Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Sufis - by Idries Shah

Book Review: The Sufis by Idries Shah

This has got to be the quintessential book about the Sufis, their lore, and their history. It is quite comprehensive and represents an admirable survey of a vast topic. The Sufis are hard to confine into an easy classification. They are often considered an Islamic sect but as Shah points out they are not exclusively associated with Islam. It is just that they so happened to reach their greatest flowering among Islamic societies. There are Christian Sufis and secular Sufis and Sufis influenced by various paganisms, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even shamanism. The Sufis inherited much of the Neo-platonic tradition and alchemical lore of Alexandria which was quite well developed.

This book is a gem of lore, of keys to cryptic Sufi customs, of teachings, and of the little know influence of the Sufis on various Western traditions – particularly those that came through the Spanish Arabs known as the Saracens. The Sufi traditions and literature are extensive, appearing in many places and times from the Islamic period onwards and  having sources previous to the Islamic period. Though Shah suggests Sufism as a kind of Universal Esotericism there are quite potent cultural and religious influences as well in various places and times. In most cases it accords with an inner version of Islam but often there was discord between this inner form and the outer exoteric forms of Islamic theology. Some Sufis were beloved of Islamic rulers and scholars, others were persecuted and martyred. According to Shah in the early days of Sufism it was important to speak allegiance to Islamic theology in order to be left alone. The Wisdom traditions of the Egyptian, Persian, and Byzantine empires were able to reconfigure at least somewhat in Sufic forms. Sufism certainly re-gathered the alchemical and Neoplatonic traditions that would later fuel the Renaissance.

Shah warns against classifying Sufism in specific ways, suggesting that it is an esoteric form that appears to fill a need, arising, flourishing, and disappearing as needed. Throughout the book he examines and expounds various Sufi word plays based on multiple and alternative word meanings in Arabic, but occasionally extending to other languages as well such as Persian and Spanish. Indeed the word ‘sufi’ seems to have a resemblance to the Greek word for wisdom ‘sophia.’ Even so, Sufism is more mystical than philosophical so preaching and debating about concepts and precepts are typically not a feature. Sufism is esoteric and mystical and so symbolic and suggestive rather than a literal tradition as the main forms of both Islam and Christianity have become. He suggests Sufism as a perennial tradition where comparisons were made among mystics of different types and sects. Shah notes the Sufi psychological views of Ghazali and Ibn El-Arabi as being legitimate precursors of the ideas of Freud and Jung. It cannot be denied that the Sufi schools and wisdom societies were the models for freemasonry and other traditions of the Middle Ages.

Shah gives detailed chapters on the most famous Sufi teachers and societies. The first is on the Mulla Nasrudin. I read these stories when I was in college from beautifully illustrated books and enjoyed them. Nasrudin was wise, witty, courageous, practical, and utterly hilarious at times. These are clever tales, often referred to as “subtleties.” They date from the 13th century or earlier and have certainly influenced later tales such as those of Don Quixote, whose Arabic origins are established, and some of those stories are the same stories as Nasrudin tales. Nasrudin doesn’t have a history, only stories. Thus he is sometimes considered a figure concocted by the dervishes. Here is a quick tale that Shah relates:

“Nasrudin used to take his donkey across the frontier every day, with the panniers loaded with straw. Since he admitted to being a smuggler when he trudged home every night, the frontier guards searched him again and again. They searched his person, sifted the straw, steeped it in water, even burned it from time to time. Meanwhile he was becoming visibly more and more prosperous.

  “Then he retired and went to live in another country. Here one of the customs officers met him, years later.

   “You can tell me now, Nasrudin,” he said. “Whatever was it that you were smuggling, when we could never catch you out?”

   “Donkeys,” said Nasrudin.

These stories are reputed to have many meanings. The Nasrudin tales do show a similarity to Zen koans and Shah would have us believe that Sufis influenced Zen, which is possible but not at all established.

“It is believed that the mystical effect of seven Nasrudin tales, studied in succession, is enough to prepare an individual for enlightenment.”

Shah goes through many of these tales and provides Sufi interpretations.

“When a Nasrudin tale is read and digested, something is happening. It is this consciousness of happening and continuity which is central to Sufism.”

Nasrudin is certainly a version of the fool, the jokester, the trickster and one of the best and most effective versions. I can only recommend the enjoyment of reading and studying these tales.

Sheikh Saadi of Shiraz (1184-1291) is the next Sufi portrayed. His writings include The Gulistan (Rose Garden) and the Bustan (Orchard) and the – Scroll of Wisdom. According to Shah he had a strong influence on European literature, his works first being translated in the West in the 17th century. His works are said to be allegorical (as are many Sufi works) and to have especially influenced European allegory. Saadi notes in the Gulistan that:

“A conference of the wise is like the bazaar of the clothsellers. In the latter place you cannot take away anything unless you pay money. In the former, you can only carry away that for which you have the capacity.”

