This week I finished The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, a book whose subject matter should be self-evident. Shortly afterwards I was given the opportunity to talk to Daniel Cloud, the author of said work and professor of philosophy at Princeton University.
To summarize it very briefly the book is a thorough and eye-opening examination of language as a piece of culture that has been grown and thus evolved due to choices and actions we’ve made as human beings. While our discussion of his work was incredibly thorough and actually exceeded an hour I’ve managed to cut it down to something that closely approximates a conversation, and one that I hope will convince you to pick up a copy for yourselves.
Evan: Now I will of course be putting together some form of introduction to preface this interview, but I thought it would be good for our readers to hear you describe yourself in your own words-
Cloud: I would say that I am an American philosopher carrying on the American philosophical tradition. I worked in science for a while in Russia and China which gave me some some experience with socioeconomic change; I was in those places during a period of upheaval. Research as a philosopher most interested me when I decided to quit and go back to school. Biology and evolution in particular stood out as I already knew a lot about the social sciences.
Evan: As far as The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal is concerned I would describe your primary goal as breaking down the origin of human language. Would you agree with that?
Cloud: My goal was and is to explain where language comes from, yes, but specifically the theory of cultural evolution and if it works relative to language. Language is one type of culture, and the specific type of culture I chose to focus on in this book was words as they’re discrete identities that are easy to identify and track throughout history.
The larger project is actually to track humans as being distinct from other types of living things. To return to language I present it as a tool for exploring the way cultural evolution works. It’s the application of the word “domestication” as seen in the title, the theory that just like animals and plants what we have in the present day is very different from how it began. Words are only the first thing I’ve tried to identify in this way. I could just as easily have turned to fashion or clothes or any other kind of culture. Continue reading →
But no, I have other fish to fry. In celebration. I’m frying celebratory fish here, because it’s Darwin Day!
Yes, February 12 is a holiday to some, though not a federally listed one. There are some who are fighting courageously to make it so, and I mean, why not? We do have federal holidays for some… Less wonderful people.
Seriously, screw this guy.
Now, Darwin was a pretty great guy, who gave us a pretty great idea (Natural Selection), and both are pretty misunderstood in today’s society, even by some of their supporters. Continue reading →
Canadians have a really bad habit of patting ourselves on the back. We see violent clashes between citizens and the state, like what is continuing to unfold in Ferguson, and we tell ourselves that would never happen here in Canada.
EVAN: This week on E> we take a break from scrutinizing film to look back about seven or so months to a different time of our lives: college. Now that we’ve both graduated we find ourselves in a different stage of life, and it begs the question of what those four years did for us, and whether or not that’s what we wanted or expected.
GORDON: Throughout my college career, especially towards the end, I heard a recurring argument:
“College is a scam,” they said, “It’s a trap or, at very best, a waste of money. You don’t learn anything you can actually translate into a job, so either drop out while you can or don’t sweat the grades and party your buns off.”
EVAN: Wait, who is the “they” that was saying this?
GORDON: I’ve read it in various Cracked articles, I’ve seen it covered in webcomics and in comments, I’ve heard it on the radio. Not always the same tone, but it always boiled down to that essential idea. “College doesn’t teach you what you really need to know, it just puts you in debt and wastes your time.”
EVAN: Well, I guess that really begs the question of “What is it that we’re really supposed to know?” If college is the great institution to prepare us for our lives, what should it have taught us?
GORDON: Some would argue that technical and vocational skills are what we really need. Stuff that’s meant to train us for jobs. Wrenches, not Whitman.
EVAN: Which is the sort of thing you see advertised on television late at night or in the middle of the day; schools for electricians and dental assistants and plumbers and what have you.
GORDON: Which always come across as propaganda films from a dystopic alternate timeline. They can claim to be breaking the mold all they want- I’ll still always just see Orwellian Factory-Schools designed train the subservient masses for laboring in name of supreme leader and glorious fatherland.
EVAN: Heh heh.
The contrast to this idea you brought up when first introducing this topic, that the two sides could be seen as college prepping us for our careers or making us more well-rounded individuals.
There’s obviously more to it than that, but how would you boil the latter option down to its essence?
GORDON: I’d probably cite our own alma mater’s (for me more just “mater”) slogan of “global mindedness.” The idea is to create people who are, first and foremost, thinkers. Logical and critically minded thinkers with strong creative abilities and appreciation for art and wonder. A noble enough sentiment to be sure.
EVAN: To really engage with this topic I feel like we should have equal footing, and I’ll have to give our readers a little bit of context-
I’m currently unemployed, and chose to live the latter part of 2012 living with and taking care of my grandfather, whose wife [my grandmother] passed away in September. My job hunt has only very recently started up again.
I say that because as it stands one of us is currently working and knows how his education has aided him and the other is not.
