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Robert Pennock’s Book of Babel:

Charles DeWolf holds a PhD in linguistics and is professor in the Faculty of Science and Technology, Keio University, Yoko Hama, Japan.

“Creationists,” writes Robert T. Pennock, “are building a tower to heaven, and they are raising the banner of antievolution upon its ramparts.” To punish the upstarts, Pennock volunteers his services as a latter-day Jehovah. Unlike the Biblical deity, however, he is of liberal mind: rather than destroy the tower and scatter the inhabitants, he would merely bolt the doors and leave the sundry inhabitants in intellectual quarantine, lest their babble contaminate the one true language of Darwinism, disrupt the ideological harmony of the American classroom, and ultimately threaten the nation’s freedoms.

Tower of Babel is not so much a defense of evolutionary theory as it is another salvo in the ongoing culture wars, a call to the scientifically and politically enlightened elite for battle against the dark forces of superstition, speciesism, and, of course, homophobia. An assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin when he published his book, Pennock claims that he does “not mean to attack the sincerity or intentions of creationist believers” and even offers his membership in the Society of Friends as evidence of sympathy with unpopular religious movements.

Somewhat in the manner of a patient, if condescending, schoolmaster, Pennock explicates such elementary evolutionary doctrines as randomness and natural selection, though it is not clear who his intended pupils are. He seems rather to be seeking the approval of the already converted by heaping scorn on the heathen. In fact, whenever he shifts to the critics of evolutionism, whatever their stripe, he clearly revels in ridiculing the unwashed.

As a defense of evolutionary science, TOB may be dismissed as amateurism, but then its purpose lies elsewhere. Though accusing creationists, especially his chief target, Phillip E. Johnson, of “demonizing” their opponents and resorting to ad hominem arguments, Pennock paints those he would put in the Tower as dangerously ignorant, devious, fanatical, and undemocratic. In a particularly witless swipe at Prof. Johnson, he writes:

“If in some future edition of his textbook on criminal procedure Johnson adds a chapter on how to prosecute witches and lets trial lawyers know how to evaluate ‘evidence’ for the interventions of other supernatural intelligences, then maybe scientists will begin to take him seriously. I expect, however, that we will have to wait for the hexed cows to come home before that day arrives.” (p. 300)

Meandering through TOB’s eight chapters of grossly overwritten text, with all its red herrings, dubious analogies, and factual errors, one must resist the temptation to join in the wild-goose chase by taking on Pennock point-by-point. I shall therefore leave the task of a broad critique to the better qualified and restrict myself to those aspects of the book relevant to my own field of expertise: linguistics. My focus is on Pennock’s attempt to relate evolution to language, as found in Chapter 3 (“Tower of Babel”), the longest section of the book and, at least to judge from other reviews, the most notable.

I should say at the outset that while I am not formally affiliated with any camp in the evolution debate, I am a firm supporter of “science”–as opposed to what has aptly been called “scientism.” For the sake of full disclosure, I shall, like Pennock, note my religious ties: I am a Roman Catholic, strongly supportive of the Church’s teachings in matters moral and theological, including those relevant to the relationship between science and faith. As such, I am not obliged to see those caricatured by Pennock as either allies or enemies, even if his book has had the unintended effect of making at least this reader more sympathetic to them.

As in the rest of TOB, the chapter that bears the title of the book jumps from topic to topic, but in the main it is a discussion of language; its arguments can be summarized as follows: (1) Linguistic evolution is an observable and indisputable fact; (2) between linguistic and biological evolution there are remarkable and instructive parallels. Pervading the discussion is the juxtaposition of linguistic scholarship with the know-nothing claims of those creationists who assume historical veracity for the Tower of Babel story as an explanation for language diversity.

Pennock reasons that as “the biological case [for evolution] touches the prejudices and the passions of the general public…,” readers might better come to “see the weaknesses of creationist arguments if they could examine them in a context in which they did not already have a preference for the creationist conclusions.” In choosing the origin of languages as his example, he claims that “the equivalence to the biological case is especially clear.”

If Pennock has any hope of persuading “the general public” (not, incidentally, known for its patronage of books published by MIT press), he gets off to a bad start with a sardonic and sloppy summary of Genesis 10-11. He claims: “As in other origin stories, the creation of languages allegedly took place at a specific time and place.” The more Biblically literate reader will note that the Tower of Babel story abruptly interrupts the plodding genealogical narrative with what is clearly the language of myth or parable. The time is not specified, and even the place-name Shinar, which occurs only in the Bible, is vague. What is clear is that the story represents an adaptation of a Near Eastern account of how a temple tower (ziggurat) came to ruin. Babel, the Hebrew form of Babylonian Bab-ilu, apparently inspired a play on words with balal ‘confuse’.

