Tag Archives: science fiction

Talk like a post-human

A followup to Talk Like a Neanderthal Day

Thinking about how Neanderthals might have talked is one way to get at language evolution and how language works. Another way to do this is through science fiction. I’m not thinking so much of constructed languages like Quenya, Klingon, or Dothraki. There are whole communities of people out there – conlangers – busy inventing and learning such languages; some fun introductions are here and here. But mostly these languages are meant to fall within the range of variation of existing human languages. I’m thinking instead of some science fiction stories that imagine more radical alterations of language.

For example,

The Persistence of Vision. John Varley (1979)

A few decades into the future, the United States is falling apart. A drifter stumbles into a community of deaf-and-blind “Kellerites” who are doing pretty well for themselves in the New Mexico desert. They communicate partly by spelling out things in handtalk. “By handtalk I mean the International Manual Alphabet. Anyone can learn it in a few hours or days.” But Varley recognizes that handtalk is not a real language. For a real language the community uses shorthand. “Shorthand was not code for English or any other language; it did not share construction or vocabulary with any other language. … Each word was something I had to learn and memorize separately from the handtalk spelling.”

The Kellerites are fictional, but sign language is not. In Talking Hands, Margalit Fox (who also writes obituaries for the New York Times) writes about a Bedouin community in Israel with a high incidence of congenital deafness. Deaf kids there have spontaneously come up with their own sign language. This is a real language, not derived from Arabic or Hebrew, with soundless “phonemes” that are combined to make signs that are more-or-less arbitrarily paired with meanings to yield words that can be combined into phrases and sentences according to rules of grammar. A nice detail: deaf babies exposed to sign language will start off “babbling” with their hands, just as hearing babies babble by making sounds. The human Language Acquisition Device (Chomsky’s phrase), an “instinct to acquire an art” (Darwin’s phrase), will work with whatever material it can get ahold of.

gnome chomsky

So Varley gets a lot right; I suspect he did some research on sign language for this story. If the deaf-and-blind ever did form their own community, and come up with their own language, it would be a full-blown language a lot like his shorthand.

On the other hand, this bit, with the Kellerites merging verbal intercourse with the other kind of intercourse, is a little over the top:

But talk was talk, and if conversation evolved to the point where you needed to talk to another with your genitals, it was still a part of the conversation.

Or, as Eliza Doolittle said, “How kind of you to let me come.”

Gulf. Robert Heinlein (1949)

A tightly written spy tale, set a century or two in the future, where the United States went through World War III, went communist, and then got over it. It reads like a James Bond story as written by Francis Galton. The protagonist learns that there is a secret community of super-geniuses, who call themselves New Man (an allusion to real-life super-genius John von Neumann? By the way, “Neander” also means “new man”). They work behind the scenes to keep humanity safe from itself. This sometimes involves some antifa vigilantism: “ ‘Two weeks from now there will be a giant pow-wow of the new, rejuvenated, bigger-and-better-than-ever Ku Klux Klan down Carolina way. When the fun is at its height, when they are mouthing obscenities, working each other up to the pogrom spirit, an act of God is going to wipe out the whole kit and caboodle. … Sad.’ ”

And New Men have their own super-language, Speedtalk. Speedtalk violates one of the key design features of real languages, the duality of patterning. Real languages have one level of meaningless phonemes combined according to rules to make syllables (so spy fits the sound pattern of English, but psi – if you try to pronounce the p – does not). One or more syllables are then arbitrarily paired with meanings to make words, and then there is a second level where another set of rules determines what combinations of words make grammatical phrases. Even sign languages work this way.

But Speedtalk instead has just one level, pairing up individual phonemes with meanings. This is quite a stretch. In real languages, the inventory of words is orders of magnitudes greater than the inventory of phonemes. But Heinlein tells us that adding variations in length, stress, and pitch is enough “to establish a one-to-one relationship with Basic English [800+ words] so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in a ‘normal’ language, one Speedtalk word to an entire sentence.”

There’s more to Speedtalk than this. Heinlein was very taken with an intellectual fad of his time, General Semantics. General Semantics hovered somewhere between a serious intellectual endeavor and complete crackpottery. Firmly on the crackpot side of the line is Count Alfred Korzybski, who gets a chapter in a debunking book by Martin Gardner. Korzybski’s magnum opus Science and Sanity is all about how reforming language is the key to creating the first truly rational civilization. This means the verb “to be” has got to go. As Heinlein puts it. “One can think logically in English only by extreme effort, so bad is it as a mental tool. For example, the verb ‘to be’ in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every one of which is false-to-fact.”