GORDON: I, unlike my Canadian counter-part, am currently employed, having worked two jobs simultaneously for a while there. Having vainly searched for a job the entire summer and most of the fall, I am now working a job helping unemployed people find work, the irony of which is not lost on me.
EVAN: And did you, my Employed-American friend, find that a degree helped you in your search for work?
GORDON: In all honesty, I’m not sure.
On one hand, I can say that certain classes I brought definitely assisted me in securing a job, but those classes really more on the whole “applied” spectrum of education. I definitely didn’t need to go to a top 3% college. People, it turns out, don’t give a crap about where you went.
EVAN: Again, I can’t comment from experience, but I’d like to say that it depends on the job.
GORDON: This is probably true. However, if you were looking for a job, which is gonna look better on a resume? Four years of college, or four years of experience in that field? From everything that I’ve seen, I’d take experience every time.
EVAN: And I agree with that entirely. I can’t count the number of want ads I’ve seen [and this is for stuff like janitorial work, and dishwasher] that require “minimum 2 years work experience.”
It’s like, heck, what was I doing in school when I could’ve been out working this whole time?
GORDON: But of course, that brings up the first question: what’s the point of college? Are we expected to choose a career path and be trained like the mindless, dehumanized proles that we are?
EVAN: Well, for me personally my career goals were more tailored to an academic setting. My personal interest in writing and editing is definitely something that can and is fostered in that environment.
That being said, if I had skipped my four years of college to simply freelance as hard as I could out there in the real world, would I be a better writer today? I honestly couldn’t tell you.
GORDON: The problem is that both sides have really, really big flaws.
On the one hand, turning college into a simple vocational training course does truly rip the soul right out of academia. It makes it just the place you go to get a desk job instead of a manual one.
On the other hand, college as it is now, while fostering intellect and creativity, is as unhelpful as it is expensive. Why put yourself over a hundred thousand dollars in debt to not get employment?
EVAN: I guess in the bigger picture, what is it that we want to do with our lives?
There are plenty of jobs out there that don’t require a college education, and that certainly benefit from hard work at an early stage.
On the flip-side, there are jobs that you simply can’t get without a degree.
GORDON: We also can’t imagine that we can simply get any job we want to begin with. It’s all a gamble. I can get a degree in biology, but that doesn’t at all mean I’m gonna get a job in biology- heck, I’d probably be lucky if I got something even close!
EVAN: Like a janitor in a pharmaceutical company. Or the guy who delivers mail to a biology professor’s house.
GORDON: Exactly. So is that it, then? It’s the whole dang system?
EVAN: I mean, yeah. I feel like more often than not that’s all it really boils down to.
GORDON: So let’s talk about an ideal universe. Or at least one that ain’t quite so screwed up. What’s college look like? Give me your take.
This does not count as an ideal college…
EVAN: It’s tricky, man- Because I would like everyone to be well-read individuals who think about the media that they access and have a fuller understanding of what makes us who and what we are as a culture, I mean, that’s the dream-
But at the same time I acknowledge that there are people who don’t care a whit about any or all of that.
And with so many people who enjoy poetry and the arts, while those are debatably important parts of society, what happens when they need to find work? How many playwrights can any single country sustain?
GORDON: My response would be “how many playwrights are there actually out there?”
EVAN: I think there’s a difference between the actual number, and how many individuals would actually like to be a part of that number.
GORDON: Touché, but we can blame certain jobs being glorified and others suffering from unwarranted contempt.
But let’s move on. College. Your college- what’s it look like?
EVAN: A thorough exploration of the ideas that created Western civilization, the one most of us live in today, because it’s extremely important to observe our origins before we can look at our present and then ahead, after that.
A strong emphasis on writing with the reason that without the ability to properly communicate our thoughts how can we even really fully think them to begin with.
GORDON: Sounds to me that you’re still leaning more towards the side of academia.
EVAN: Well, like we’ve discussed, I have a slight bias. And I suppose we haven’t really defined the question as far as the purpose of college.
GORDON: My take would a combination of both sides, with the end goal being application. We’re talking about the study of English for the purposes of applying the principles in same, either in writing or screenplays or entertainment or communication of some kind.
I feel this would allow for all the creative and academic elements while keeping the whole process grounded. No ivory towers.
EVAN: I don’t think my take discounts the possibility of lining up with what you said, but that’s a really good description of how college could and maybe should be.
That being said, we are actually overtime.
GORDON: You wanna talk about drugs and culture next time?
EVAN: I think at some point we could hand this back to the viewers, actually. We’ve really gotten a handle on this whole E>. I’m just not sure when or how to do so.
GORDON: The readers are slack-jawed cattle who would eat their own shoes if we told them to.
EVAN: I should probably edit that out of the final post.
GORDON: Nah, we can let ’em vote. My subject would be Drugs and Culture.
EVAN: Mine would be . . . um . . . huh. About SNL. How to fix SNL.
