the spin that this was—in fact I say it in the article—that this is a very strong counter-example to the kinds of claims that Chomsky makes. And I knew that there would be a response eventually, as it got more and more press.

David Pesetsky is a professor at MIT, Andrew Nevins was a student at MIT who now holds a temporary appointment in Linguistics at Harvard, and Cilene Rodrigues is a Brazilian linguist who I think is doing her Ph.D. at MIT. They decided that they would write a reply to my article. The interesting thing is that I'm the main source of data on Pirahã. Now, the best way to check out what I'm saying would be to get some research funds to go down there and do experiments and test this stuff. But what they decided to do was to look at my doctoral dissertation, and where I describe the grammar of Pirahã, and find inconsistencies between my doctoral dissertation and what I'm saying now. And there are some. And I say in the Current Anthropology article that there are inconsistencies, and that the 2005 article supersedes my previous work. And all of those decisions to change my mind on this or that analytical point were based on a lot of thought about what I had said previously and how it compared to my current knowledge.

My doctoral dissertation was written when I was using a certain set of grammatical categories common among most linguists, and I did my very best to make Pirahã come out and look like a 'normal' language. So there are a couple of small examples of things that look like recursion in my doctoral dissertation. In fact I call them that. So the authors of the rebuttal dwell on these discrepancies. And then they try to counter my claims in the paper. Also, they refer to some unpublished studies by Steven Sheldon in which it is claimed that Pirahã has color words and number words. And they refer to an introduction to a dissertation on Pirahã that says that they speak Portuguese. And you do find these things in the studies they cite. But these are all written by people who either were not professional linguists, or who didn't speak the language. If you take the color words, Sheldon did in fact claim that the Pirahã had color words. But if you look at them, 'mii sai', which he translated as 'red', means 'like blood'. All of the color words in fact are just descriptions. This looks like blood, this looks like water, this looks like the sky, or this looks like a fire, or something like this. There can be any number of expressions. With regard to their ability to speak Portuguese, the Pirahã men do understand very simple Portuguese, just enough to trade with the river traders. Now if I went to Paris, I could probably get directions to the nearest bathroom, but that doesn't mean I speak French. I don't. That's roughly the Pirahãs' level of Portuguese. 

So Pesetsky, Nevins, and Rodrigues were very careful in their criticisms, they worked very long and hard, they took months to do this. Then they posted it to a Web site called Ling Buzz, and it started being downloaded because of all the press on Pirahã—in the first few days there were 700 downloads. Every day it's getting dozens more downloads. I was actually trying to write something else at the time when I saw the reply, but I reluctantly put that aside to reply to their work. I replied to them point by point. The only part of their article that irritated me was the insinuations that because I focused on negative aspects of Pirahã, I was perhaps racist. They didn't use the term "racist," but they insinuated that I might have a negative view of the Pirahã as a people because I was only focusing on the gaps in the language. But I pointed out that I published over 40 articles on Pirahã, and a book, and that all of those mainly talked about things they did have, not the gaps that they had. I put my reply on Ling Buzz, that's now the top-loaded paper on Ling Buzz, so those two papers are still getting downloaded a lot, and there's a debate going on. I don't know if they're planning a reply to my reply, but the way things go, they probably are.

When I saw this, I wrote the three of them, and I said, you've put me in the interesting situation of pitting Dan Everett at 55 against Dan Everett at 26. Because, I said, all the data you use are my data. So I'll just have to explain why when I wrote my doctoral dissertation I didn't know as much about Pirahã as I know now. Their objection is that even though I published extensively, I haven't published on all of these things previously. And so one of the many projects that I'm engaged in right now, along with several other people, mainly this group of researchers at MIT, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is an experimental grammar of Pirahã, where we basically rewrite the grammar of Pirahã and do experiments to substantiate or test as many points as we can. If I had written all of this before I came out with the claims, I would never have come out with the claims. You have to make the claims and see the controversies, see what people say about them, to be sure you have the data. So I turned over all of my data to other researchers, and they're in the process of digitizing it, and eventually all these data will be on the Web, translated—it'll take a couple of years, but then you won't actually have to go to the Pirahã, you can look at the data, and you can search through the data and see if you can find counter-examples, or find other things that I've missed, and I'm sure people will.