The point of the story is to reinforce the lessons of both the Fall and the Deluge. More precisely, it emphasizes the vanity of human pride and the absolute gulf between the human and the divine. To the extent that it attempts to explain the multiplicity of human languages, it has, whatever its historical merits, a considerable measure of sociolinguistic realism.

According to the logic of strict naturalism, the multiplicity of languages is simply the result of (1) the isolation of human populations and (2) linguistic change and development within each community. No serious linguist would deny that reality as far as it goes, but even the casual observer of rival ethnic groups will note that in our (now much celebrated) diversity there is more than a touch of perversity: language is all too frequently not the cause of mutual antagonism but rather its convenient symbol. In his monumental work After Babel, George Steiner (hardly one to be accused of creationism), commenting on the astounding number of human languages–estimated at no fewer than four to five thousand,–writes:

“Few modern linguists…have shown the curiosity which this situation ought to arouse. Where an answer is given at all, it is put in casually evolutionary terms: there are many tongues because, over long stretches of time, societies and cultures split apart and, through accretion of particular experience, evolved their own local speech habits. The facile nature of such an explanation is worrying: it fails to engage precisely those central philosophical and logical dilemmas which spring from the admitted uniformities of human mental structures and from the economically and historically negative, often drastically damaging, role of linguistic isolation. Turn the argument around: let reasons be given why the adoption by the human race of a single language or a small number of related languages would have been natural and beneficial. It appears at once that post hoc justifications for the facts as we know them are wholly unconvincing. The problem lies deeper.” (p. 56)1

My purpose here is not to defend the historicity of the Tower of Babel parable but rather to point to the false set of choices offered by Pennock: to assume either that God “created” human languages at Babel or that, in conformity to Darwinism, they “evolved.” First, the Genesis story speaks of the confusion or mixture (balal) of tongues, not of their creation. From the beginning, the Bible takes the existence and use of language for granted. We are told that Adam is given authority to name the animals in Eden, not how, unlike them, he has acquired the linguistic capacity to do so. Second, Pennock never gets around to telling us precisely what, in respect to language, he means by “evolution.” All he offers is a sketchy (and garbled) introduction to historical linguistics, together with the announcement of what is apparently for him an exciting discovery: language does indeed change.

Midway in the discussion, we are introduced to Sir William Jones, the India-based jurist, who in 1786 first elucidated the relationship between Sanskrit and the classical languages of Europe, thereby pioneering the way to the formulation of the Indo-European language family hypothesis. Jones is seen as having played the role of a linguistic Darwin, replacing the static, Biblically based view of language history with a rational, scientific, and naturalistic approach. Pennock comments:

“Jones was a revolutionary in his vision of a science of linguistics, but circumstances did not permit him to see his full vision realized. He had founded the Asiatic Society on the model of an ideal scientific community that Bacon had described in the New Atlantis, but he found that his fellow countrymen were not eager to include Indian pundits and scholars in their intellectual circle. Jones’s reputation and his profession of belief in God protected him from theological criticism, but we should not be surprised to learn that his view of the evolution of languages encountered some initial prejudicial resistance of a familiar sort.” (p. 135)

Even ignoring the anachronistic innuendo, we can easily see that Pennock is once again drawing a misleading dichotomy. First, the fact of linguistic change was as obvious to students of language then as it is now. In the preface to his pioneering Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, some 30 years before Jones’ famous lecture to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Samuel Johnson had even written of the inevitability of change:

“Of the event of this work, for which, having laboured it with so much application, I cannot but have some degree of parental fondness, it is natural to form conjectures. Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, will require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine this dictionary can embalm his language and secure it from corruption and decay…”

Second, to the extent that there were objections to Jones’s Orientalism, they were based on Eurocentricism, not theology. British classicists were scandalized by the suggestion that Persian literature, for example, could be compared and even equated with the literary heritage of the West. (As we shall see, such cultural chauvinism likewise affected those who Pennock would ask us to believe were evolutionary linguists.)