GORDON: Nice. Let it be so.
EVAN: Tell the nice people to have a good Wednesday, Gordon.
GORDON: Have a good Wednesday, Gordon.
EVAN: And don’t forget to vote, readers! Thanks for putting up with my co-writer!
I was recently listening to a stand-up routine by British comedian Robert Newman, who in the course of an Iraq War joke stated something I thought was pretty dang profound.
“Just because you’re fighting the bad guys doesn’t mean that you’re the good guys.”
I really can’t think of anyone this statement applies better to than the adherents of the rising “Body Positive Movement.”
You hear that, starving kids in Sudan?
Who are these people? Well, the the “body positive” movement is the result of a reaction against the air-brushed, Photoshopped, and ultimately anorexic presentation of beauty offered by mainstream culture. It’s given us Dove’s “True Beauty Campaign” in which “real” women were used as models (hoping you’ll forget that the same people who run Dove run Axe).
It’s given us memes like this:
And it’s given us a host of philosophical epitaphs on how the size of your brain or heart are vastly more important than the size of your waistline.
“Buuuut we’re gonna use a skinny model anyways…”
And it all has a certain logic to it. Forget society’s standards! Be comfortable with who you are! Your insides are all that should count! Reject anorexic beauty standards! Enough making yourself sick trying to pursue unrealistic and unattainable goals! Only you can make you feel inferior!
And so on.
Now I know that it must sound pretty weird that these people would wind up being the subject of a Shame Day. After all, what’s wrong with rejecting the media’s unattainable and anorexic standard of beauty and embracing your body for what it is?
Well, suppose your body looked something like this:
Sure, I could say this guy is “husky” or “bigger” or “shaped differently” or use any other paper-thin euphemism for fat. Doesn’t change a thing. I could name the asteroid about the hit the earth Friendly Ed and there’d still be as much devastation when Edward hits New York. We can call it anything we want- we’re still not changing the fact that being fat isn’t any more healthy than being stick-thin.
“But Gordon, you incandescent beacon of enlightenment, surely these people aren’t advocating anything like that!“
And no, not all of them are- but enough of the big players are endorsing pretty much this philosophy. Let me offer this post from The Body Positive’s website as an example. In her article “‘Tis the Season to be Squishy”, Connie Sobczak asserts that there’s really nothing wrong with gaining weight during winter months, as this is simply the body’s natural reaction the cold as a result of evolutionary adaption. And that is true- only Sobczak goes on to use that factual statement to prop up some far more dubious claims.
“So, the next time you ‘feel like a steak’ or ‘need a cookie’ it could be your brain and not your stomach talking.” Out of the mouths of doctors!”
What Sobczak is doing here is attempting to twist evolutionary biology into an excuse for lack of self-control. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat a bag of chips. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat a bag of chips in winter when you need more calories. There’s nothing wrong with stating that as your reason for eating more chips. But taking all of that and coming away with the conclusion that eating chips (or anything else) is retroactively sanctioned by biology and stating that this conclusion is supported by medical professionals is as dishonest as it is deluded.
Case and point.
Look, it’s true that who you are on the inside is vastly more important than who you are on the outside, no one is going to argue that. But let’s talk about excess, people. Let’s talk about gluttony. Aren’t these realities? Let’s compare the number of people who have had become ill or died as a result of being overweight and contrast it to the number who have become ill or died as a result of being underweight in this country. Which side is gonna have claimed more?
Now that ain’t an endorsement of anorexia or our twisted standards by any means, it’s simply a counter-point.
But hey- maybe it’s not a health thing. Maybe it’s just about being comfortable with who you are regardless of your size. That’s the line taken up by comedian Gabriel Iglesias in his stand-up routine.
Towards the end of one of his acts he states that he wouldn’t want to live to be a hundred if it means he couldn’t eat cake. He asserts that working out doesn’t ensure you’ll live long- why not enjoy life while you have it?
Why not indeed?
So if that’s the case, why are we jumping on the bulimic and anorexic members of society in the fist place? Hey- if health isn’t an issue and happiness is, why is a a girl weighing less than seventy five pounds any worse than a girl weighing three hundred? Why is it “Body Positive” for a woman to expand her waistline and self-loathing when she expands her bust line? It just doesn’t pan out.
Look, I’m not here to offer any solutions. I’m six feet tall (when I’m not slouching, which is always) and skinny. I smoke a little bit, drink a little more, and could stand to cut down on the meat and up my intake of fruits and vegetables considerably. I don’t work out, but then again, if wolves were to be introduced to my city, I’d probably be ok. Despite my extreme examples, the vast majority of us are neither morbidly obese or carried off by strong winds. All that’s to say that I’m in no place to pass judgment on anyone, nor is it my intention to do so. I’m simply here to point out the hypocritical and seemingly self-serving logic being employed by the group in question.