When I was interviewed for Der Spiegel, I was at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, and my next-door neighbor was Tecumseh Fitch. We were talking about this quite a bit—he was my next-door neighbor both at the Institute and in the apartment building that we lived in, so we talked quite a bit, and went out a few times—and he made a comment about the fact that he didn't really believe the significance of what I was saying to the Der Spiegel reporter, and so I wrote a reply to him, copying Noam Chomsky and Mark Hauser. And I actually thought that Tecumseh would be the one to respond, because that's who the letter was directed to, but in fact I immediately got a long response from Chomsky, followed by other long emails.

Initially it was a very interesting exchange. I know Noam fairly well, I've known his work most of my career and I've read everything he's ever written in linguistics—I could have written his responses myself. I don't mean to be flippant, but they were re-statements of things that everybody knows that he believes. I think that it's difficult for him to see that there is any alternative to what he's saying. He said to me there is no alternative to universal grammar; it just means the biology of humans that underlies language. But that's not right, because there are a lot of people who believe that the biology of humans underlies language but that there is no specific language instinct. In fact at the Max Planck, Mike Tomasello has an entire research lab and one of the best primate zoos in the world, where he studies the evolution of communication, and human language, without believing in a language instinct or a universal grammar.

I've mainly followed Mike's research there because we talk more or less the same language, and he's more interested in directly linguistic questions than just primatology, but there's a lot of really interesting work in primatology—looking at the acquisition of communication and finding similarities that we might not have thought were there if we believe in a universal grammar.

I think that the way that Chomskyan theories developed over the last 50 years has made it completely untestable now. It's not clear what usefulness there is in the notion of universal grammar. It appeals to the public at large, and it used to appeal to linguists, but as you work more and more with it, there's no way to test it—I can't think of a single experiment—in fact I asked Noam this in an e-mail, what is a single prediction that universal grammar makes that I could falsify? How could I test it? What prediction does it make? And he said, It doesn't make any predictions; it's a field of study, like biology. 

Now that is not quite right. No scientist can get by without believing in biology, but it's quite possible to study human language without believing in universal grammar. So UG is really not a field of study in the same sense. I think the history of science shows that the people who develop a theory and who are responsible for the development of the theory are rarely the people who come forward and say: whoops, I was wrong, we need to actually work at it another way, this guy over here had the right idea. It's rare for that to happen. Noam is not likely to say this.

I want to have well-designed experiments to test my claims on recursion; I want to have mores studies of the Pirahã grammar from people working outside my influence. The more people who can look at this independently, the more likely it is that others are going to start to believe this, because I think it's going to be shown to be correct. If it's wrong, that's also important. The tests have to be done, and then if there is evidence that I might be onto something, we have to look at other languages. And other languages in similar situations where they've been cut off for one reason or another from outside influences for long periods of time. And re-examine those languages in light of the possibility that languages can vary more than we thought. And maybe the categories that we have aren't the best categories.

We need more fieldwork. Linguists have gotten away from fieldwork over the last 50 years. There's more interest in endangered languages now than there was a few years ago, but there's just now beginning to be a resurgence of the field work ethic among linguists, and the idea that we can't figure out everything that we need to know just by looking at grammars that have been written, without going and seeing the language in the cultural context.

And that's really the biggest research question that I have for the future: What evidence is there that culture can exercise an architectonic effect on the grammar —that it can actually shape the very nature of grammar, and not simply trigger parameters.


Re: "RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT: WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS" A Talk With Daniel L. Everett

Steven Pinker, Dan Everett

STEVEN PINKER [6.13.07]

I have favorably cited Daniel Everett’s work with the Pirahã, both in a scholarly article and in my forthcoming book, and believe that linguists should take his criticisms of the field seriously. But I have become increasingly skeptical of the strong version of his claims, and of the importance that has been attached to his work by the media.

1. Everett claims that Pirahã violates Charles Hockett’s famous list of language universals in that it provides no means to discuss events remote from experience. That claim is belied by many of Everett’s own observations.

To take just the most obvious example, he writes that “spirits and the spirit world play a very large role in their lives.”  Assuming that they don’t literally see ghosts and spirits (which would be a discovery far more radical than any of the linguistic or psychological claims at issue) they must have a richly developed, culturally transmitted set of beliefs about entities and events that lie outside the realm of their immediate experience.

Everett’s claim that Pirahã lacks the mechanism of recursive embedding (in which a word or phrase can be inserted inside a word or phrase of the same type) must be qualified as well. Pirahã allows for a degree of semantic embedding using verb suffixes and conversions of nouns to verbs (so one can express the thought “I said that Kó’oí intends to leave,” with two levels of semantic embedding), and one can conjoin propositions within a sentence, as in  “We ate a lot of the fish, but there was some fish we did not eat.” Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues give further examples. It is questionable of Everett to disavow his own data on the grounds that at the time he was in the grip of ideology—his current stance is as polemical and tendentious as anything in Chomskyan linguistics.

