Recursion, Linguistic Evolution, Consciousness, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and I.Q.

At Nautilus, Julie Sedivy on “[t]he surprising forces influencing the complexity of the language we speak and write” — The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence.

Noting those “scientists [who] have argued that recursion, a technique that allows chunks of language such as sentences to be embedded inside each other (with no hard limit on the number of nestings) is a universal human ability, perhaps even the one uniquely human ability that supports language,” she rightly counters, “Complex sentences are not ubiquitous among the world’s languages.” Her central paragraph:

Languages with very simple sentence structure are, for the most part, oral languages. It’s the languages that have a culture of writing, developed over a long span of time, that display a fondness for stacking clauses onto one another to create towering sentences. This pattern raises the possibility that the invention of writing, a very recent innovation tagged on to the very last millennia of human evolution, can dramatically alter a language’s linguistic niche, spurring the development of elaborate sentence structure, and leading to the shedding of other features, on a timescale that cannot be achieved through biological evolution. If that’s so, then the languages that many of us have grown up with are very different from the languages that have been spoken throughout the vast majority of human existence.

This will be especially interesting to readers of The 10,000 Year Explosion, whose authors counter “the conventional wisdom that the evolutionary process stopped when modern humans appeared” and offer a “genetic basis of their view that human evolution is accelerating” through natural selection under civilized conditions. Similarly, then, languages have evolved complexity under written conditions.

Related, also at Nautilus, Veronique Greenwood examines “Julian Jaynes’ famous 1970s theory” that “humans were not fully conscious until about 3,000 years ago, instead relying on a two-part, or bicameral, mind, with one half speaking to the other in the voice of the gods with guidance whenever a difficult situation presented itself” and that this “bicameral mind eventually collapsed as human societies became more complex, and our forebears awoke with modern self-awareness, complete with an internal narrative, which Jaynes believes has its roots in language” — Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking.

Is it the complexity of thought offered by a written language that allows us full consciousness? The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis “states that the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken.” Do the speakers (or rather writers) of the world’s 200 truly literary languages (of the 6,000 total number of human languages) have cognitive advantages over the rest? It seems reasonable to make such a hypothesis.

This hypothesis lends support the premise behind IQ and the Wealth of Nations, whose “authors argue that differences in national income (in the form of per capita gross domestic product) are correlated with differences in the average national intelligence quotient (IQ).”

While this hypothesis seems politically incorrect, it would provide a non-biological reason for the divergence in intelligence noted across nations and races. It might also provide a far simpler explanation of why Nigerians were included in Amy Chua‘s The Triple Package, which observes that “certain groups do much better in America than others—as measured by various socieconomic indicators such as income, occupational status, job prestige, test scores, and so on—” but “attempts to debunk racial stereotypes by focusing on three ‘cultural traits’ that attribute to success in the United States.” Nigerian immigrants to the United States come from the literary sub-culture of their society.

This entry was posted in HBD, Linguistics, Science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Recursion, Linguistic Evolution, Consciousness, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and I.Q.

  1. Have you written anything else about linguistic relativity and Julian Jaynes? It is an interesting area of overlap. What if language not only influences thought, perception and behavior but shapes consciousness itself.


  2. Pingback: Jaynesian Linguistic Relativity | Marmalade

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