Saadi was one of Persia’s most famous poets and his tales are in moral allegories. The Gulistan is said to be the most widely read text of Persian literature and is thought to be especially suitable for youths as a preparation for later entering the Sufi path.

Next we have Fariduddin Attar, the Chemist. He wrote the famed Parliament of the Birds which Shah calls a forerunner of Pilgrim’s Progress. He also notes parallels of the Order of the Garter to Attar’s Sufism. Attar studied the biographies of previous Sufi teachers. He wrote about them in a work known as the Recital of the Saints. He is said to have been killed as an old man by invading Mongols (with a story there as well). The traversing of the seven valleys in The Parliament of the Birds is considered to be allegorical of Sufic development. These are the valleys of quest, love, intuitive knowledge, detachment, unification, astonishment, and death. Shah gives some interesting commentary on these stages. Attar was an organizer of Sufi knowledge and schools. Rumi is said to have visited him when Attar was an old man. Shah goes through the secret symbolism of Attar’s name through the Abjad system where numbers are attributed to letters in Arabic similar to the gematria of Qabalah. He deciphers hidden word allegories in Attar’s works as well. The aim of the Sufi is to manifest the “Complete Man’ or “Perfected Being” as an enlightened state. This is akin to and directly related to the “Great Work” of alchemy and the Western Esoteric traditions.

The next master is the famed Jalaluddin Rumi, maker of thousands of profound poems. He lived in Asia Minor and his works were written in Persian. Rumi died in 1273. Rumi as well as Attar’s Parliament of the Birds directly influenced Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. Although Rumi is counted among the greatest of poets from those who have read his works translated into English and other languages, Shah says they are even greater in the original Persian, fostering exalted states. He lists the most famous works of Rumi such as – The Spiritual Couplets. Rumi was a major influence on the Dervish schools. Rumi was not fond of dogma and promoted religious tolerance. Rumi’s poetry is full of aphorisms and practicality concerning the psychological and spiritual quest. Rumi was associated with the Mevlevi Order of dervishes. Rumi stressed that his poetry was a gift to others, particularly for their understanding: “What, after all, is my concern with poetry?” He saw his poetical work as being a good host to his guests. Here is a quote from Rumi about his search for Truth (or God) through examining different beliefs:

“Cross and Christians, end to end, I examined. He was not on the Cross. I went to the Hindu temple, to the ancient pagoda. In neither was there any sign. To the heights of Herat I went, and Kandahar. I looked. He was not on height or lowland. Resolutely, I went to the top of the Mountain of Kaf. There only was the place of the ‘Anqa bird. I went to the Kaaba. He was not there. I asked of his state from Ibn Sina: he was beyond the limits of the philosopher Avicenna… I looked into my own heart. In that place I saw him. He was in no other place…”

Ibn El-Arabi, the ‘greatest master’ was the most famous Spanish Sufi. He was from a Sufi family and his education was from the rich academic tradition of 12th century Moorish Spain. Shah notes that:

“According to Sufi tradition, Ibn El-Arabi’s mission was to “scatter” Sufi lore throughout the contemporary scene, connecting it with the existing traditions of the people.”

El-Arabi, like Rumi, was a master of mystical love poetry: “The sight of God in woman is the most perfect of all.”

El-Arabi was known for cultivation of the dream state:

“A person must control his thoughts in a dream. The training of this alertness will produce awareness of the intermediate dimension. It will produce great benefits for the individual.”

El-Arabi stressed Mohammed as the ‘perfected man.’ He spoke of not Mohammed the prophet but of Mohammed as the universal prophet, which includes all prophets – as a divine archetype. Jesus as the Logos and Mohammed as the Reality of Mohammed have a similar source, says Shah. Certainly the Jesus as Logos idea is Gnostic in origin. El-Arabi’s poetry has been described as sublime, full of fantastic imagery, and multiple meanings. His work has also been described as theosophical and full of metaphysical paradoxes. He was well loved and had a following but was also controversial and sometimes branded a heretic. He says of the universal esoteric form - of love, thus:

“My heart is capable of every form:
A cloister for the monk, a fane for idols,
A pasture for gazelles, the votary’s Ka’ba (temple),
The tables of the Torah, the Quran.
Love is the creed I hold: wherever turn
His camels, Love is still my creed and faith.”