Samuel Johnson, a devout Christian, was haunted by a sense of sin and a fear of death and damnation; Jones, under the influence of Enlightenment thought and his admiration for non-Western cultures, was an early “inclusivist,” appalled by the notion of eternal damnation for unrepentant heathens. Yet whatever their theological or temperamental differences, Johnson and Jones were equally devoted to scholarship. Johnson welcomed Jones to The Literary Club, of which he was a co-founder; he also praised and supported his work. If Jones was not permitted to “see his full vision realized” (whatever that is intended to mean), the “circumstances” were simply his own mortality: he died relatively young, probably from exhaustion, while still in India.

Already in the 18th century, pace Pennock, the likelihood that the well-known languages of the West were related to each other had long been taken for granted. In this, traditional interpretations of the Bible, far from being discouraging, were, in fact, supportive. If, as was believed, all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve, then their languages likewise were presumably derived from a common “Adamic” tongue.

As Pennock himself points out, the language of Eden had been surmised to have been Hebrew. His obvious intent here, as elsewhere, is to highlight the folly of any history or science that smacks of the Biblical, but what is more interesting to the linguist is the essential correctness of at least two assumptions underlying the idea: (1) the universality of human language; (2) the possible interrelatedness, going back to the remote past, of languages now widely separated both structurally and culturally. Both of these obviously provided the basis for Jones’ s own hypothesis.

Great strides in linguistic science have been made since the time of Johnson and Jones. In his dictionary, Johnson makes an attempt at etymological analysis–again pointing up what was then a common premise, namely that words in different languages may share a common origin–but lacking as he did the benefits of the linguistic revolution that was to come, he is often wildly off the mark. Jones too, in suggesting that “the Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than Latin” (cited in TOB, p. 134, with a misspelling corrected here) may have encouraged the erroneous belief, espoused for a time by his successors, that the classical Indic language was itself the parent tongue.

What distinguishes the succeeding generations of language scholars, however, is simply technical knowledge, not overall worldview. Jones was ignorant of the First Germanic Sound Shift (Grimm’s Law), Grimm of the refinements formulated by Karl Verner and the neogrammarians, Verner and the neogrammarians of the phoneme, a cornerstone of modern phonology.

This is not to say that extra-linguistic ideologies have not had their impact on the field, but where they have been particularly influential, their effect has generally been obtrusive and harmful. Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949), the leading American linguist in the first half of the 20th century, was both a distinguished scholar and a pioneering theoretician. The negative side of his legacy was a rigid methodology derived from a diehard adherence to behaviorism. In the 19th century, the best object lesson is August Schleicher (1821-1868), a central figure in the both the theory of Indo-European and the description of individual languages-and, for Pennock, a visionary evolutionist.

Now Schleicher’s accomplishments as a linguist during his relatively short lifetime were truly remarkable, though for many years after his death his work was ignored or misrepresented. The student of linguistics who recognizes Schleicher’s name is most likely to associate it with a passing reference in a textbook, often with a critical aside, to his theories, not to his formidable and pioneering field work in Lithuanian and his extraordinary analytic ability in working with a broad range of languages to which he had no direct access.

Pennock has either failed to note or conveniently chosen to ignore the negative view that linguists have generally held of Schleicher the (alleged) evolutionist. It is equally clear that he has not bothered to read Schleicher’s strictly linguistic works (perhaps because they remain untranslated) and instead has merely offered his own positive version of what might be called the Schleicherian legend of a staunch Darwinian.

Schleicher, as Pennock concedes himself, has rightly been called not a Darwinian but a pre-Darwinian. The German words he repeatedly uses, Werden and Entwicklung make one think more generally of Herder, Goethe, and the Romantics. The use of Entwicklung is significant, for though it is commonly used today in reference to Darwinian evolution (Entwicklungstheorie), its general meaning corresponds both semantically and componentially to development. Writing in English, the Orientalist and linguist Max Müller said of himself: “If Darwinism is used in the sense of Entwicklung, I was a Darwinian…long before Darwin.” 2

By the time Schleicher read the German translation of The Origin of Species, his views were already well-established – and clearly documented in his published works. These included: (1) the insistence that language should be treated as a natural phenomenon, governed by fixed and observable “laws” (Gesetze); (2) the conviction that languages are like living organisms (Organismen) and may usefully be described as such, with generous borrowings from biological terminology. The technical vocabulary used by linguists today still reflects that influence. The term morphology, for example, discussed below, was coined by Goethe and intended by him to be, as the word itself implies, the “study of forms,” including both formation and transformation; first used in biology; it was introduced to linguistics by Schleicher. In descriptive morphology, we refer to “roots” and “stems”; in genetic or historical linguistics, we still speak of languages as having “ancestors,” “parents,” “sisters,” and “descendants,” as though they were, like ourselves, biological entities.

