WHERE do languages come from? That is a question as old as human beings’ ability to pose it. But it has two sorts of answer. The first is evolutionary: when and where human banter was first heard. The second is ontological: how an individual human acquires the power of speech and understanding. This week, by a neat coincidence, has seen the publication of papers addressing both of these conundrums.
Quentin Atkinson, of the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, has been looking at the evolutionary issue, trying to locate the birthplace of the first language. Michael Dunn, of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, has been examining ontology. Fittingly, they have published their results in the two greatest rivals of scientific journalism. Dr Atkinson’s paper appears in Science, Dr Dunn’s in Nature.
The obvious place to look for the evolutionary origin of language is the cradle of humanity, Africa. And, to cut a long story short, it is to Africa that Dr Atkinson does trace things. In doing so, he knocks on the head any lingering suggestion that language originated more than once.
Monthly Archives: April 2011
I can’t say I am an aficionado of neuroscience yet, but with an intent of moving slowly towards becoming one, I picked up a book by Sam Harris – “The Moral Landscape”, which I just finished reading. It is quite an easy read, although I took some time to finish it due to my laziness. In essence, here is the point of the book: what we consider as moral values are based on certain facts, and we all agree that anything of value or moral concern has a lot to do with human well-being. If we agree to this, then we have to agree to the fact that there are right and wrong answers to how we maximize the overall human well-being. He argues, quite convincingly, that, in principle, science can tell us how to achieve maximum human well-being in a given situation.
Sam Harris presents his case very lucidly and I am sympathetic to many of his arguments. He also presents lots of notes and references which covers one third of the book – it is not surprising, since this is based on his Ph.D thesis. It is, perhaps, worth pointing here that he does not tell us how exactly science can answer questions of moral right vs wrong. There is no such prescription yet, obviously. However, religion cannot be a recourse in this matter, which he emphasizes repeatedly, because it is subjective experience.
Overall it is very interesting read with lots of examples, arguments and counter-arguments on this important issue.
There is a new book on Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld, and it supposedly talks about a different Gandhi.
Gandhi did not follow the traditional Indian formula: his ashram was based not on religion but on universal humanistic thought. How had this come about? Lelyveld believes that “if there is a single seminal experience in his intellectual development,” it was reading Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You. The Hindu revolutionary Sri Aurobindo went so far as to say, “Gandhi is a European—truly a Russian Christian in an Indian body.”
Lelyveld found that he now more or less abandoned his wife and children in Natal for months at a time, despite bitter complaints of neglect from his wife and eldest son Harilal. (“He feels that I have always kept all the four boys very much suppressed…always put them and Ba last,” Gandhi wrote dispassionately.) When Gandhi’s brother Laxmidas complained that he was failing to meet his family obligations, he replied serenely, “My family now comprises all living beings,” and proceeded to assemble a surrogate family made up of mostly European Theosophists who shared his enthusiasm for Tolstoy and Ruskin. He lived for a while with the young copy editor Henry Polak and his wife Millie, then moved in with the East Prussian Jewish architect Hermann Kallenbach. Together they created another rural “utopia,” Tolstoy Farm, southwest of Johannesburg, and Gandhi seems to have been happier there than he had been anywhere—enjoying bicycle rides and picnics and the friendship of Kallenbach.
This friendship was close—even romantic,Lelyveld suggests—
Is religion a cultural universal or is it merely a phenomenon innate to certain cultures? What happens when people from religious cultures go to study cultures without religion? SN Balagangadhara (Balu) brilliantly talks about these and many other related questions, and articulates his thesis (see part1 below) on how the West effectively constructed the concept of Hinduism. This was done mainly by the European intellectuals, travelers and missionaries who came to the Indian subcontinent during the past 400 years or so and tried to understand the way of life in India through their own veil of religion. In essence, Balu concludes that there is no such thing as religion in India, it is merely a construct of the West. Then, the great tragedy is that we do not know what the ancient Indian thinkers were talking about, for example in Vedas and Puranas, since there are no systematic studies on these aspects by Indian intellectuals, only a western prespective.