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Conflict and regrets in standing up for principle

Early in October, I was delighted to receive an invitation to contribute to a symposium at Haifa University entitled ‘Homo Loquens: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Evolution of Language’, timed to celebrate International Darwin Day on February 14, 2019. The invitation came from Professor Nurit Bird-David, based in the University of Haifa and one of the world’s leading specialists in hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. I felt honoured to be offered an opportunity to speak at such a wonderful event, which, with its invited speakers from a range of disciplines including hunter-gatherer ethnography, seemed tailor-made for me. I have attended numerous conferences and organized a good many myself, but this one seemed specially promising. Might this prove a long-awaited opportunity to share my ideas with like-minded colleagues?

How language evolved in the human species constitutes one of the great remaining mysteries in science. The ability to speak is clearly part of human nature, but unlike all our other instincts and abilities, this capacity is without parallel in the natural world. Darwinian theory has equipped us to solve most other problems in human evolution, but here we seem to hit a brick wall. Noam Chomsky put it bluntly when he commented in 1988: ‘There is a long history of study of origin of language, asking how it arose from calls of apes and so forth. That investigation in my view is a complete waste of time, because language is based on an entirely different principle than any animal communication system.’

Aware of these difficulties, in 1996 I co-founded the Evolution of Language (EVOLANG) conference series, which has since become the main international forum for debating the issues. Since those early years, I have been exploring a controversial idea. I have always suspected that language must have had its origins in some kind of social breakthrough. The crucial factor was a political transition from ape-like hierarchical arrangements to hunter-gatherer-style egalitarianism. My thinking is that our pre-linguistic ancestors were intelligent creatures, quite capable of using symbols to share their thoughts, but remained trapped in despotic arrangements which blocked their potential to speak. Because words are so cheap, they are potentially deceptive, meaning that we can rely on them only where there is sufficient honesty and trust. When political dynamics are Machiavellian and conflict-ridden, as they are among apes, the levels of public honesty and trust necessary for language to work are simply too low.

Many scientists who oppose my work do so because they consider it too political. ‘What has politics to do with science?’, I am often asked. I agree that scientists must never bend under political pressure, whether from right or left. But sometimes, as with climate science, new theoretical insights may have profound and urgent political implications. When that is the case, we need to stick with the science, putting its policy implications first, irrespective of opposition mounted by non-scientists on political grounds.

My own view is that language is a social capacity and that its scientific study cannot be politically neutral. The prevailing view has for decades been quite different. The human language capacity has been likened to a mini-computer in the brain. Social and political factors are said to be irrelevant: we can allegedly explain language in a purely cerebral, brain-neurophysiological way. Humans, it is said, are equipped from birth with dedicated language circuits, whereas monkeys and apes are not. As a result of all this, the focus has been overwhelmingly on genetics and the brain’s innate architecture, not social or political dynamics.

My starting-point has always been very different. Since language is such a social capacity, it is sensitive to social conditions. Where evolutionary origins are concerned, the core of my work is the evidence I have amassed concerning the hunter-gatherer way of life, both now and historically. My colleague Jerome Lewis has been particularly influential here. When linguistic creativity began to flower among our prehistoric ancestors, it was because we had recently become egalitarian and emotionally relaxed, not constantly on guard against sexual and political rivals as chimpanzees are in the wild. When life suddenly becomes less grim, we feel free to joke, reveal our true thoughts and laugh uproariously together. Visit any hunter-gatherer camp and you will be struck by the almost constant laughter, humour being the main weapon used to stop ambitious individuals from aggrandizing themselves.

In my view, laughter and language evolved simultaneously. In arriving at these conclusions, I rely heavily on the theoretical insights of the great Israeli theoretical biologist Amotz Zahavi, extended from the study of birds to evolutionary developments in our own species. But while Zahavi is essential, my view is that no single theoretical paradigm quite suffices to crack this problem, since we are dealing with a vast jigsaw-puzzle. Everything we know about humans and animals must somehow be fitted in.

On receieving that invitation from Haifa University, I read it with pleasure. Moments later it hit me that I couldn’t possibly go. The symposium venue was Israel and the institution the University of Haifa. No matter how torn, I felt I had to respect the academic boycott which my union colleagues so urgently struggle to maintain. Nevertheless, my disappointment was huge.

I have vivid memories of the first meeting of the World Archaeological Congress, held at Southampton University in September in 1986. The labour-controlled local council had refused funding support for the 11th International Congress of the IUPPS, to be held in the city that year. Their grounds were that the International Union of Pre- and Proto-Historic Sciences were allowing archaeologists from South Africa to attend, in violation of the United Nations- sponsored academic boycott. The local organizers upheld Southampton’s decision to enforce the boycott. The IUPPS responded with outrage and the entire Israeli delegation withdrew, along with all but a handful of North American archaeologists. This turned out to be the birth of the World Archaeological Congress. From that moment, we declared that science, far from being politically neutral, is always a value system which reflects dominant interests. We added that although science ought ideally to be open to all, political action may be needed to make this a reality.

I was there, and remember both our collective pride in our moral and political resolve but also our sadness and pain. Those colleagues from South Africa whom we had excluded were (mostly) hostile to apartheid and their exclusion was a great loss to us in terms of science. Their absence was particularly severe in my own specialist area of human origins, since southern Africa was the very place where so many critical developments in the evolution of language had occurred.

I am still politically active. Among other things, I am known as one of the founding editors of Jeremy Corbyn’s long-established journal Labour Briefing. I also co-organize a popular outreach anthropology lecture series at University College London, the Radical Anthropology Group. Our ‘No Borders’ political activism is inspired by the example of egalitarian hunter gatherers who, to this day, view fences and territorial borders of any kind as an affront to human freedom and dignity.

There is irony in the fact that while, for example, Israeli child psychotherapists are world-renowned, and while Professor Nurit Bird-David has contributed powerfully to explaining and celebrating the inclusive, ‘no borders’ outlook of extant hunter-gatherers, the state of Israel now polices a border with Gaza along which unarmed Palestinian demonstrators including children are regularly shot at with live fire.

Recalling apartheid South Africa’s ‘separate and unequal’ legislation, Israel’s recently enacted nation-state law clarifies that Israel is an ethno-nationalist state, by definition a racist state, which ‘views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value, and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation’. This constitutionally enshrines Jewish supremacy, telling Arab, Druze, Christian and other citizens that they are not equal.

All of this is so tragic. Instead of retreating behind our walls, we need to stretch out our hands across our ravaged planet’s oceans and barricades. Although she does not support BDS, Professor Nurit Bird-David sympathises with my position, while expressing pride in the fact that the University of Haifa is the most pluralistic institution of higher learning in Israel. I should add that the Israeli Anthropological Association (IAA), of which Professor Bird-David is past President, has taken an admirably principled stand, for example by refusing cooperation with the exclusionary Israeli educational institutions now operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. According to a recent statement from the Israeli Anthropological Association’s current President, Professor Nir Avieli, his organization has ‘chosen to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people in general, and in particular with Palestinian students and academics whose right to an education is violated by the establishment and maintenance, in their own territories, of institutions which they are barred from attending.’

While respecting the boycott, I am concerned not to endanger the internationalist links between anti-racist archaeologists and anthropologists in Britain and our colleagues struggling under much more severe pressures in Israel. I cannot possibly go, but what a wasted opportunity this is.

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Labour's education policy after Conference