2. Whatever grain of truth there may be to the observation that the Pirahã are more concerned with the here-and-now than we are, it is by no means unique to the Piraha. On the contrary, the observation has been by numerous scholars about numerous foraging and nonstate peoples. For example, in the 19th century, Alfred Russel Wallace observed of the Indonesian natives he met during his fieldwork:

Compare this [European culture) with the savage languages, which contain no words for abstract conceptions; the utter want of foresight of the savage man beyond his simplest necessities; his inability to combine, or to compare, or to reason on any general subject that does not immediately appeal to his senses. ...

The great linguist Otto Jespersen made similar observations about native Hawaiians, and an anthropologist I know had the same impression (expressed in private) of the !Kung San he worked with in the Kalahari. I suspect that this is simply the default impression that modern Europeans or Americans have of many native peoples, but with the rise of politically correct anthropology in the 20th century, one wasn’t allowed to say such things in public directly. In this background, Everett could claim that he was making a discovery about a trait that was unique to the culture he studied, whereas it was only the prior taboo against saying these things about other peoples that made the observation seem novel. By framing his observations as an anti-Chomsky discovery rather than as un-PC Eurocentric condescension, Everett was able to get away with claims that would have aroused the fury of anthropologists in any other context. This is not to say that there is no difference in the amount of abstract thinking between foraging and postindustrial societies, just that Everett (and the journalists that have reproduced his claims) are almost certainly wrong in writing that this is unique to the Pirahã, or even unusual among nonliterate peoples.

(The same is true, incidentally, of their counting system. “One, two, many” systems are widespread among foraging peoples, and may be the default counting system among nonliterate peoples.)

3. Everett's truly radical linguistic claim is not about Universal Grammar, and his main opponent is not Chomsky. His radical claim is about variation—the non­-universal aspects of language—and his opponents in this debate are probably 99% of linguists, including most non-Chomskyans.

One of the great findings of linguistics, vastly underappreciated by the rest of the intellectual world (and probably not highlighted enough by linguists themselves) is that the non-universal, learned, variable aspects of language don't fit into any meaningful, purposive narrative about the surrounding culture. Linguists have documented vast amounts of variation, and have a good handle on many of its causes, but the causes are internal to language (such as phonological assimilation and enhancement, semantic drift, and syntactic reanalysis) and aren't part of any symbolic or teleological plan of the culture. There are Subject-Object-Verb and Subject-Verb-Object languages, and tone and non-tone language, and null-subject and non-null-subject languages, but there are no SOV or SVO cultures, null-subject and non-null-subject cultures, and so on. The variation is just as autonomous as the universals. And this is the discovery that Everett is trying to overturn in his claim that the linguistic properties of Pirahã are meaningfully explained by an overarching theme in their culture, namely their alleged unwillingness to think about concepts that lie outside their immediate experience. As I mentioned, numerous observations by Everett himself are inconsistent with this remarkable claim, and Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues show that the connection between his claims about their culture and the details of their language is tenuous at best.


DANIEL EVERETT [7.14.07]

I appreciate Steve Pinker's response to my work, even though it is negative, because it provides me yet another opportunity to clarify my statements on Pirahã. It is always interesting to me to see how people read into what I am saying about Pirahã based on their own theoretical backgrounds. The influence of our theoretical and other biases on the way that we interpret the world around us is further illustration of my general point that language and grammar can be deeply affected by culture. But let me be more specific. I will respond to each section of his criticism.

1. Self-contradictory: Pinker is persuaded by his own reading of my work and the criticism of my work in the paper by Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues, that my recent work contradicts my previous work in ways that cannot be attributed merely to my previous theoretical baggage, i.e. that I worked within Chomskyan theory. The first example he gives is that the Pirahãs rich and textured beliefs about spirits cannot be fit into my principle of immediacy of experience.

But there is nothing in the immediacy of experience principle — which, by the way, is merely a very small part of the intricate web of values of Pirahã culture — that claims that the Pirahãs cannot have detailed explanations of the world they live in. This principle claims simply that they have to have direct evidence of the things they talk about. And there is no claim that this principle is unique to the Pirahãs. The claim is, rather, that this principle constrains Pirahã language in ways we don't see in other cultures.