El-Ghazali of Persia was known as – the Spinner, as most Sufis adopted a work title, acknowledging the value of trades. He was an orphan brought up by Sufis. He was also known as Algazel. He is said to have influenced St. Thomas of Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi. He is said to have further merged Sufism with Islam. He spent the requisite 12 years wandering and meditating that was the habit of the dervishes (and incidentally also of the tantric mahasiddhas). He was concerned with the alchemical transmutation of the human mind and not with intellectualism and scholasticism. He is said to have stressed experience rather than learning. Geber (Jabir the Sufi) was said to be the first Sufi. It was Geber that is connected to the preservation and transmission of the lore of alchemy. El-Ghazali’s books were burned in Moslem Spain but later he was acknowledged as a great teacher.

The works of Omar Khayyam, particularly his Rubaiyat is famous throughout the world – and in English translation by Fitzgerald. Shah notes that Khayyam was not well-known among non-Sufis even in Persian until after his works were translated and made popular in Western languages. He became very popular in England. Shah indicates his value as a Sufi teacher though he was not as well known in Islamic lands as the others.

Next he goes through the secret language of the Sufis based on the Abjab method of Arabic gematria. It seems one would have to know the language and be initiated into the codes, perhaps knowing Persian as well. He mentions a secret society called the “Coalmen” which in Italy was called the Carbonari, or ‘charcoal burners.’ Since the last of the Moors were expelled from Spain in 1601 many likely went underground to different places in Europe. Another secret society was called ‘the Builders.’ According to Sir Richard Burton, a prominent English Sufi, these were the Oriental parents of freemasonry. The level, the square, and the letter G – of masonry – can all be logically traced to Arabic origins. The so-called “Scottish Rite” may have a different meaning since Shah notes that ‘Scotland’ was a code for ‘Spain.’ The Masonic G, he says, is the Arabic Q. He goes through a lot of this lore. He notes that the color black was associated with wisdom due to Arabic word associations and this can explain a lot of manifestations of  black icons like the black virgins of the Middle Ages, the black stone of Mecca, the black head of Baphomet, etc. The Islamic alchemy from Hermes Trismegistus in cosmopolitan Alexandria through the Islamic alchemy of Geber to the Taost alchemy of China and the Christianized alchemy of the Rosicrucians and Renaissance magicians all likely intermingled through these Medieval secret societies of Sufi type. The symbolisms of Sufism and alchemy had much overlap. One of El-Arabi’s famous texts was called – the Alchemy of Happiness. Sulphur and Mercury and the Philosopher’s Stone were key components of Sufi alchemy. Geber (Jabir) the alchemist was said to be a close companion of the Barmecides – the barmakis – said to have been descended ‘from the priests of Afghan Buddhist shrines.” Sufi lore states that alchemy was transmitted through Dhu’l-Nun the Egyptian, the Lord of the Fish, a famous Sufi teacher. So in terms of the alchemical tradition the hybrid of Hermes-Thoth (and Mercury) is considered an early master of the Sufis. So Hermetic magic and Sufism share similar origins. Shah does acknowledge the earlier origins of alchemy in the Vedic elixir traditions and also rightly notes that the alchemy of the Taoists is an offshoot of the same traditions. Dante is even given in Sufic alchemical lineages as his work is well known to have Sufi influence. The same can be said of Bacon and Raymond Lully who pioneered Renaissance alchemy. The mage Agrippa is also known of the Sufis.

An interesting part of the book is the association of Moorish/Saracen traditions with European witch lore. Frenzied dancing of people under the influence of hallucinogenic plants could be traced to Saracens. The waltz (thought to have come to Europe through the Balkans) and the dibka, or Middle Eastern ring dance are thought to have come from them as well. Shah suggests that the so-called witch’s Sabbat comes not from the Hebrew word Sabbath but from the similar Arabic word – Az-ZABAT. The word ‘Athame’ he says, may have come from the Arabic Adh-dhame. The word ‘coven’ may well derive from the Hispano-Semitic kafan – referring to a shroud over the heads of “Revelers’.

Shah mentions the Aniza Bedouin clan as the bringers of Witchcraft and the Middle Eastern round dance to the West. He notes that these were likely pre-Islamic Bedouin traditions of desert areas. He associates them to the Cult of the Revelers – known to have been in the Syrian desert areas since at least the 700’s AD. The disciples of a great Aniza teacher were known as the ‘Wise Ones.’ The word ‘Aniza’ refers to the goat as a tribal symbol:

“A torch between goat horns (“the devil” in Spain, as it later became) symbolized for them the light of illumination from the intellect (head) of the “goat,” the Aniza teacher.

