Thursday, December 3, 2009

Culture destruction .. anthropological holocaust

December 2, 2009, Cognition


Losing the Language of Happiness: the consequences of ecological destruction.

If you haven.t read Daniel Everertt.s fabulous Don.t Sleep, There are Snakes about his work as a linguist in the Amazon.well, stop whatever you are doing, go directly to Amazon and enjoy.

After 30 years living with and studying the Piraha, a tribe living in the Amazonian basin, Everett has concluded that neither Chomsky.s argument.that language is innate to humans and there are universal laws of grammar.and Skinner.s argument.that language is completely learned and genetics account for nothing.are correct.

Instead, Everett posits that language and culture are completely intertwined and you cannot study one without the other. Furthermore, and this is where things get really interesting, Everett believes that grammar is significantly less important than culture-based meanings and constraints on talking. are the key.

So what.s the big deal?

This is the deal: About 40 years ago, University of Chicago psychologist (and Flow State guru) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argued that the human brain takes in about 400 billion inputs a second (some people now feel this number is as high as one trillion) but only 2000 bits of information make it up to consciousness.

Those 2000 bits are what we call conscious reality.

We are now pretty sure Csikszentmihalyi was right in his assessment.but what.s really curious is that none of us.no matter the species.experience the world exactly the same.

That is, we all see 2000 different bits of information, thus we all live in different worlds.quite literally.

Some of this is straight up anatomy. Cognitive Ethologist Patricia McConnell (also in a compelling article about Everett.s work) points out: .the sensory system of each species creates a different reality than other species.. Her example of this is bees.who see colors that humans can.t see (and we see colors they can.t see). Either way, when we glance at a solid yellow flower, bees instead see a swirl of lines and hatching and shading that literally acts as pointers and landing strips driving them towards the pollen within.

McConnell.s conclusion is twofold: .Thus, there really is no such thing as .reality,. and Everett.s work reminds us this is true within our own species..

I have elsewhere argued that belief shapes perception which shapes reality. What McConnell and Everett are saying is that this chain goes back even farther: ie. language shapes belief shapes perception shapes reality.

And right now, this is a critical bit of information. The reason this is so important is that in a few weeks time, when the Copenhagen climate talks commence, one of the topics on the table is REDD.Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.

The goal here is to find ways to protect indigenous tribes and the rainforests they live within. This is a big deal. Between June 2000 and June 2008, over 150,000 square kilometers of Amazonian rainforest has been stripped bare by loggers and miners and cattle ranchers.

The number are higher in a few other parts of the world.

When we speak about what was lost in this slaughter, people most frequently talk in terms of dead animals, extinct plants and.perhaps most critically.a vanishing carbon sink.

Clearly, these are all things we cannot afford to lose. But one of the greatest losses may be the indigenous cultures themselves.

For example, in 2008, the Permanent People.s Tribunal in Colombia warned that there are now 28 tribes in Columbia alone facing extinction because of habitat degradation and deforestation.

Now, since each of these tribes speaks a different language, then each of them have a altered worldview and thus occupy a different reality.

Once these folks are gone, we don.t just lose a group that makes the world more culturally distinct, we lose a way of being in the world. We lose a slice of reality. And, in turn, we also loose a way of interpreting the world that might just be critical to our survival.


What do I mean by this? Well, according to Everett: .Pirahas laugh at everything. They laugh at their own misfortune: when someone.s hut blows over in a rainstorm, the occupants laugh more loudly than anyone. They laugh when they catch a lot of fish. They laugh when there.s no fish to catch. They laugh when they are full and they laugh when they are hungry...

Think about this for a moment. How many of us can actually laugh when our basic survival needs are not met? How many people start cracking up when they find out the bank is repossessing their house? How many people laugh when they don.t have enough to eat for dinner? Or breakfast? Or both?

Think about what this really means. The last time anyone checked, we are a nation where 10 percent of us are on anti-depressants.

Everett argues that the this depression is not just based on our .neurochemistry. (the reigning theory.thanks, methinks, in a large part to pharmaceutical company advertising).but also on our language.

Something in the English language perhaps shapes our perception which shapes our reality which makes us freak out when stuff goes wrong.

But the Pirahas just don.t see the world that way.

And.since we also know that worldviews shift when you remove people from their home environment (or remove their home environment altogether).one of the key things that is going away in all of this is knowledge about emotional contentment.

We are not just losing plants and animals, we are, also, losing a key bit of information that could keep us happy in the face of tragedy.

Considering how heavily medicated some of us currently are, this doesn.t strike me as a loss we can particularly afford.

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Comparative and Canine Cognition; Don.t Sleep, There are Snakes
Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

I just finished Everett.s book Don.t Sleep, There are Snakes, and a more thought-provoking book I can.t imagine. As I mentioned in my earlier blog, the author spent much of his life over the last 30 years with a hunter-gatherer tribe, the Piraha, in the Amazon basin. Everett began his work as a missionary and a linguist; his work with the Piraha changed his faith, but not his dedication to studying language.

What makes the book so interesting is his discussion about what the Piraha culture has to say about the derivation of human language. Everett is very clear: he argues persuasively that both Chomsky and Skinner got it wrong (in relation to language). In brief, Chomsky argued that language is innate in humans, and that there are universal .laws. of grammar that are passed down genetically. Skinner argued that all language is learned and that genetics had nothing to do with it.