Not that other cultures don't have similar values. It is the interaction of cultural values and grammar that makes each language unique in a profound sense. Pirahãs do see spirits. I have seen an entire village yelling at a spirit on a beach on which they claim to see a spirit but where I can see nothing. But they also believe that spirits manifest themselves as different animals and people. And seeing such an animal counts as seeing a spirit, literally. This is not at all uncommon of course, cross-culturally. So a Pirahã can see a jaguar and say that they have seen a spirit and believe it, depending on their spiritual state at the time. I have almost lost my life by going out to 'scare off' a spirit at their request at 3AM, only to realize that the spirit was a jaguar!

I claim that the Pirahãs lack recursion in the syntax. I made no such claim about their semantics or their discourse, for example. In fact, I have given many examples of recursion in discourse as different ideas are contained in others within the main and subordinate story lines. My claim is about syntax. And the examples that Pinker uses to show self-contradiction in my account were mistranslated (by me) initially.

The word translated 'but' in his example does not mean that exactly and can be used in isolated clauses as in 'But I give this to you' or 'But I am watching the river'. In these cases, what the speaker means is that what I am doing violates your expectations (since giving normally involves an expectation of receiving something in return, in this case there is nothing expected in return; and in the second case it means that the Pirahã is idly watching the water and has no other purpose.

Pinker's (and others') reaction to the idea that my present account could be violating my previous accounts shows a profound lack of familiarity with the nature of linguistic fieldwork, something that none of the major critics of my work so far have had any experience with.

2.I think that it probably is correct that hunters and gatherers generally attribute, by necessity, more importance to the here and now than many of us in Western societies with huge surpluses of resources. I am not claiming that this is unique among the Pirahãs. Nor do I see why such a banal statement should outrage anthropologists or anyone else.

What is unusual, perhaps unique, about the Pirahãs (though, again, nothing at all hinges on them being unique in any of these matters) is the way in which they have codified a principle of immediacy of experience and the way in which it constrains their grammar. My comments are not those of a tourist, such as Otto Jespersen on Hawaiian. They are based on years of trying to figure out what made the Pirahãs different from other Amazonian groups — a difference which everyone who has seen the Pirahãs and other Amazonian groups notices almost immediately.

And I have done field research on 23 other Amazonian groups in addition to the Pirahãs. Based on this cross-cultural research, I have made a proposal. This proposal is not based on the Pirahãs' intelligence, genetics, or any perceived inferiority on their part whatsoever. It is based on what seems to be a cultural taboo on certain ways of speaking. Nothing more.

With regard to their counting system, Pinker has it wrong again. Pirahãs do not have 'one', 'two', and 'many'. That indeed is a common system. Rather, the Pirahãs have no numbers whatsoever and no counting, not even tallying, whatsoever. This claim has been tested in recent work by researchers from MIT's Brain and Cognitive Science Department and a paper is underway to report the results of those tests.

3. Pinker is right that my quarrel is not merely with Chomsky (by now the whole idea of a language instinct or universal grammar is so vacuous and untestable as to hardly warrant a criticism from me or anyone else in any case), but with the field of linguistics more generally. As Sapir warned, it can be very misguided and unscientific to attempt to correlate broad features of culture, e.g. cattle-breeding, with specific linguistic properties, e.g. whether the language mainly has the order Subject Verb Object or not. But there is absolutely nothing similar in that to what I am proposing.

I identify a specific cultural value, needed independently, and unusual syntactic properties, independently recognized, and propose a connection between them that can be tested. Linguistics needs to look harder at such culture-grammar connections. It has been misguided, in my opinion, for not doing so. In a way this is similar to the resurgence of work on language evolution. For some time the speculations on the origins of language were so unscientific and spurious that serious scientists spurned them and said that concern for language evolution was unscientific. In the same way, earlier speculations on culture's influence on language and grammar were so unscientific as to merit strong criticism and the avoidance of this issue altogether. But I am asking that we reconsider this and proceed to a more scientific approach to possible language-culture pairings.

My claim is that there is no such thing as 'just a language' and that the homogenizing efforts of Pinker and others, focusing principally on theories that stretch and chop grammars to fit preconceived notions of what a language should look like do the science of linguistics a serious disservice. Each language in this sense, while sharing cognitive and communicative principles in common with all other languages spoken by Homo sapiens, is unique. This is why it is such a tragedy when a language dies — we don't just lose a grammar. We lose an entire way of thinking and talking about the world; we lose a set of solutions to the problems that beset us all as humans.

The Pirahãs enrich the world through the brilliance and uniqueness of the interaction of their culture and language. Just like all languages and cultures do.