Schleicher’s linking of linguistics to biology was in part a reflection of his own training and interests, but it also sprang from his view that the field (die Linguistik or die Glottik, as it seems he would have preferred to call it) should be sharply distinguished from die Philologie. Schleicher writes:

“Philology has material available to it only when there is a literature; it makes use of language as the organ through which it documents the spiritual life of the people who speak it. The linguist, on the other hand, can be intensely interested in a language whose speakers have not the slightest inkling of the art of writing. For him, the existence of a written tradition is merely a welcome means for more precise investigation…

“The philologist is concerned with history, which emerges when free human will comes into existence. The object of linguistic studies, by way of contrast, is language, whose nature is such that the individual is as incapable of consciously determining it as is the nightingale of taking on the song of the lark…” 3

It is significant that in at least two respects Schleicher’s standpoint is close to that of modern linguistics: first, the idea of spoken language as the primary object of linguistic interest; second, the insistence that the entity of language is vastly greater than our conscious grasp of it. As can be seen in any introductory textbook, linguists set as their goal the understanding of linguistic “rules” in the most fundamental sense of the word, not as a set of prescriptivist norms taught by the stereotypical schoolmarm, waging war against “I was laying on the beach.”

As such issues have a direct bearing on the subsequent discussion, some elaboration may be helpful. In the case of lie/lay (< Proto-Germanic *legh-/ *lagh-eya-), the linguist is interested solely in how such intransitive-transitive/factitive verb pairs came into existence in Indo-European, how the suffix element became obscured in Germanic, and how their number has been reduced, particularly in English. In “The ships sank” and “We sank the ships,” there is no morphological distinction in the verb forms, cf. German: “Die Schiffe versanken”; “Wir versenkten die Schiffe.” Those prescriptivists who complain about lay being used for lie, the linguist argues, should, if they are consistent, be similarly disturbed about the lost of transitive/factitive sench, obsolete since about the beginning of the 14th century.)

The point here is that linguists today are (at least in principle) “non-judgmental” about language variation and change.4 Languages and dialects differ from one another, Armenian from Zulu, Rhineland German from Bavarian German, Middle English from Modern English, but one is not superior or inferior to another, nor is there in language either progress or retrogression.

This is not to say that linguists, particularly those engaged in mainstream academia, are any more likely than other scholars to turn a deaf ear to the siren call of the Zeitgeist. Indeed, it is probably quite safe to say that among them the modern secular worldview, including dogmatic Darwinism, is as at least as firmly entrenched as elsewhere.5 My educated, if admittedly unscientific, guess is that those who publicly entertain heretical thoughts or doubts are rare.

Yet, in their own field, the great majority are distinctly non-Darwinian, at least in practice. Among the major reasons for this, that which is of immediate relevance is the enduring awareness of where their 19th century predecessors, most notably Schleicher, went wrong.

I should note here before proceeding that Pennock’s only qualification of his praise for Schleicher the linguist-cum-evolutionist is limited to his Stammbaum (language family tree) theory as an oversimplified picture of language diversification. Yet this, ironically enough, is from the standpoint of the modern linguist, a minor flaw–and, in fact, his model is still very much in use. What Pennock glaringly neglects to point out is the far more embarrassing error in Schleicher’s speculations about language change: the notion of typological evolution. As the issue is of some importance both in the history of linguistics and for our present discussion, some explanation may again be in order.

As non-Indo-European languages came to be better known, 19th century linguists attempted to formulate a typological framework for the description of their grammatical structure, specifically their morphology. The best-known and most enduring model was devised by the Romantic literary figure and Sanskritist Friederich von Schlegel. The three categories he proposed were: isolating, agglutinating, and inflecting.

Languages belonging to the first type, (Classical) Chinese being the best known example, are those in which utterances consist of a string of irreducible and invariable elements. In agglutinating languages such as Turkish and Korean, minimal units of meaning, again with little or no variation in form, are linked together to form words and phrases. Inflecting languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German, and Old English, are characterized by complex and only partially predictable variation of word forms according to grammatical environment.

Yu zai he li you. (Chinese)
fish be-LOC river in swim

Saingsen-i kang-eyse swuyong ha-n- ta. (Korean)
fish SUBJ river-in swimming do PRESENT ASSERTIVE

Pisces in fluvio nant. (Latin) 6
fish in river swim
‘Fish swim in the river.’

