Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Shared Moral Universe

Chris Knight, Marxist anthropologist and author of the brilliant and inspiring book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (which I wrote about here), has a website which includes links to several pdfs of his articles and papers. Today in the Evolution of Language section, I came across this fascinating paper called "The Human Revolution". I think it's well worth reading. In it he explains why the emergence of language must be explained in Darwinian terms, and how that emergence might have occurred (here using a necessarily shorter version of his theory outlined in Blood Relations). Here is a passage from near the end:
The 'human revolution' became consummated as coalitionary resistance to philandering drove up the costs of 'selfish' male strategies to the point where they were no longer affordable. With this source of internal conflict removed, enhanced community-wide trust transformed the context in which communication occurred. We have seen that signals may become conventionalized wherever trusting listeners can be assumed. The establishment of stable, 'blood'-symbolized kin-coalitions allowed 'brothers' and 'sisters' to trust one another as never before. Signallers no longer needed to ground each communicative performance in hard-to-fake displays whose intrinsic features inspired trust. Trust, in other words, no longer had to be generated signal by signal – it could be assumed. With this problem removed, even patent fictions could now be valued as evidence from which to reconstruct others' thoughts. Language consists entirely of fictions of this kind.

Humans who had undergone the revolution, then, no longer had to stage a 'song and dance' each time they needed to appear persuasive. Costly ritual performance remained necessary, but only because each individual’s initiation into and subsequent commitment to the speech community could be signalled in no other way. Once such commitment had already been displayed, coalition members could cut their costs, replacing indexical display with a repertoire of conventionally agreed shorthands (see Knight 1998, 1999, 2000). Since these low-cost abbreviations – 'words' or 'proto-words' – were tokens in the first instance of group-level contractual phenomena, they could be honest without having to be grounded in anything real. Reality-defying performances upholding community-wide moral contracts are familiar to anthropologists as 'religion' (Rappaport 1999). Once humans had established such traditions, they found themselves communicating within a shared moral universe – a socially constructed virtual reality – of their own making.

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