Natural scientists are now and are daring to study one of the last fields to have eluded them for so long: faith itself. This, of course, threatens faith and philosophy’s hold on the definition of man and his place in the world. This is a main reason why Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett are debated so fervently.

The Third Culture in Süddeutsche Zeitung

WHEN ONLY THE ENLIGHTENED SPEAK OUT, REASON IS BOUND TO LOSE

Is religion a destructive force? The debate over Fundamentalism and the new Atheists overshadows the scientific research on faith.

By Andrian Kreye, Editor, the Feuilleton, Süddeutsche Zeitung

ANDRIAN KREYE, from 1987 to 2006, was the US cultural correspondent for the Süddeutsche Zeitung (currently the largest German-language daily). At the end of 2006, he moved from New York to Germany, where he took over the Feuilleton section of the newspaper (part Arts & Ideas, part Op-Ed section). He is also an Edge contributor.

Andrian Kreye's Edge Bio Page


WHEN ONLY THE ENLIGHTENED SPEAK OUT, REASON IS BOUND TO LOSE

It is of course easy to poke fun at belief and nonbelief.  One need only look for the right stories.  The Monday of Pentecost marked the opening of playground that is the Creation Museum in St. Petersburg, Kentucky. In a space of 5,500 square meters, the organization Answers in Genesis has mounted exhibits and installations that are supposed to prove that our planet can only be 6,000 years-old, just as it says in the Bible. It also houses a Planetarium, as well as installations that educate about the intelligent designer God — such as model dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden, and even on Noah's Ark. On the other side of the spectrum are the stories about Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, who supposedly preaches his Atheism sometimes in outburstsof fury. There's story circulating that he scolded an airport attendant that her cross (necklace) insulted his intelligence and that he asked her to remove it.

The disputes over faith has always been less about God than about Man and the image he makes of himself. Many cutting edge scientists have questioned the existence of God and thereby the dominion of the Earth. As heated as the dispute has been over the past year, for a long time it had disappeared from discourse. The triumphant advance of  fundamentalism from Rome and Jerusalem to Mecca and all the way into the American heartland drove the liberal Agnosticism of the 20th century so far into a corner that there's a new and militant atheism rising in defense.

The philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris created the first spark three years ago with his book The End of Faith. Written in reaction to the desasters of September 11th. The book focuses mostly on the fundamentalists, whom he sees as an acute threat to the continuation of civilization. On his heels came philosopher Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University in Massachusetts, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University. In his book Breaking the Spell, Dennett presents religion as an explanatory mdel, which had been made null and void by scientific advances by the 19th century. Dawkins goes a step further in his book The God Delusion and directly takes on all people of religious faith. Not only are they irrational, they are all too destructive, he writes. Only an end to all faith can enable the progress of mankind.

Just now the essayist and cultural critic Christopher Hitchens has joined the scientists' ranks with his polemic God is Not Great: How Religion poisons Everything. In it, he picks apart the myths of faith and religiosity with rhetorical brilliance. Nobody can provoke the public with more mastery than Christopher Hitchens. For instance, he gives his chapter on Islam the title, "Was Mohammed an epileptic?" Hitchens cannily refers to the "heartless Christians", who he contends bring to mind the enlightenment of the prophets in the tradition of the enlightenment of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. To this point he connects all such points of contact between research and belief that render the current debate explosive.

At Laurentian University in Toronto, the movement has long centered around Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger. Persinger developed a helmet device that creates a magnetic field with which he can stimulate the temporal lobes of his subjects. In this way he can successfully trigger the experience of a presence in the room corresponding to what believers describe as a genuine godly being. Persinger explains that the characteristics of this experience overlap with the symptoms of epilepsy.

There is no question that that the results of such research call into question more than just religious experiences. Natural scientists have long grappled with topics that question not only belief, but also the accepted view of human nature. The first research results to present free will as the pure function of genetic and biochemical sequences were decried not only by representatives of religion. For instance, neuroscientist Steven Pinker of Harvard University likes to dismantle the Enlightenment's stalwarts like the blank slate myth with scientific arguments. If the conclusion is drawn,that it's alright to control the human spirit by means of psychopharmacology, even secular circles see it as heresy in the process of building free will and character`.

Longing after infallibility

Natural scientists are now and are daring to study one of the last fields to have eluded them for so long: faith itself. This, of course, threatens faith and philosophy’s hold on the definition of man and his place in the world. This is a main reason why Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett are debated so fervently.