Modern linguists look on such categories simply as, at best, rough descriptive devices or rule-of-thumb labels.7 The morphology of Japanese, for example, is regularly treated as agglutinating, even though it is less consistently so than Korean –and even less so than Turkish. Above all, they caution against any association of such typological terms with notions of “primitive” vs. “advanced” or with cultural determinism.

It is precisely into such errors that Schleicher fell. Here Schleicher was misled not only by der Geist der Zeiten, as he readily calls the powerful influence on his views; there were also, ironically enough, the very achievements of his time. Language scholars had succeeded both in clarifying known linguistic history and in offering the means for reconstructing linguistic pre-history. Seeing the mists of the distant past parting and at the same time finding himself in the possession of vast new stores of linguistic knowledge, he mistakenly thought he had glimpsed enough to guess at where it all began and where it had gone.

Despite an obvious appreciation for Chinese culture as a whole, as widely shared by European thinkers since the Enlightenment, Schleicher looked on the Chinese language as exemplifying a primitive stage of language development, with agglutinating languages at the next stage, and inflecting languages at the pinnacle:

“We quite rightly expect that, for those languages whose historical course we are able to pursue, we observe them rising from monosyllabicity to agglutination to inflection. At first glance, however, we seem to see the opposite. The further back we follow a language into the past, the more perfect we find it. Latin, for example, is richer in forms than any of the living Romance languages. The Indian languages that descend from Sanskrit have sunk even further from the perfection of their ancestral tongue. Chinese spoken today is no less a monosyllabic language than that found inscribed on ancient monuments. In historical times, as we know from experience, languages decline, and never do we observe the birth of a new one.” (ibid., p. 11)

Now what is most interesting–and least Darwininan–about Schleicher’s vision of how languages develop has already been suggested above: the distinction between their prehistoric and historic stages, the dividing line being drawn by the invention and spread of writing systems. Schleicher seems to have supposed that once humans became aware of language, i.e. once they began to use language to think and talk about language, it ceased to belong to the realm of Natur and came instead to participate in that of Geist, that is, of history. (Here one clearly hears an echo of both Goethe and Hegel.)

Again, all of this is cause for squirming among modern linguists. Since the early 20th century, thanks in large measure to the work of the Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the written word has been treated as subordinate, if not irrelevant, to the spoken word as the basis for language study. Somewhat grudgingly, linguists will concede that the reinsertion of [t] in often or the [h] in herb can be best explained as instances of “spelling pronunciation,” but even then the influence of writing is considered to be minor in ongoing linguistic change.

More importantly, linguists today firmly reject the notion that any language or morphological type is in any way more “primitive,” i.e. structurally closer to primordial human speech or that, in Spenglerian fashion, languages “decline” (Sprachenverfall). This is not merely an expression of political correctness; it is also based on a vastly expanded store of knowledge regarding language change, language diversity, and language universals, all of which discourage the idea that one language (or form of a language) is superior or inferior to another.

There is moreover a fuller realization that all known languages, whether living, extinct, or reconstructed, are ultimately as modern as modern man. While archeologists, with ample physical evidence, can speak of technological advances in the history of tool-making, linguists have no grounds for postulating any developmental parallel regarding human speech. The most thorough and ingenious methods of linguistic research take us back a half dozen millennia or so, but even if that represented a significant fraction of human beings’ history as language users, which it most probably does not, the evidence it offers for linguistic evolution would still be negative. While the forms are doubtlessly in constant flux, the overall lesson to be drawn is: Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose. Even if we were to surmise that the language of the earliest Paleolithic humans was qualitatively different from that of Neolithic Austronesians or early Iron Age Indo-Europeans, we have neither theory nor empirical data to test the hypothesis.

Of course, all of this flies in the face of the “commonsense” that is likely to inform the thinking of those better acquainted with the spirit of evolutionism than with linguistics. The idea that language is a biological mechanism such as a wing or a tail or an artifact such as an axe or a semi-conductor and that speech must have gradually “evolved”–from squeals and grunts, through the “Me-Tarzan-you-Jane” talk of the cartoonist’s caveman, to the discourse of Plato–is so deeply ingrained that teachers of introductory linguistics must regularly take it upon themselves to disabuse their students of it. Even the advent of multiculturalism seems to have done little to lay to rest the notion that “primitive” people speak “primitive” languages, with limited vocabularies and no word for numbers greater than 10.

(Click here for Part II)