What would happen if new age ideas were left alone to evolve? And other language-related wibble.

We think of language as a tool for understanding the world - the instruction set used to construct a rational world view. Language and logic have come to be intimately tangled.

But language didn't evolve as a tool for understanding the world - at least, not in the way I've just described - any more than ant pheromone trails did. So there's actually no a priori reason to expect a venn diagram of language and logic to have any overlap. There is a sense in which highly evolved systems can be said to represent an 'understanding' of the environment they're embedded in, but that's not what I mean.

The common thread in the adaptive landscape examples is a mix of adaptation and 'magic' - a web of concepts and speech acts that tie people, place and worldview into a coherent, functioning whole. Lansing in particular does a superb job documenting how an imposed, abstract set of modern ideas about rice-growing were unable to 'see' the Balinese reality because it placed it all the 'superstitious gibberish of no possible value' category.

Those systems make perfect sense if language is seen as a social phenotype like ant pheromones. Yes, there is now a strong bond between language and logic that has gifted us with a collective ability to build a coherent, systematic view of the universe, and one that we can accept as real. There really are billions of stars in the milky way, billions up billions of galaxies in the visible universe. None of that is accessible to us without that bond.

But this social ability of ours should have the power to shock us - as should, say, our ability to read. What on earth prepared the brain for that astounding leap? Converting marks on paper, in neat rows, into comprehensible language? HOW? What else could we do collectively with our language tools?

What I'm trying to get at: there was nothing inevitable about these language features we now take for granted that got built on top of our evolved abilities. And the ones we now have perhaps blind us to the possibility of others emerging. More than that, they may rip them from their mulch just as they're producing the first fresh leaves of growth.

It always amuses me to imagine this happening to New Age ideas - perhaps left alone for long enough, some of them could develop into a genuinely functional social technology, a 'living, breathing, evolving thing: a creature whose sinews were made up of people, story and land'. All the rational snottiness directed at the logical ridiculousness of the ideas involved would be completely missing the point.

Not quite sure I really buy that argument! But that example does highlight why that maybe can't happen. How much scope for organic growth can there be in a world dominated by other, much more powerful social phenotypes that would lay on it like a thick blanket blocking out the sun? On a planet encased in a twenty-four hour clock and so many of us marching so precisely to its pattern? (And anyway, so many New Age ideas are entirely with the grain of that system: commoditised, accessorised, usually appropriated from long-dead cultures in which they may have had actual life.)

There's a cosmic implication too! It's a super-exciting time to be looking at the skies as we're discovering possibly habitable worlds. (That one may be tidally locked - someone's bound to have written some sci-fi about a world with a permanent dark side, right?) And it's fascinating to see how much our search is directed at discovering any other form of life - bacteria, whatever. We don't want to be alone. We want to be part of a much larger story.

To get back to the theme: the Fermi paradox tells us we should, by all rights, be part of a teaming galactic neighbourhood of civilisations. A possible reason I think we're not - perhaps a cross between 'humans are not listening properly' and 'no other intelligent life has arisen' - is due to our misunderstanding this unique, ever-so narrow path language has taken us on.

We see a parochial sliver of the universe, abstracted to the level of our symbolic understanding. This leads us to naturally assume logic and reason must necessarily emerge, as rivers flow to the sea (hence the content of the Arecibo message). But other worlds' views of the cosmos could have taken such radically different paths that, say, the double-slit experiment could be quotidian experience not worth noticing and no form of systematic logic may be part of them.

I'm going a bit 'life Jim but not as we know it' now, but... yeah, that. A famous sci-fi horror story I won't spoil by naming is about a space-faring species who were fiercely technologically advanced but essentially animals. They'd found a particular survival route that built on none of the things we assume must be its predicates.

Plenty of species have independently evolved distributed phenotypes. But as Terrence Deacon says right at the start of the Symbolic Species, when a child asks him why no animals have rudimentary versions of language, humans' particular social phenotype turned out to have some thoroughly unique properties. Life may emerge in many places in the universe - but perhaps this particular ability is phenomenally rare. And even then, there appears to be no reason to expect a smooth slope from language-as-adaptive-landscape to a social lens for seeing the entire cosmos.
New year's earnestness 4/17. We'll see if I can catch up on the missed week!

Adaptive landscapes 2

Back in 2009, I was talking about adaptive landscapes: three real places and the quite different systems that human communities had evolved there to manage them. That was just before the PhD let go of those strands to focus on spatial economics (I'd been, hubristically, trying to combine all those up to that point). Two of those communities are concrete examples of non-centralised social technologies[1] achieving specific resource goals. The Balinese rice system constrains water use in a way that optimises the balance between pest management and productivity. Andean potato production was a magical innovation machine and living, breathing laboratory spread over the hills.

This stuff is still very dear to my heart, and flowed directly from the questions in the original PhD proposal. I want to get on to the adaptive landscapes stuff, but let's lead into that by answering a more straightforward bit from PhD #1.0. Top of the list: was Hayek right about the sacredness of the price system? Was its 'spontaneous order' a singularity in human history, requiring any attempt at planned interference in human affairs to be suppressed? Given what I've just said about Bali and Peru – guess what? Shock: no, I don't think he was. He correctly identified the price system as a distributed social technology, emerging from the uniquely human mix of evolution and language. But, far from being astronomically unlikely, there's evidence that humans are primed to create this sort of structure. I've long entertained a notion that adaptive landscapes are intimately related to the emergence of language itself, Wittgenstein's notion of meaning as a kind of flock tying nicely to that.

Whether that's true, or whether adaptive landscapes were a later innovation built on the platform language provided, makes little difference to their riposte to Hayek: we are natural-born de-centralisers, and we can make systems as diverse as you can imagine. Deifying the price system? Educating the socialism out of people (Hayek acknowledged people have altruistic instincts early in life) so's they didn't get the urge to meddle? Silly.

That's a gross over-simplification of Hayek's thinking and, in particular, I do partly buy his aversion to "planning blindness" and his view that social change should be more like gardening than engineering or construction. (Planning blindness nearly broke Bali's rice management system, for instance.) But it's clear that, if we followed his manifesto to the letter, new adaptive landscapes would have immense difficulty taking root, let alone blossoming.

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