Sunday, April 29, 2007

Village water white wild woods

Here is a sentence from a scientific report on the evolution of language: "A challenge for evolutionary biology, therefore, is to provide a detailed mathematical account of how natural selection can enable the emergence of human language from animal communication."

A lovely, complex sentence of the kind we used to diagram in high school. I loved diagramming sentences. I loved to see a sentence flayed and displayed on the page like a frog on a tray in biology lab.

What a thing is language! Start with a bunch of noises -- vowels and consonants -- three or four dozen will do nicely. String them together into words and you have enough combinations to have an expression for millions of people, places, things and actions. A babe is born into the world knowing nary a word. By age two, she will have a few hundred words at her command. An adult might have a working vocabulary of tens of thousands of words.

Even then, we don't go around grunting words. We put them together into meaningful sentences using the rules of grammar. Suddenly the number of possible utterances becomes essentially infinite. Green Eggs and Ham is a possibility. So is Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Where did language come from? Chimps and gray parrots can be taught to communicate in a pared-down version of human language, but the difference between human speech and the most sophisticated natural animal communication is as different as day and night.

The territorial calls of birds, the wiggle dance of bees, and the mysterious vocalizations of whales and dolphins are the best we get in non-human nature. Yet the language of even the most "primitive" human culture is as complex as modern English. Clearly, language took a big leap forward as the human brain exploded in size and complexity.

The fact that all human languages have grammatical similarities suggests, as Chomsky has proposed, an innate correspondence between language and the brain. But did language drive brain development, or was it the other way around? It is easy enough to understand the evolutionary pressures that caused our ancestors to say "The lion is lurking in the tall grass" or "There's a nice source of flinty stones just beyond the hill," but what dynamic of natural selection conferred upon one species among all others the ability to say "She walks in beauty, like the night/ Of cloudless climes and starry skies,/ And all that's best of dark and bright/ Meet in her aspect and her eyes"?

Even when the words and grammar are in place, there is still something called style. J. Robert Oppenheimer, in a 1948 talk called "The Open Mind," said that style is our way of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown. Style is part of all communication, he says, in science, politics, literature and art. "It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and humility; it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely; it is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light; it is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason."

We can't compile a lexicon of style, or diagram style like a sentence, but we know it when we see it. Evolutionary pressures may have given us words for "lion" and "lurk" and "tall" and "grass," and the rudiments of grammar, but style appears on the scene as a kind of grace -- and Oppenheimer puts his finger on why it's so important. Style tempers confidence with humility, power with self-restraint, sureness with uncertainty. Style is our escape from the inexorable dynamic of evolution, from nature red in tooth and claw.

Amazon now has tools on its book pages that will tell you more than you may have wanted to know about a book. For example, thanks to Amazon I know that I write with an average of 1.7 syllables per word and 21 words per sentence. According to Amazon, a reader needs about 14 years of formal schooling to approach my books with understanding, and will get about 4000 words per dollar. I can even get a concordance of the 100 most used words in a book, in a font size proportional to how many times each word is used. (See below.)

But none of this is style. As Oppenheimer says, style operates in the realm of the ineffable and unknown. A scientist can have style, but science can't explain style. A preacher can have style, but dogma is the enemy of style. Style walks in beauty like the night. Style comes on little cat feet. Style comes hobbling, flying, running, leaping, puffing and blowing, chuckling, clapping, crowing, clucking and gobbling, mopping and mowing, full of airs and graces, pulling wry faces, demure grimaces, cat-like and rat-like, ratel and wombat-like, snail-paced in a hurry, parrot-voiced and whistler, helter-skelter, hurry-skurry, chattering like magpies, fluttering like pigeons, gliding like fishes.

Style is not a challenge for evolutionary biology. Style is the homage we pay to a world that is mysterious beyond our knowing.

Further Reading

The essay quoted above is included in J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind (1955).

The source of the tumble of words in the penultimate paragraph is for you to find.

Here is the Amazon "concordance" for my book The Path:

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.