He equates the Bedouin tattoos with so-called witch’s marks and the use of the symbol of the goosefoot to represent a secret meeting place. Other strange relations of Sufi and European lore are the practice of the code of Chivalry which is well known to have come from the Saracens. The troubadours of the Middle Ages brought Arabian musical forms and love poetry. The Order of the Garter (of St. George) or the Sufic St Khidr is a cult that originated in Syria and became manifested among English royalty. Morris dancing is thought to have come to England and Holland from the Saracens of Spain – thus Moorish dancing. Before that they may have come from Arab Sufis. The figure of the jester, the fool, the harlequin is also thought to have been Moorish. The mystical head of wisdom associated with the Baphomet of the Templars is also thought to have referred to a Sufi custom of ‘making a head’ referring to pursuit of spiritual development. Albertus Magnus was said to have spent years constructing a marvelous brass head. Shah notes that the Spanish Arabic word bufihamat meant ‘father of understanding’ and as well Baphomet may have been connected to Mahomet (Mohammad) as the ‘perfected man.’ Albertus Magnus was thought to be well-versed in Sufic and Saracen lore. He suggests that the cross-quarter witch holidays: May1, Aug 1, Nov 1, Feb 2 came as well from the Aniza and other Arabs. He also attributes the widdershins (counter-clockwise) circumambulation of the witches as being sourced among Arabs who circle the Kaaba in this fashion.

Shah traces the influence of Sufi teachers and Saracen troubadours on St. Francis of Assisi and his subsequent Franciscan order of Christian contemplatives. Shah suggests other general communications of Sufic and Christian mystics – those interested in illumination beyond mere dogma. Even Shakespeare could be seen as Sheik peer in Persian.

Shah devotes a chapter to the Western Sufi – Sir Richard Burton – who also used an Arabic pseudonym. He translated works but is thought to have written some as well including the Kasidah – The Tinkling of the Camel Bell. He says Burton commented on Western methods of thought and philosophy from a Sufic point of view. The Kasidah is great contemplative poetry. Shah provides plenty of excerpts and I plan to read it soon as well.

“You are all right, you are all wrong,” we hear the careless Sufi say,
For each believes his glimm’ring lamp to be the gorgeous light of day”

Sheikh Shahabudin Suhrawardi (1145-1235) was a great teacher and organizer of Sufi Dervish methods and originator of the Suhrawardi Order. Colonel Wilburforce Clarke translated one of his works – The Gifts. Clarke gives one Sufi saying meaning that Sufis tended to shun asceticism and monasticism but to practice within every day life:

“Neither fear we hell, nor desire we heaven.”

Sufis are respected and associated with the ‘sincerity’ of the wise – by the common people and so the teacher is said to encourage the development of this sincerity among the students. He lists three stages of Dervish dwellers: People of Service who serve other dwellers, People of Society who work and bond through assemblies, and People of Retirement – those of age who spend more time in solitude. Dervishes traditionally spend time traveling: travelling within, traveling in one’s own land, and traveling to other lands.

Shah goes through many dervish customs and mystical philosophy. He mentions the Science of State (hal) where various ecstatic states are catalogued and practiced. The Baraka, or mystical grace-force-essence is key to the dervishes. There is also the Baraka of the Order or School itself – mostly carried by the teachers.  The ten veils, or ‘blameable qualities’ are given as: desire, separation (rationalization), hypocrisy, desire for praise and love, illusions, avarice and parsimony, greed, irresponsibility, haste to fatigue, and negligence. One may be encumbered by mystical states (hal), stuck in the rapture, being a mere inebriation mystic:

“A Complete Sufi may be called a Master of Time, meaning master of starting and stopping, of modifying cognition”

Outward detachment and interior solitude are goals of dervish practice. Suhrawardi was eventually executed for political reasons but managed to mold a vast tradition. Other Schools are the Chishti (musicians), the Naqshbandi (silent), the Kubravi, the Rifa’I (howling), and the Mevlevi (dancing). The styles refer to methods of development. Sufi organizations are said to be deliberately temporary and meetings without great regulation. Each school had markers like types of patchworked garb. Some meeting places had checkerboard floors – perhaps a precursor to the OTO Gnostic Mass temple format. Although Sufism is not associated with asceticism there seem to be many exercises of a mystical sort – similar to yoga and visualization yoga. Each school specialized in various techniques and one could be sent from one school to another according to one’s abilities.

Shah includes a chapter of a more modern inquiry of a Western seeker to a Sufi master that is quite interesting. The master points out the preconceived notions always apparent in intellectual approaches to knowledge and suggesst openness and detachment as a better starting point. This seems akin to the Zen ‘Beginner’s Mind.’

He devotes a chapter to the ‘creed of love’ brought to Europe by the troubadours, the wandering musicians. The Sufi poet Hafiz is a famed example of a love poet. To be a poet is to be a lover – it has been said. The troubadour influence was from Arabia to Saracen Spain to southern France and into Europe. It is thought that the Church adapted by further idealization of and devotion to the Virgin Mary. It should be noted that Sufi schools were very early in Spain – from the 8th century – since Arabs ruled there since that time – so this influence on Europe was long and probably came in phases. There were Jews as well in Spain and interactions among the intellectuals of all were likely.