However, science is not inherently in conflict with faith. For example, Darwin was convinced that belief in an all-encompassing spiritual God was a universal phenomenon. There is divergence from the hard-fought battle being waged by these atheists against the threat of desecularization the attacks against reason and rational thinking.

Behind this fight of current urgency there is a scientific revolution in the making. Soon, not only man, but his faith and spirit will be explained scientifically.

At present, research on faith is divided into two camps. On one side is the Darwinist approach, which is that of Scott Atran, a research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. On the other side are those who take into account evolutionary psychology, such as Justin Barrett, Director of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford University.

In the early seventies, Scott Atran was already asking why since primeval times humans have worked so hard to overpower their need for rational explanations with their faith.  Why, he asked in his book In Gods we Trust, are societies ready to pay such a high price for faith, when it costs them valuable resources like time, energy and materials? What threats to survival could be warded off by means of faith? What function does faith serve to the individual and to the collective?  And why have religious communities historically shown better chances for survival? Soon after, Darwinist faith research emerged and placed faith firmly in the realm of consciousness, asserting that it was not the pure product of cultural influence and education. However, they could not identify a function that would make faith an evolutionary advantage. So they concluded that faith must be a byproduct of evolution that originated as the result of some earlier, now-gone function.

Nevertheless, Scott Atran was certain of one thing: religion has always played a role in the history of mankind. This is his biggest critique of Harris, Dennett and Dawkins, with whom he has been in a heated debate over the past year. He argues that he isn't questioning the motive for their call to free the world from dogmatic belief systems that are barbaric, anachronistic and inhumane.  But the Neoatheists are not presenting adequate scientific facts, or conclusions drawn from actual faith research. Belief systems by their nature can be neither strictly true nor false, however meaningless.  They can't be necessary, but they can serve a practical purpose.  And often enough, these purposes can outweigh the cost, because faith has the capacity build strong, interconnected communities, which in the world of Darwinian competition can help them outsurvive other communities.

Such undogmatic considerations can be also found among evolutionary psychologists who share Justin Barrett's approach. This camp sees faith not as a strategy for the survival of communities, but as a developmental stage of the human psyche above all. With simple experiments, Barrett has proved that children at the age of three or four years still possess an unwavering faith in the infallibility of their mothers. Only at age five or six do their own individual wills and their own personal knowledge begin to dissolve this faith in their mothers' omniscience.

Joy and Anxiety

Even these two explanations cannot get to the heart of theology. On the contrary, dogmatic atheism yields findings that can serve as the foundation for a deeper investigation of religious communities, whether it be a radical subculture like the Islamic suicide bombers—or broader movements like the victories of the religious right in American politics.  He who reaches an understanding of the bombers' salvation and of the motivational powers of the Christian fundamentalist voting ranks can also comprehend the historical developments.

The Neoatheists' anger is nevertheless understandable. It is not just the scientists who are engaged in this vicious culture war. The desecularization of the post-ideological world has recently gained so much momentum that it has created a substantial following for secular worldviews and for Science. This may not be obvious to the European at first who may be blinded by the advances of the most radical belief groups—for example, the rise of Hamas in Gaza, or the desularization of American society.

But even in Europe the culture wars smolders. Last fall, Pope Benedict XVI stated clearly, at a conference at the Castel Gandolfo addressing the nature of evolution, "It is not yet the time to reconcile the two domains."  And: "This is in the interest of regaining a dimension of reason, which we have lost."

One advantage faith has over atheism is that it offers hope for an afterlife. Thus far, we have found only religious answers to assuage the fear of death. It always comes down to a choice between delusion and reality. Reality just may make you love your live so much more.

[Translation by Karla Taylor.]



"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)


Paperback — UK
£8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK


Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian


"...This collection, mostly written by working scientists, does not represent the antithesis of science. These are not simply the unbuttoned musings of professionals on their day off. The contributions, ranging across many disparate fields, express the spirit of a scientific consciousness at its best — informed guesswork "Ian McEwan, from the Introduction, in The Telegraph


Paperback — US
$13.95, 272 pp
Harper Perennial



Paperback — UK
£7.99 288 pp
Pocket Books

WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty With an Introduction by IAN MCEWAN Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4 "Intellectual and creative magnificance...an impressive array of insights and challenges that will surely delight curious readers, generalists and specialists alike. " The Skeptical Inquirer



THE NEW REPUBLIC
June 18, 2007

The Great Mutator
By Jerry Coyne

Behe's credibility was damaged also by his admission that ID's definition of science was so loose that it could encompass astrology, and by his fatal assertion that the plausibility of the argument for ID depends upon the extent to which one believes in the existence of God. ...



THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
July/August, 2007

THINK OF ENGLAND
Ian McEwan’s new novella evokes his homeland’s natural beauty and the straitened sexual manners of the early 1960s.

By Christopher Hitchens


On Chesil Beach: A Novel
by Ian McEwan

A recent article in the London Sunday Times made the matter-of-fact statement that Ian McEwan had emerged in Britain as “our national writer.” I at once understood the justice of this opinion, but without at first being able to say what commanded my assent...



THE GUARDIAN
June 11, 2007

Comment is free...

Tome truths
The publication of just six anti-religious books has managed to provoke outrage from the devout - this reveals a profound insecurity.

By A.C. Grayling

The appearance of these books shows that the immunity of religion to forthright questioning and challenge is over, and with it its claim to automatic respect, privilege, sensitive handling and a place at the high table of politics and public life. Remember what happened to the dictators of eastern Europe in 1989: they turned out to be cardboard figures, who suddenly turned soggy and collapsed into nothing at the first dose of real opposition. A 1989 is in process of happening to religion. The hard truths spoken about it in these books and the public debate surrounding them are as genies freed from the bottle: they cannot be put back. ...



THE GALLUP POLL
June 11, 2007

Majority of Republicans Doubt Theory of Evolution
More Americans accept theory of creationism than evolution

By Frank Newport
GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The majority of Republicans in the United States do not believe the theory of evolution is true and do not believe that humans evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. This suggests that when three Republican presidential candidates at a May debate stated they did not believe in evolution, they were generally in sync with the bulk of the rank-and-file Republicans whose nomination they are seeking to obtain. ...



NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION
June 11, 2007

Behe's latest scrutinized

Coyne, like Carroll, worries about the propaganda value of the book, writing, "The general reader, at whom The Edge of Evolution is aimed, is unlikely to find the scientific holes in its arguments. Behe writes clearly and engagingly, and someone lacking formal training in biochemistry and evolutionary biology may be easily snowed by his rhetoric."



THE NATION
June 25, 2007

The New Atheists
Ronald Aronson


...No fewer than five books by the New Atheists have appeared on bestseller lists in the past two years--Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and now Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great....Despite such dubious blessings, the four have become must-read writers. ...



NEWSWEEK
June 18, 2007

BeliefWatch: Smackdown
By Lisa Miller

...Epstein is the destructive force, Hoffmann says, not Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins. "His heresy," Hoffmann told NEWSWEEK, "is that he has an obligation to be embracing." In other words, Epstein isn't wrong, he's right: the name-brand atheists aren't friendly, at least not in print. But maybe being friendly isn't their job—it's his.



SEED MAGAZINE
June 11, 2007
OPINION

Don't Know Much Biology (re-posted)
By Jerry Coyne



PAGE 3.14 THE BEST OF SCIENCE BLOGS
June 11, 2007

Don't Know Much Biology
By Katherine Sharpe


This deserves a read: University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne has published a.n essay at Edge taking on Republican presidential hopeful Senator Sam Brownback's (R-KS) views on faith and evolution, as expressed in Brownback's May 31 New York Times op-ed. ...




CHICAGO TRIBUNE
June 10, 2007

Shaking language to the core
By Ron Grossman

NORMAL, Ill. To get some idea of the brouhaha currently enveloping linguists, occupants of a usually quiet corner of the ivory tower, suppose a high-school physics teacher found a hole in the theory of relativity.

Students of language consider Noam Chomsky the Einstein of their discipline. Linguistics is a very old science, but beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky so revolutionized the field that linguists refer to the time prior to his work as B.C., or before Chomsky.

They may have to add another marker: A.D., after Dan. ...



THE WASHINGTON POST
June 10, 2007

Baptists Warned About Islam, Atheism
By ERIC GORSKI
The Associated Press

Comments about Islam have generated controversy at past Southern Baptist meetings. In 2002, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, the Rev. Jerry Vines, called Muhammad, the Muslim prophet, a "demon-possessed pedophile."

The second threat, Colson said, was evident in the popularity of several best-selling books espousing atheism by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others. ..."This is a virulent strain of atheism which seeks to destroy our belief system," Colson said. ...



THE NEW YORK TIMES
June 10, 2007
OPINION
Think Again

The Three Atheists
Stanley Fish

...At this point, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens would exclaim, See what these nuts do at the behest of religion – child abandonment justified by nothing more substantial than some crazy inner impulse; remember Abraham was going to kill his son because he thought the blood-thirsty god he had invented wanted him to....