Entertaining, but silly. The score today is: “to be” 1, General Semantics 0. If you want some real semantics, Pinker beats Korzybski.

The Citadel of the Autarch. Gene Wolfe (1982)

This is Book Four of a tetralogy. Millions of years in the future, Earth has sunk to a medieval level, albeit littered with bits and pieces of advanced technology indistinguishable from magic. Wolfe really, really likes to have you figure things out, instead of telling you, but you can work out that the action takes place in South America. An endless war is going on against the Ascians, a totalitarian state to the north ruled by the Group of Seventeen. An Ascian prisoner of war tells a story, constructed entirely of canned slogans, while another character, Folia, interprets.

It starts off like this

The Ascian began to speak: “In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.”

Folia interpreted: “Once upon a time …”

“Let no one be idle. If one is idle let him band together with others who are idle too, and let them look for idle land. Let everyone they meet direct them.  It is better to walk a thousand leagues than to sit in the House of Starvation.”

“There was a remote farm worked in partnership by people who were not related.”

“One is strong, another beautiful, a third a cunning artificer. Which is best? He who serves the populace.”

“On this farm there lived a good man.”

“Let the work be divided by a wise divider of work. Let the food be divided by a just divider of food. Let the pigs grow fat. Let the rats starve.”

“The others cheated him of his share.”

And so on.

Of course the story and its interpretation are fanciful. A functioning language has to be more than a collection of stock phrases. But the story illustrates something about the way real languages work. People don’t just communicate by encoding and decoding literal meanings, but by inferring one another’s communicative intentions, always thinking “I wonder what he meant by that.” There’s a whole branch of linguistics, linguistic pragmatics, that studies how this works. And pragmatic inference in language is just one instance of a special, powerful human aptitude for creating shared intentions. This aptitude means that there are always ways to subvert official speech, in any language, even Ascian or Newspeak. Or Korean: the news several years ago was that North Korea had banned sarcasm.

Officials told people that sarcastic expressions such as “This is all America’s fault” would constitute unacceptable criticism of the regime.

Gene Wolfe was a combat veteran of the Korean War. He died this year.

The Goodness Paradox

194 – 184 thousand years ago.

We’re now taking (pre)history ten thousand years at a time.

Earth Abides is an early (1949) entry in the genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction, with some haunting reflections on what it takes to keep a civilization going, or just a human community. In this case the apocalypse takes the form of a lethal infectious disease that wipes out well over 99% of Earth’s human population, leaving scattered survivors to try and put things back together.

The drama is low-key. If you want to read about the remnants of civilized humanity defending themselves against zombies, or venomous man-eating walking plants, or a horde of cannibal anti-nuke zealots, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The threat to civilization in Earth Abides is more subtle. The generation born after the die-off has no understanding of what they have lost, of what the collapsing factories and powerlines and machines around them really were, or how they worked, or how to get them back up and running. The older generation, without the institutions of a complex society backing them up, can’t supply enough discipline and punishment to pass on the arts of civilization. The young will grow up as illiterate scavenger-foragers, skilled with bow and arrow, well-adapted in their own way to a rewilding Earth. Ish, the protagonist, will end his days as the Last American (a fictional counterpoint to the real-life Ishi, the last Yahi Indian).

The community is nonetheless capable of reacting decisively when their survival is threatened.

One day a newcomer enters the scene. Charlie is talkative, forceful, charismatic. The kids adore him. It looks like he might even take over as leader of the little group. But it becomes clear that there is something off about him, even sociopathic. He can turn on the charm, but when thwarted he is menacing. He always carries a gun, but keeps it hidden. He is sexually abandoned. And, in a world without antibiotics, he is infected with a slew of venereal diseases.

Something has to be done about Charlie, and the elders of the group meet to decide what. Their options are limited. Keeping him locked up is not a practical possibility. They could banish him. But who is to say he won’t find a gun, and come back, looking for revenge? They could execute him. But what actual harm has he done, so far? They decide to settle the matter with a vote.

Em located four pencils. Ish tore a sheet of paper into four small ballots.

This we do, not hastily; this we do, not in passion; this we do, without hatred. …

This is the one who killed his fellow unprovoked; this is the one who stole the child away; this is the one who spat upon the image of our God; this is the one who leagued himself with the Devil to be a witch; this is the one who corrupted our youth; this is the one who told the enemy of our secret places.

We are afraid but we do not talk of fear. … We say, “Justice”; we say, “The Law”; we say “We, the people”; we say, “The State.”

Ish sat with his pencil poised … He could not be sure. Yet, at the same time, he knew that The Tribe faced something real and dangerous and even dreadful, in the long run threatening its very existence. … In that final realization, he knew that he could write only the one word there, out of love and responsibility for his children and grandchildren. …

“Give me your slips,” he said.