There is a section on – Miracles and Magic. Miracles are seen in the context of how they affect the development of the student. One of their functions is to inspire in story. Magic is subordinant to the Great Work of spiritual development:

“Magic is worked through the heightening of emotion… Magic is a training system as much as it is anything else…. Magic not only assumes that it is possible to cause certain effects by means of certain techniques; it also schools the individual in those techniques.”

Shah mentions his view of the development of Cabala and Markabah Jewish mysticism as strongly influenced by Sufi ideas. The Jewish Yudghanites of the 8th? century were aligned with Sufism. Hebrew grammar was first written in Arabic under Arab philological rules. So there is very strong evidence that Hebrew grammar and Cabalistic attributes are founded on earlier Arabic models. Shah says that the 10 sephira were originally 8 in the Arabic system. This period beginning in the 900’s? AD is called the Judeo-Arabian period. The Arabized Jews of Spain were plentiful.

Other topics include more famous teachers, hidden Sufis, esoteric interpretation of the Koran, and Malak Taus and the Yezideh cult of the Peacock Angel. Shah gives specific Sufi symbolism to the Peacock Angel cult rather than the pre-Islamic Babylonian paganism sometimes attributed to it. He thinks that the Catholic rosary was adopted from the Saracens.

Tariqa is the Arabic word for path, way, or dervish order. It has many other meanings but it mostly refers to the Sufi habit or ‘rule of living.’

Shah mentions the Tarot as having an Arabic or Sufi origin – and subsequently playing cards as well. He says some current attributes are incorrect to the original system. Certainly the Sufis carried the Tarot lore and if this lore did not originate earlier in Egypt as is legend, they certainly preserved it and re-introduced it to the Western Esoteric tradition. He suggests the word Tarot coming from the Arabic turuk, meaning ‘four ways’ although the original Latin (and Hebrew) wordplay (Taro, Rota, Orat, Tora) differ somewhat – but Tarot is said to mean “royal path” or ‘royal way’ so not so different from the turuq meaning nor the Tariqa as well.

An Egyptian Sufi from the 800’s is thought to been in the succession of the Sufi Solomon and the Solomon Temple of the Masons may not have referred to the Hebrew Solomon and Temple but to this more recent Sufi Solomon and the 8th century octagonal Sufi – Dome of the Rock temple. This Egyptian Sufi mentioned founded the Malamati Sufi Order which like ‘the Builders’ has apparently been pointed out as quite similar to the Freemasonry.

Overall this is a fantastic book. Shah sometimes seems too Sufi-centric, giving the Sufis credit for the origins of nearly everything it seems. The level that he suggests that they influenced the Hindus and even the Zen Buddhists does not seem likely though certainly these currents cross-pollinated one another here and there. I would say that Sufi influence on European culture was considerable and has not been properly acknowledged and is not at all widely known. Shah wrote several books but I am guessing this is his Magnum Opus – for he was certainly a formidable Sufi as well.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans

Book Review: Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans by Derek Bickerton   (Hill and Wang 2009)

 This is a mind-blowing account of how we may well have discovered and developed both language and conceptual thought. By no means is this sometimes complex scenario certain but the logic is compelling and the story coherent even though some assumptions have to be made. Cutting edge ideas in evolution are all through this book. The author dukes it out with all the current ideas about language origins and points out many shortcomings. The book is fascinating and holds one’s interest well. The only problem I have with it is that he did not summarize enough after his initial arguments to package it up finer and into a more coherent whole. Bickerton is a linguistics professor but he is quite well-studied in evolutionary biology as well.

Bickerton notes that the question of language origins is very important in science for without language there would be no science. Language is perhaps what makes us human – or beyond mere animals. For all the great sensory and biological abilities of various animals it seems that language is of a magnitude greater. He notes that the evolution of language is a difficult problem to unravel. Did brain size and intelligence make language or vice versa. Or was some of the process co-evolutionary. These are some of the questions pondered. He compares the development of language in humans to the development of flight in insects. He thinks that language is the key to being human. Bickerton sees things more as a loop between genes and environment rather than as all genes a la Richard Dawkins. He also warns against regarding language as a target for natural selection. Many things have been proposed that caused language to be selected: “hunting, toolmaking, child care, social competitiveness, sexual display.” He debunks all these as triggers for language to have been selected but does note that they all have a role in the further development of language after a rudimentary functional language was in place.