THE NEW YORK TIMES
June 10, 2007
OP-ED COLUMNIST

Israel Discovers Oil
By Tom Friedman

...On this occasion, Yossi Vardi, the godfather of Israeli venture capitalism — ever since he backed the four young Israelis who invented the first Internetwide instant messaging system, Mirabilis, which was sold to AOL for $400 million in 1998 — brought some of his venture capital pals, like Mr. Bronicki, down to Ben Gurion to scout out potential start-ups and to mentor the grads.
...



THE NEW YORK TIMES
June 9, 2007

WHAT'S OFFLINE

IN CORPORATIONS THEY DON'T TRUST

WHAT, ME WORRY? One reason so many executives make so many mistakes is they are overly optimistic, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economic science, says.
By Paul Brown



THE TIMES
June 9, 2007

Can we really learn to love people who aren’t like us?
By Jonathan Sacks

The humorist Alan Coren was told by his publisher that if he wanted to write a bestseller it should be about sport or pets. So he wrote a book called Golfing for Cats. Today I suspect his publisher would tell him to attack religion. Atheism sells.

First The End of Faith by Sam Harris was a success in the US. Then came Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and A. C. Grayling’s Against all Gods. And now Christopher Hitchens’s God is not Great is high in the charts both sides of the Atlantic.



BLOGGING HEADS TV
June 8, 2007

SCIENCE SATURDAY
John Horgan & George Johnson

On Dan Gilbert, Coyne vs. Brownback, Murray Gell-Mann



THE NEW REPUBLIC
06.07.07
THE PLANK

Coyne vs. Brownback

By Jason Zengerle

..."According to Brownback, we should reject scientific findings if they conflict with our faith, but accept them if they're compatible. But the scientific evidence says that humans are big-brained, highly conscious apes that began evolving on the African savannah four million years ago. Are we supposed to reject this as "atheistic theology" (an oxymoron if there ever was one)? The religious conviction that "man" is unique in ways that really matter is compelling in many ways--surely our language, art, music, and science itself are unique products of life on this planet--but holding our uniqueness to be a dogma immune to scientific analysis is an arrogant, and ultimately foolhardy, declaration of authority."...



WIRED SCIENCE
June 7, 2007

Breaking Down Brownback's Anti-Science Op-Ed
By Brandon Keim

...Lots of people don't quite understand evolution but have a healthy respect for science, and a decent policy adviser could keep him from doing harm. But then Brownback had to go and stick his worldview in a hole in the ground. ...



ARTS & LETTERS DAILY
June 7, 2007

Essays and Opinion

Supernatural ideas have never helped human beings to understand the natural world. Alchemy, faith healing, astrology, creationism: none has advanced our grasp of nature one iota...more>>



BOING BOING
June 6, 2007

Coyne shreds Brownback's anti-science op-ed
Posted By David Pescovitz

...The op-ed reveals nothing more than Brownback's complete misunderstanding of evolutionary biology and, worse, a total rejection of science. In the new edition of John Brockman's EDGE, University of Chicago professor of ecology and evolution Jerry Coyne, author of Speciation, lays out the idiocy Brownback's comments. From Coyne's essay...



NEW SCIENTIST
June 6, 2007

Perspectives: The secret power of things we hold dear
By Sherry Turkle

Ideas about bricolage were presented in the cool light of French intellectual life, but for me the objects I tried to combine and recombine as a child had been pieces in a puzzle; to find a lost father, they had a high emotional intensity. So I came to see this bricolage as a passionate practice where, sometimes, we fall in love with ideas because we fall in love with objects that put us in touch with these ideas. We think with the objects we love, we love the objects we think with.



PROSPECT MAGAZINE
June 2007

Challenging Chomsky
Universal grammar is the most important theory in linguistics. Has the language of one tribe now disproved it?
By Philip Oltermann

In 2005, the American anthropologist Daniel Everett published an article in Current Anthropology in which he presented his insights into Pirahã life, acquired over years spent living with the tribe. Pirahã culture, Everett claimed, was unique: it was totally focused on immediate experience and it lacked basic number skills, a vocabulary for colours, a past perfect tense and a creation myth....



DER SPIEGEL
June 4, 2007



DER KREUZZUG DER GOTTLOSEN
( The Crusade of the New Atheists: God is to Blame for Everything)


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

contact: editor@edge.org
Copyright © 2007 By
Edge Foundation, Inc
All Rights Reserved.

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