They passed them in, and he laid them face up before him on the desk. Four times he looked, and he read: “Death … death … death … death.”

Keith Otterbein is an anthropologist who did a study of capital punishment across cultures. He expected to find that capital punishment is limited to complex societies, used to enforce social hierarchy. Instead he found that capital punishment is a universal, present in societies from the simplest to the most complex. It is an option that even the smallest, most easy-going communities – like The Tribe of Earth Abides – may find themselves resorting to. We can infer that for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors have been carrying out group-sanctioned executions of individuals deemed anti-social and a threat to group harmony and survival. This is long enough to have had evolutionary consequences. Long before human beings domesticated the wolf, the wild sheep and goat, the aurochs, we may have been domesticating ourselves, weeding out the wildest and most dangerous from our midst, replacing the old tyranny of the alpha male with the tyranny of Custom and The Law.

The idea that human beings are in some ways like domesticated animals is an old one. It has recently returned to the spotlight. The extraordinary long-term experiment in artificial selection for tameness in foxes carried out by Nikolai Belyaev, Lyudmila Trut, and their coworkers in Russia has demonstrated that selection for tameness ends up selecting for a whole suite of anatomical characteristics as byproducts. Strikingly, many of the features that differentiate Homo sapiens hundreds of thousands of years ago from Homo sapiens today are also features that distinguish tame from wild foxes, and dogs from wolves.

Richard Wrangham’s recent book, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution connects the dots, setting out one long argument that an evolutionary history of capital punishment has reduced our disposition for reactive aggression (the hot-blooded, spur-of-the-moment, volatile, antisocial kind), while leaving intact our capacity for calculated, cold-blooded, proactive killing (“not hastily, … not in passion, … without hatred”).

Perhaps this explains a very recent finding in human evolution. Apparently 200,000 years ago, we were about evenly matched with Neanderthals, sometimes replacing them, sometimes being replaced by them. By 40,000 years ago however, Neanderthals lose out decisively to modern humans. It may be that what changed in the interim to give us the edge is that we improved our ability to get along peaceably with insiders (including distant insiders we don’t know personally) without losing our ability to apply lethal aggression to outsiders.

Speech sounds

Below are some reflections on language. There will be plenty more in days to come. For a science-fictional take on language, try Octavia Butler’s account of a world where language has disappeared, Speech Sounds. It’s one of her best. It won science fiction’s Hugo Award for best short story in 1984.

We’re now six months through the year 2018 at Logarithmic History. We raced through time at the rate of 754 million years a day on January 1. December 31 we’ll cover just one year (the year 2019) per day. Today, July 1, covers 29,037 years, from 531,725 to 502,689 years ago.

By today’s date, the universe is a lot more complicated than when we started. As we mentioned before, one of the major sources of complexity is the origin of new discrete combinatorial systems, made of small units that can be combined into larger units that have different properties than their constituents. Elementary particles are the first discrete combinatorial system to appear, already present in the early moments of the Big Bang. The different chemical elements are another major discrete combinatorial system. It took billions of years for enough heavy atoms, beyond hydrogen and helium, to accumulate from stellar explosions, allowing the complex chemistry and geology that we know on Earth. It may be that the paucity of heavy elements in the early Universe is what prevented earlier planetary systems from developing complex life.

With the origin of life comes another discrete combinatorial systems, or rather two connected systems: nucleotides strung together to make genes, which code for amino acids strung together to make proteins.

For the second half of the Logarithmic History year, we’ll be spending a lot of time looking at the consequences of another discrete combinatorial system: language. Or maybe, as with genes-and-proteins there are really two systems here: words strung into phrases and sentences, and concepts strung together into complex propositions in a Language of Thought.

The origin of modern human is one of the major transitions in evolution, comparable to the origin of eukaryotic cells, or of social insects. Language is crucial here: slime molds and ants organize high levels of cooperation, turning themselves into “superorganisms,” by secreting pheromones. Humans organize by secreting cosmologies.

Your cuisinart, a prehistory

A famous movie cut, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, transitions from a bone club, hurled aloft by an australopithecine 2.5 million years ago, to a spacecraft in the year 2001.

2001bone

Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, coming up with the plot for the movie/book, were influenced by the popular author Robert Ardrey. In his book African Genesis, Ardrey casts human evolution as a version of the story of Cain and Abel, except in his version the peaceful vegetarians (robust australopithecines) get clobbered by the club-wielding meat-eaters (gracile australopithecines).

We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments?

Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris, was much in vogue in the 1960s: Sam Peckinpah was another movie director influenced by him. Unfortunately his speculations on evolution and human behavior are probably not of enduring value: he had the misfortune to take up the topic too early to take on board the sociobiological revolution pioneered by William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and George Williams, and popularized by E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins.

Ardrey may not have been off-base in thinking that weaponry and warfare have been an important motive force in human biological and social evolution (moe on this later). But where early stone tools are concerned, a different segue, from Oldowan chopper to Cuisnart may be more appropriate.

oldowanpiccuisinart.jpg

Recent research argues that early hominins could have dramatically increased available food energy by pounding vegetables and chopping up meat into more digestible pieces. Tool use may have been an early step in our ancestors’ move to high energy diets. Meat-eating began to be important in human evolution around 2.6 million years ago. Somewhat later we see evidence that some hominins have lighter jaws and aren’t chewing as much. So to celebrate this early dietary revolution, here’s a recipe:

Steak Tartare

Place in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade:

1 ½ pounds lean beef (tenderloin, top round, or sirloin) cut into ½ inch cubes

Pulse until meat is coarsely ground, 7-10 seconds. Do not over-process. Remove meat to a chilled platter or individual plates and gently form into 6 individual mounds.

[Optional: Make a spoon shaped indentation on top of each mound and crack into each

1 egg yolk.]

Divide and arrange in small piles around each serving:

½ cup minced onions
½ cup minced shallots
½ cup minced fresh parsley
¼ cup minced drained capers
8-12 anchovies (optional)

Serve immediately and pass separately:

Fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce
Dijon mustard
Hot pepper sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt

From The Joy of Cooking 1997

Four legs good, three legs better

Having grasping hands (and having them coordinate with the eyes) is one of the important things that distinguishes primates from other mammals. And a special version of bipedalism, which allows hands to specialize for manipulation, and feet for locomotion, is one of the first things that distinguishes hominins from other primates, even before hominin brains get big.

You find the same arrangement — a pair of arms with hands and a pair of legs with feet – with most science fiction aliens. (For TV and movie science fiction this just reflects the fact that aliens, pre-CGI, were mostly played by actors made up with pointy ears or fur suits or whatever.) But there are wilder possibilities, with no Earth analog. One of the most imaginative is the Pierson’s Puppeteers invented by Larry Niven:

“…. I was fed up with humanoids. Chad Oliver in particular, an anthropologist, wrote story after story claiming that this is the only workable shape for an intelligent being. The puppeteers were my first attempt to show him a shape that could evolve to intelligence. …”

puppeteers

The Puppeteers’ brains are safely tucked away inside their bodies, but they have two “necks” ending in “heads” each including one eye, one mouth, and a set of “fingers” around the lips. And the body has three legs. Decapitation is bad news for a Puppeteer,  like having a limb amputated, but not a death sentence.

Even more exotic are Vernor Vinge’s “Tines.” These are dog-like aliens who have evolved a short-range ultrasonic communication system that transmits information at such a high baud rate that a pack of half a dozen separate organisms is integrated into an enduring single individual with a shared consciousness. Losing one member of the pack is more like losing a limb, or having a stroke, than like the death of an individual. The mouths of the pack act together, as coordinated as the fingers on a hand, allowing the Tines to build up a medieval level civilization. (Vinge is a computer scientist, not an evolutionary biologist, however, and he glosses over some potential problems in Tine sociobiology: “all for one and one for all” is all very well, but which member of the pack actually gets to pass on their genes when it’s time to mate?)

But we don’t have to travel to other planets to find alternatives to two hands / two feet. Elephant trunks, for example, let elephants browse while avoiding the need for a giraffe/diplodocus-style long neck. The trunks even have “fingers” (2 for African elephants, 1 for Asian elephants) that are sensitive enough to pick up a single piece of straw.

We’ll spend a lot of time on Logarithmic History asking how human beings got to be such an extraordinary species. Hands are an important part of the story, although the elephant case suggests that hands (or their near-equivalent) are merely unusual, not absolutely unique to humans and near relations.

The People of the Wind

146-139 million years ago

John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, used to challenge writers with new premises. One of his challenges was to imagine an alien that is to mammals as mammals are to reptiles. Science fiction writer Poul Anderson took up this challenge by inventing the Ythri, flying intelligent aliens of the planet Avalon, for his novel The People of the Wind. The Ythri were able to support the high metabolisms necessary for flight because they had a special system for supercharging their bloodstreams with extra oxygen.