He begins with a discussion of Animal Communication Systems (ACS). He points out that these are not at all similar to language and certainly not a close precursor to language – or rather, that there is no hierarchy from ACS to language. He goes through Marc Houser’s criteria for ACS – three broad categories that can overlap: 1) signals that relate to survival, 2) signals that relate to mating and reproduction, 3) social signals. These are how animals communicate in order to increase survival and reproductive success. So survival, mating, and social signals make up the full amount of ACS. The author points out that ACS are concerned with the present, that they are grounded in the here and now, and before language there is no real notion of past and future. Later he notes that animals have an ‘episodic memory’ which is a vague connection to the past, but do not really have memory or a real conception of past and future. Words and language, on the other hand, express qualities that go beyond the present. ACS are concerned strictly with survival fitness. Humans alone, he says, developed a need for language.

Bickerton analyzes and debunks language origin theories having to do with tools, hunting, sex, and grooming and gossip. He notes four tests that any theory of language must pass: 1) Uniqueness – why humans uniquely acquired language and no other species did; 2) Ecology – environment of humans that developed language needs to be taken into account; Credibility – the theory must be credible – he doses not really explain this condition well; 4) Selfishness – there should have been some selfish benefit.

Bickerton systematically rejects the idea that humans developed language as a function of increasing brain size. His conclusion is more that language allowed us to develop bigger brains rather than bigger brains being an impetus fro the development of language.

He goes through the development of language in terms of linguistics theory – from phonology – meaningless sounds, to morphology – sounds with meaning, to syntax – meaningful utterances that we understand as language.

One area of Bickerton’s expertise is with pidgin language development and here he sees a parallel to the development of early language where whatever worked to affect the transfer of ideas was used – words, sounds, gestures, body language, emphasis, etc. He does note his detractors who don’t think pidgin is a good model for language development. He sees pidgin as something intermediate between ACS and language as we know it, a protolanguage. The factor that language shares with protolanguage beyond ACS, he says, is ‘combinability.’

“Languages combine lawfully and protolanguages combine lawlessly. In other words, languages have all kind of constraints on what you may put together with what; protolanguages don’t.”

So language has syntax but protolanguage need not have it. ACS, he says, have no combinability and cannot have it. No precursor to syntax has ever been found in an ACS.

Predication, he says, is the precursor to syntax, and this requires combinablity (of sounds) in some meaningful way. Much of the search for the link between ACS and language has been involved with alarm calls among primates. They have different ones for different threats such as eagle, snake, or leopard, though these only refer indexically to the animals themselves or to threats from above, near, or below. He notes that some have tried to suggest combinability – of such things as calls for food and danger – but when analyzed they are two separate calls and not blended or combined into one.

ACS signs are indexical rather than symbolic – indexical signs point directly at what they refer to. Symbolic signs are not confined to the here and now and so are in the domain of language. He notes that both ACS and language are both informative and manipulative. ACS is primarily manipulative and only secondarily informative, while language is primarily informative and only secondarily manipulative. Information is only a byproduct of ACS. Manipulative signals are confined to the here and now while informative signals are not. He contends that symbolism rather than syntax is the uniquely human ability that allowed language to develop. In terms of development beyond ACS it was ‘displacement’ (in space and time beyond the here and now) that had to develop. Of the three types of ACS signals, it is only survival (and not mating or social signals) he explains that could have made the leap to displacement. ACS survival signals can be divided into alarm calls and food calls. Distance of newly discovered food and time to reveal news of such food is a candidate situation for displacement to have developed. There is a third class of signal different from the indexical and symbolic. This is the iconic, which is something that resembles what it refers to such as mimicking the noise a certain animal makes. This is the route (from icon to symbol) he thinks the development of symbolic language took. He gives the selective pressure as “the need to transmit information about food sources outside the sensory range of message recipients” and the means of doing this through iconic signs.

He talks a lot of the “primate-centric bias” where genetics is seen as the most influential factor on language development and perpetuated by the determinism of Richard Dawkins and many others and the focus on other primates in the search for the development of language. So ape ACS has been a main focus in this search. He goes through some theories where language is presumed to be derived from primate ACS – the primate gestures idea of Pollick and de Waal and the theory of the singing apes (as a pair-bonding mechanism) of Mithen. He re-iterates that ACS and language are different things – that ACS did not necessarily directly evolve into language.

He goes through and debunks the ‘talking apes’ experiments to teach language to apes and shows that it is not symbolic language that they are learning but an a learned extension of their ACS. He sees these experiments as teaching the apes a rudimentary form of protolanguage – with some combinability. He suggests that their neurology was altered in the sense that, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Homology is discussed – ie. genetic possibilities related to earlier animal forms that lie dormant in genes. Intra-species communication among other species, particularly social insects such as ants and bees indicates a latent genetic capability for deeper than ACS communication.