Everett argues that neither are correct. He presents a compelling case that language and culture can not be separated. He suggests that culture and environment play a significant role in shaping not just language, but how individuals see the world. From this perspective, grammar (a major focus on linguists for decades) is far less important than .culture-based meanings and constraints on talking of each specific culture in the world.. He says that studying linguistics apart from anthropology and field research is like studying chemistry apart from chemicals and the laboratory.

It is not surprising that I am impressed with this argument, given that it fits into my world view as an ethologist: that arguments about .nature versus nurture. are as meaningless as arguments about which is more important, the ingredients or the recipe, to the success of an omelet. (Starting with hard boiled eggs wouldn.t work out too well.)

Speaking of ethology, I.m reminded of how the sensory system of each species creates a different reality than that of other species. For example, because bees see colors that we don.t (we even call colors we can.t see variants of ones we can..ultra violet. for example), their visual reality is completely different from ours. While we might admire the pure yellow petals of a composite flower, bees see a far more complex bloom with lines and stripes pointing like arrows to the nectar within. Thus, there really is no such thing as one .reality,. and Everett.s work reminds us that that is true within our own species.

The Piraha are only interested in events that were personally witnessed by the speaker, are unable to interpret two dimensional photographs, (practice and training helps a bit, but not much), use no numbers, love to talk but talk about a narrow range of subjects, and most amazingly, seem never to worry. They don.t even have a word for .worry.. This does not mean they live an idyllic life, not by a long shot. They can suffer terribly from disease, predation and romantic entanglements gone sour.

And this is why I.m writing about them here: Everett.s work brings up the question of .what is unique about being a human?. and .what do we share, and not share. with other animals, like our dogs? The lines are getting more and more blurry, aren.t they? Surely dogs live more in the present than most of us.. but how much of that is innate, and how much is cultural? I.d argue that most dogs are a LOT happier than most people. how much of that is innate, and how much cultural? And has living with humans affected dogs such that our culture has influenced their behavior? You.re probably aware of Brian Hare.s work on communication between people and dogs in which he argues that dogs are innately better at reading .pointing. signals from humans than non-domestic canids and even chimpanzees. (I.ll write more about this some time, I have some questions about it.). Could it be that dogs learned to worry from living within a western culture? (Can dogs worry? Do they? Is .worrying. different than experiencing anxiety?)

Lots to think about. Meanwhile, it.s New Year.s Eve morning and I.d better get back to my pathetic attempts to keep up with my email before I take a few days off. We got a lovely light snow last night, the sun is shining, and I.m yearning to get back home to Jim, Will and Lassie. We are awaiting (at least Jim and I) an unplanned set of lambs from Snickers and Truffles, who were bred by some ram lambs when they scrambled over a fence downed by a fallen tree. I.ve been worried the lambs would be born when it was brutally cold and we.d go out to the barn to find frozen baby lambs. But I.m going to take a page from the Piraha. worry? What.s that?

I hope you have a thoughtful and loving New Year. It.s been quite a year, hey? I hope, whatever is happening in your life, that you are able to be .in the present. as much as you can, and to savor the beauty that surrounds us all. Here.s a detail of the barn door in the snow . . .

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Secretary-General and Prime Minister of Norway Launch UN-REDD Programme
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (third from left) poses for a group photo with Jens Stoltenberg (third from right), Prime Minister of Norway, and the other participants, following a joint press conference to launch a new initiative to reduce emissions resulting from deforestation and forest degradation.

The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD Programme) is a collaboration between FAO, UNDP and UNEP. A multi-donor trust fund was established in July 2008 that allows donors to pool resources and provides funding to activities towards this programme.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the cutting down of forests is now contributing close to 20 per cent of the overall greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. Forest degradation also makes a significant contribution to emissions from forest ecosystems. Therefore there is an immediate need to make significant progress in reducing deforestation, forest degradation, and associated emission of greenhouse gases.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agenda item on .Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries and approaches to stimulate action. was first introduced at the Conference of the Parties (COP11) in December 2005 by the governments of Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, supported by eight other Parties. The challenge was to establish a functioning international REDD finance mechanism that can be included in an agreed post-2012 global climate change framework. Progress has been made and the need to meet the challenge is now reflected in the Bali Action Plan and the COP13 Decision 2/CP.13. A functioning international REDD finance mechanism needs to be able to provide the appropriate revenue streams to the right people at the right time to make it worthwhile for them to change their forest resource use behaviour.

In response to the COP13 decision, requests from countries, and encouragement from donors, FAO, UNDP and UNEP have developed a collaborative REDD programme. The UN-REDD Programme is aimed at tipping the economic balance in favour of sustainable management of forests so that their formidable economic, environmental and social goods and services benefit countries, communities and forest users while also contributing to important reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The aim is to generate the requisite transfer flow of resources to significantly reduce global emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The immediate goal is to assess whether carefully structured payment structures and capacity support can create the incentives to ensure actual, lasting, achievable, reliable and measurable emission reductions while maintaining and improving the other ecosystem services forests provide.

The UN-REDD Programme Fund is administered by the Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF) Office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in accordance with its financial regulations and rules.

http://www.undp.org/mdtf/un-redd/overview.shtml

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Tags: Chomsky, Daniel Everett, Don't Sleep There are Snakes, ethologist, ethology, language, linguistics, Piraha tribe
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