Since Anderson’s time, we’ve learned that birds – and some dinosaurs – are actually somewhat Ythri-like. To begin with, consider non-dinosaur reptiles, like lizards: their sprawling posture means that their legs compress and expand their lungs as they run, so they can’t run and breathe at the same time. (David Carrier, a biologist at the University of Utah, was a main guy to figure this out.) If you had traveled back in time to the Paleozoic, before the dinosaurs took over, and if you had good endurance training, you would have found the hunting easy, because the sprawling reptiles of the time would not have been able to run away for more than a short sprints. The predators to worry about would have been ambush hunters, not endurance hunters.

Dinosaurs got around these constraints in the first place by running bipedally (although some later reverted to quadrupedalism). And it now looks like at least some of them also had the sort of respiration we find in birds. Lungs are only part of birds’ respiratory systems. Birds also have an extensive network of air sacs running through their bodies, and even air passages in their bones. Air moves in both directions, in and out, like a bellows, through the air sacs, but only one direction through the lungs. This allows for more efficient circulation than mammalian lungs, where air has to move both in and out of the lungs. Just recently (2008), it’s been shown that Allosaurus, only distantly related to birds, had the same system, so it was probably widespread among dinosaurs. This breathing system may have helped dinosaurs to survive low-oxygen crises at the end of the Triassic, and flourish in the low oxygen Jurassic and Cretaceous. It may also have helped one group of dinosaurs to evolve into birds.

Anderson’s book isn’t just about respiratory physiology. It’s also about perennial issues of loyalty and identity. Avalon also has human settlers, who have so absorbed Ythri values — some of them even yearning, impossibly, to be Ythri — that they fight for an independent Avalon against an expanding Terran Empire. (Compare the movie Avatar.)

We’ll have more to say about bipedalism and breathing — and language — when human evolution comes up.

Solution unsatisfactory

In 1940, when the world war in Europe was mostly England versus Germany, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a short story called Solution Unsatisfactory (published in 1941). Heinlein anticipated the development of nuclear weaponry, although in his version, the weapon took the form of a radioactive dust that could easily wipe out a whole city, instead of a bomb. In the story, the new superweapon raises the horrific possibility of mass annihilation. The main character, Colonel Clyde Manning, summarizes it this way:

Here is the probable future, as I see it, potential in the smashing of the atom …. Some power makes a supply of the dust. They’ll hit us first to try to knock us out … But our army … would have planes and a supply of dust somewhere where the first dusting wouldn’t touch them. Our boys would bravely and righteously proceed to poison their big cities. Back and forth it would go until the organization of each country had broken down so completely that they were no longer able to maintain a sufficiently high level of industrialization to service planes and manufacture dust. … The other nations would get in the game. It’s a vicious circle that cannot possibly be stopped until the entire planet has dropped to a level of economy too low to support the techniques necessary to maintain it. My best guess is that such a point would be reached when approximately three-quarters of the world’s population were dead of dust, disease, or hunger, and culture reduced to the peasant-and-village type.

After the dust has been used to force Germany to surrender, and after a brief nuclear war between the United States and the “Eurasian Union” (clearly the Soviets), Manning takes the only way out of the trap. He uses the new weapon to establish a world-wide military dictatorship, with a monopoly of airpower and atomic weaponry, staffed by an international military force independent of any one nation and under his personal command. The narrator concludes:

For myself, I can’t be happy in a world where any man or group of men, has the power of death over you and me, our neighbors, every human, every animal, every living thing. I don’t like anyone to have that kind of power. And neither does Manning.

Curiously, Bertrand Russell, later famous as a better-Red-than-Dead disarmament campaigner, followed the same logic in The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War, published in 1946. In his view, the future might hold an atomic war in which “destruction will continue until disorganization makes the further manufacture of atomic bombs impossible.” But there was a more hopeful alternative:

It is entirely clear that there is only one way in which great wars can be permanently prevented, and that is the establishment of an international government with a monopoly of serious armed force. An international government, if it is to be able to preserve peace, must have the only atomic bombs, the only plant for producing them, the only air force, the only battleships … Its atomic staff, its air squadrons, the crews of its battleships, and its infantry regiments must … be composed of men of many different nations; there must be no possibility of the development of national feeling in any unit larger than a company.

Sometimes you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, or at least threatening to break them:

Stalin … will have to be persuaded … to permit the creation of an effective international government. … The only possible way … is by a mixture of cajolery and threat, making it plain to the Soviet authorities that refusal will entail disaster, while acceptance will not.

I don’t know if Russell was a science fiction fan. (He did write some science fiction stories, which are not any better than Heinlein’s stabs at philosophy.) His agreement with Heinlein is more likely a case of great minds thinking alike – and in this case a little too rationally – about human affairs.