Gene Expression

Immune to missionaries

The April 16th issue of The New Yorker had an article by John Colapinto, The puzzling language of an Amazon tribe. It’s in print, so I can’t post it, but the short of it is that the tribe might lack recursion, a hammer blow to Chomskyan universal grammar. Overall the tribe seems to have a rather attenuated tendency toward engaging in abstract thought, and has been incredibly immune to any attempts by Christian missionaries to convert them. At some point in the piece the author notes that occasionally someone will ask a Christian if they’ve ever met this Jesus Christ that they keep talking of, and when they’re told that he died 2,000 years ago all interest disappears. Below, I argued that humans have psychological propensities which bias them toward being religious. If the research about these Amazonians pans out I think you have here a group which is totally insulated by their culture from the attractions of religion because they lack some of the necessary psychological propensities (I suspect, and the article pretty much claims, that those propensities can be developed by tribal members who are raised outside of the group, but that culture constrains cognition in this case). Now, I’ve said that though I’m not religious myself and kind of find the whole behavioral tendency kind of alien and strange, I think that we’ll have to turn humans into autistics for them to truly be “rid of” religion. The Amazonians are not autistic, but, in some ways they are pretty strange, and I don’t know if we want most people to live like them if that’s the price for being grounded in the empirical present instead of delusions of the supernatural.

Update: Here’s a list of unique traits for this people.

Comments

  1. #1 John Emerson
    April 24, 2007

    Language Log is very aggressive about going after junk linguistics, and they don’t just dismiss the Colapinto story. I plan to keep an ear open for more.

    Language Log’s first piece

    Second Piece

    Third piece

    A more skeptical piece

  2. #2 DarwinCatholic
    April 24, 2007

    I find myself wondering if what is being observed with this tribe is a culture which for some reason has selectively repressed certain elements of thought and cultural tendencies which were in fact present in some of their ancestors. Given the accepted dates for human migration to the new world, it seems odd to think that at the time of the migration the capacities that this tribe lacks were not present in the migrating population.

  3. #3 razib
    April 24, 2007

    I find myself wondering if what is being observed with this tribe is a culture which for some reason has selectively repressed certain elements of thought and cultural tendencies which were in fact present in some of their ancestors.

    yep. other new world peoples have a concept of time, obviously. the maya were obsessed with it.

  4. #4 DarwinCatholic
    April 24, 2007

    Right, that much is clear. I suppose one could theorize that the initial human settlers of the new world didn’t have a concepts of time, abstract thought, number, etc. and that all other groups _except_ this one developed it after they got here, but that seems really silly.

    Which leaves you wondering, what kind of cultural selection factor would have pushed this particular group to abandon those concepts?

  5. #5 John Emerson
    April 24, 2007

    There’s a theory that the Amazon was once more heavily populated, and that the present Amazonian peoples are relatively late developments. (The Eskimos definitely are a people like that — their culture developed in the last 2000 years). I believe that there’s also a theory that the diverse languages of New Guinea are not ancient, and that there is a dynamic on New Guinea which causes neighboring language to diverge rapidly (thus making glottochronology useless). In general, the progresive model which shows a smooth movement from the ancient to the modern has been diminished in scope, if not entirely junked.

  6. #6 Agnostic
    April 24, 2007

    Just an interim update, having read through the sections on recursion and quantifiction in the Nevins, Pesetsky, & Rodrigues article: Piraha does have recursion and quantification. Dog bites man. I’ll write it up sometime soon for GNXP classic.

    Can anyone who’s read the NYer article confirm or disconfirm that it mentions that Everett’s earlier work, including his dissertation, paints Piraha as having embedding and quantification, and that he’s recently changed his mind / re-interpreted his earlier work? That’s pretty relevant, and would give the audience pause — like, why the sudden conversion?

  7. #7 pconroy
    April 24, 2007

    It would seem to me that the Piraha people may be related to the Tasaday people – LOL

  8. #8 Agnostic
    April 24, 2007

    And about their religious propensities — the Nevins, Pesetsky, & Rodrigues article also has a (short) section on culture. They report on the extensive work of an anthropologist (Goncalves) who has studied the Piraha, concerning their mythology. In short, they have a respectable mythology, although no “genesis” myth — the universe is assumed to have always existed, though its present form with humans, plants, animals, etc., they have a story for. (Apparently this isn’t so odd cross-culturally).

    So the “culturally constrained cognition” re: religion is also probably wrong. I would be very cautious about much of this research now, lest the Margaret Mead incident repeat itself. It looks like most, maybe all, of the “if this turns out to be true” statements don’t actually turn out to be true.

  9. #9 razib
    April 24, 2007

    Can anyone who’s read the NYer article confirm or disconfirm that it mentions that Everett’s earlier work, including his dissertation, paints Piraha as having embedding and quantification, and that he’s recently changed his mind / re-interpreted his earlier work? That’s pretty relevant, and would give the audience pause — like, why the sudden conversion?

    you should read the new yorker article. it doesn’t sound like a ‘sudden conversion,’ but a gradual turning away from previous positions.

  10. #10 razib
    April 24, 2007

    assman, could you mind reading everett’s paper??? i know it’s long…but you are the local linguist.

  11. #11 razib
    April 24, 2007

    also, yeah, this smells of tasaday. i wish the new yorker article would have alluded to it explicitly just to get that issue out of the way.

  12. #12 Agnostic
    April 25, 2007

    I guess I should have said “unexplained” rather than “sudden” conversion — there are discrepancies with his earlier accounts, bearing on the issues, that he apparently doesn’t acknowledge let alone explain. We all change our minds, but we should said why.

    I don’t think I’ll read Everett’s paper, but the Nevins et al article quote extensively from it and two other major papers of his on Piraha. This itself is a decently long paper, so they lay out the details well enough, I think.

  13. #13 Agnostic
    April 25, 2007

    But maybe I’ll skim through and see if there’s any crucial stuff that Nevins et al didn’t highlight…