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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting but bound to be controversial, 2 Sep 2011
This review is from: Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Paperback)
I always assumed that language developed using sound rather than sight because sight would not be effective at night and because in some environments (dense jungles and forests) it is easier to hear than it is to see. But what Changizi argues in this most interesting book is that the reason we use sound rather than say hand signals as language is that sounds, not sights, signal events.

He explains: "Audition excels at the `What's happening?' sensing a signal only when there's an event. Audition not only captures events we cannot see...but serves to alert us to events occurring even within our view. Nonevents may be screaming visually, but they are not actually making any noise, and so audition has unobstructed access to events--for the simple reason that sound waves are cast only when there is an event." (p. 34)

You can have sights without events. You can look out onto a landscape and see a myriad of things without anything moving, without a perceptible event taking place. But (to reiterate) you cannot have a sound without an event. Sounds signal events and that's what we are interested in. Something that changes. And that is why our eyes are tuned to movement, because it is movement in the visual world that signals change.

In Changizi's use of the word "harnessed" we can see the interplay between the organism and the environment. In one sense "harness" means "to restrain"; in another sense it means "to utilize." From one point of view the organism is restrained by the environment; in another sense it utilizes the environment. This is particularly true of humans.

Aside from this however I am not sure that this clever use of the word and the idea of "harness" really adds to our understanding of how "language and music mimicked nature," to quote from Chingizi's subtitle. In fact, to make "language" itself a kind of actor that "harnesses" or utilizes our auditory system is really just a metaphor since language itself does not act. The tail does not wag the dog. It is our auditory system that uses sound from nature to form language that is congenial to our evolutionary makeup including especially our brains.

What Changizi demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt--and he does it in a most edifying and nearly exhaustive way--is that speech and music imitate sounds found in nature. Changizi categorizes these sounds into "three fundamental building blocks: hits, slides, and rings." (p. 35) He calls these "nature's phonemes" and goes on to show how spoken language is made up of various combinations of these basic sounds.

A lesser idea, that civilization mimics nature (p. 10), is the sort of idea that from an evolutionary point of view has to be true. Where would we get our ideas? From God? From Plato's ideal types? If it is not obvious that culture and civilization spring from the natural world it is because some cultural tools, artifacts and practices are far removed from their primitive progenitors. I am thinking of the spaceship from the Stanley Kubrick film, A Space Odyssey, 2001, that comes very distantly from the bone used as a club by an ape.

Perhaps it would be better to speak of cultural evolution as utilizing or "harnessing" the environment in such a way as to make it convenient for human beings. Changizi instead speaks of "culture's general strategy for harnessing us." (p. 199) But we are not being harnessed; we are doing the harnessing (and in some respect, we are harnessing ourselves). Changizi realizes this when he goes on to say (still on page 199): "The trick is to structure modern human tasks as tasks at which our ape selves already excel."

I think the reason Changizi insists on having this metaphorically backwards is to demonstrate the dialectic nature of the evolutionary process (whether biological or cultural). To understand this, consider that in order for our feeling pain to be adaptive at least two things have to happen more or less in tandem. One, we have to feel the pain as something we very much want to avoid, and two, the pain must come as a result of some environmental event that is at least harmful to our continued existence. What is being "harnessed" here? The pain is being utilized (harnessed) by the organism as a means to alter behavior. One can speak (as Changizi might) that the pain is harnessing the organism to behave in a manner consistent with its survival, but this would be metaphorically speaking.

In the conclusion in the final chapter entitled "So What Are We?" he writes, "Language and music are evolved, organism-like artifacts that are symbiotic with...human apes. And like any symbiont, these artifact symbionts have evolved to possess shapes that fit the partner biology--our brains."

Okay, it's pretty clear what is at issue here: it is Changizi's idea that culture (in general) and language and music in particular are "organism-like" "symbionts." By definition and a long tradition in biology a symbiont is an organism, not an artifact of culture or even a meme. Changizi makes the very important point that we cannot understand humans or any organism without also understanding its environment and how it interacts with that environment. But I don't think it serves more than an illustrative purpose to call elements of culture symbionts; and I am willing to bet that the establishment in evolutionary biology is not going to be giving Changizi any high fives.

Still I think it is instructive to see language and culture in this manner as long as we realize that human beings in interaction with the environment create culture which in turn becomes part of our environment which in turn influences further cultural changes--all the while keeping in mind that culture is not alive in the same sense that biological organisms are.

For those readers expert in music and linguistics (which I am not) this book should prove to be an additional source of excitement and illumination because of Changizi's creativity and his obvious erudition and enthusiasm.

The World Is Not as We Think It Is.
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