Next he goes through the very interesting theory of niche construction. In explaining this he gives the example of beavers. They designed their environments by making them but their environments have designed them as well – their tails, their teeth, their mouth configuration, their eyelids, their webbed feet, and their thick fur. As the author states it, it is a situation where:  “Chance + Necessity + Time = Perfect Fitness.”

“… it’s the interaction between genes and behavior that starts the evolutionary motor, and feedback between genes and behavior that keeps it going. That’s the insight that gave birth to niche construction theory.”

“… animals themselves modify the environments they live in, and that these modified environments, in turn, select for further genetic variations in the animal. So a feedback process begins, a two-way street in which the animal is developing the niche and the niche is developing the animal, until you get the lock-and-key fit between the animal and niche that makes people say, “But there must  have been a designer!”

In defining a niche Bickerton notes three components of a niche: 1) habitat – macro and/or micro, 2) nourishment, and 3) means of obtaining food or nourishment. Though one may not think of niches as being actively constructed, many are in nature. Farming is niche construction, including ants that farm fungi or aphids. Earthworms construct their niche. Termites construct climate controlled dwellings. The photosynthesis of plants constructs a niche that allows other species, those that breathe oxygen, to thrive. The bottom line is that it is not just the species that makes the niche but the niche that makes the species. Humans, he says, have the greatest capacity to adapt the environment to their own needs. So what he says is that the development of language among humans is a form of niche construction. Humans, it seems, constructed new niches at unprecedented scale and speed. He thinks that the search for a gene for language is ultimately futile as niche construction explains language development rather than genetics. He says that alarm calls did not morph into words but probably helped ready us for words.

His explanation begins with the niche carved out by australopithecines about 2.5 mya. Aside from possible endurance hunting and living in constant danger from predators due to their small size he thinks that these proto-humans ate by foraging and by scavenging. The scavenging hierarchy would have been led by larger fiercer predators with vultures at the lowest followed by the lowliest – the humanoids. He and others think they were last but they figured out how to crack bones and devour the nutrient-dense marrow. Bones of large herbivores would have been plentiful, long-lasting, and without competition. This nutrient-dense marrow may have resulted in increased brain growth. Even so there is only a small amount of marrow in bones. Dead megafauna would have been relatively abundant. These are large animals that could not be taken down by predators – things like mammoths and hippos. They have very thick skins that predators cannot rend until they decompose for a few days. The theory is that the humans – normally at the low end of the scavenging totem pole, found that they could go in before the predators and cut open the thick skin with sharp volcanic rocks or flint. There is evidence for this in the fossil record. Up until 2 mya the cut marks on fossil bones came after predator marks – suggesting humans utilizing the bones for marrow. After this time the cut marks seem to occur before the predator marks indicating that humans got there first. This indicates a new form of scavenging and the author places it in terms of ‘optimal foraging theory’ which states that, “… any species will choose, out of available foods, just those that yield the highest calorific intake relative to the energy that’s expended in obtaining them.” This change in foraging strategy would have required these early humans to range over larger distances than before – which is indicated in the fossil record. According to the theory the humans would have to find the recently dead megafauna, quickly gather sufficient numbers of humans with sharp stones to hurl at carnivores who would be hovering near and try to move in especially as they smelled the meat better as the skin was pierced.

Next he digresses to discuss evolutionary and development biology – known as “evo-devo” which suggests that homology is more widespread than thought. Homology means going back, sometimes way back, to common ancestors to see how features developed in some but not in others – though the genes they developed from are still there, latent. If a similar niche comes about in a totally different species much later on,  that species may draw on the same genetic material in a similar way. Here he is referring to the selective pressure of the need to transmit information about food sources beyond the sensory range of recipients of that information. Both ants and bees are able to do this. Bees do it through dance and reference to the sun’s position. Ants do it through shaking displays and chemicals. This transmission behavior can be seen as a form of recruiting. Some ants, like early humans, practice a fission-fusion feeding strategy, that is, they spread out and regroup and information is transmitted (chemically) about big sources of food. Ravens scavenge with a single carcass claimed by bonding pairs though a single raven may recruit others to drive off a pair. These are all homologies of recruiting behavior regarding food sources.

He suggests that a group ancestral to homo erectus broke of from homo habilis by going from catchment scavenging (bone marrow) to territorial scavenging (dead megafauna). This would require evolutionary changes over time – bigger size, ability to withstand thirst, better throwing ability, and bigger size. He goes through a scenario where these pre-lingual humans scattered in foraging bands – where one locates a dead megafauna and gathers others to hurry and butcher it while fending off predators with their numbers and hurling sharp stones. When a dead animal was located there arose the problem of recruitment, how to gather the other bands together quickly in order to get at the food. So iconic language – like the sounds of the dead animal were likely first uttered with a desire to utter notions like “come now!”  “this way!” One possible source of evidence is the large number of so-called hand axes found together – he suggests these were not hand axes but the stones hurled at predators. He suggests it was the women who did the butchering – being protected furthest from the predators, the stone-throwing men being more expendable. So this recruitment is a form of cooperation that yields benefit that can only be derived by gathering sufficient numbers. This situation, he notes, would require non-kin cooperation, which would have been a new thing.

He donates a section to the alternative ideas of language development put forward by Noam Chomsky. He disagrees with Chomsky on the ultimate origins of language but agrees with him on many other linguistics issues and is not at all part of what he says is an existing anti-Chomsky faction. Chomsky, an expert in linguistics, had not mentioned language origins until he co-authored a paper in 2002. Here a compromise was made where the ‘faculty of language’ was divided into a broad faculty (BFL) and a narrow faculty (NFL). Hauser, one of the co-authors, believes language to have developed due to natural selection. The notion of recursion – “the capacity to embed one linguistic structure within another of the same kind – one phrase, clause, or sentence inside another” was part of FLN – that which is unique to humans and specifically dedicated to language. FLB could have developed from other biological needs. I don’t quite understand all these features but the bottom line is that Chomsky etal were saying that animals first had concepts that would not merge with other concepts. When concept merging appeared the brain was re-wired. Merging then was further developed and complex thought, planning, and language developed. The author disagrees with this sequence. He thinks that though the early humans may have had some categorizing abilities, proto-concepts of a sort, that actual language appeared before conceptualization (which is often defined as language-based thought). Of course, after a few words were learned by necessity, concepts could be further developed and lead to more words in a feedback system. This likely did not happen quickly – at first, although once it began to really happen it may taken off. Categories, he suggests, can trigger episodic memories in animals neurologically as a threat or potential food source is located but if the threat or food is not potentially present in the mind, in the here and now, then the neurons won’t fire. Concepts require defining something when it is not present. If there is no threat or no potential satisfaction then there is no biological need for the idea. The neurons are related to the threat or the satisfaction rather than to the thing that provides it. When they become related to the thing then the process would be conceptual. He gives an analogy of RAM (random access memory) and CAM (content addressable memory) with computers. CAM is more complex and more energy expensive – more like real concepts versus survival categorization. So he is saying that words allowed concepts as we know them to form neurologically. He compares online thinking and offline thinking. Online thinking refers again to the here and now and offline thinking refers to ideation of things not present. After words were developed then thought and language could co-evolve. After rudimentary language developed then all the things thought to have started language like – “instructing the young, competing socially, displaying sexually, making artifacts, gossiping, performing rituals …” would be free to be enhanced and further developed. The vast time required for the extensive re-wiring of the brain would have taken hundreds of thousands of years and during that time the human brain did gradually double in size though no major changes in human tools came about (from 2mya) for about a million years.

The recruitment signals that went beyond ACS had functional reference, had displacement, were learned, and contained protonouns (names for species), and possibly protoverbs (“come” “hurry”). In order for language to develop these signs would have had to uncouple from situations, from the here and now, and from survival fitness. Words for past and future would have had to develop and cooperation beyond that required for fitness would have had to develop before these uncouplings could take place. That is why he suggests that language did not develop right away from these recruitment signals even though they were the first break from ACS toward language. He thinks displacement was the single most influential factor in developing symbolical thinking. He suggests that a recruitment signal for say “mammoth” may have been imitated by the young and gradually the signal sound gets divorced from the immediacy of the situations where it arises and eventually a representation forms in the brain. Perhaps there were ritual re-enactments of the scavenging missions at some point and this would reify the symbols in the brains. Once symbolic thinking developed the territorial scavenging foraging strategy could be improved by noting and communicating signs suggesting possible dying megafauna. Next he thinks came the development of syntax – maybe a hundred thousand years ago as he suggests – the development of barbed weapons suggested that syntax was appearing conceptually. The barbed weapon requires a sequence of events to be learned with regard to the weapon interfacing with the animal. In light of this he thinks protolanguage was like a pidgin language with emerging syntax. Then it became possible to link concepts into coherent trains of thought. He thinks that the earliest protolanguage contained very few words with no sound overlap and that vocabulary building came much later and that the development of vocabulary selected for greater phonological complexity. Gradually, as is now well known, we developed language faculties with which we are born. He says predication preceded true syntax perhaps in the manner of sequencing words as in pidgin. Words were probably originally linked as “beads on a string” and later developed hierarchical orders which became universal as true language developed. He calls language development an auto-catalytic process – one that drives itself – due to a need for greater effectiveness and to convey more in a short time period. Hierarchical structured speech is faster than pidgin. This structure is what Chomsky calls Merge. Brevity and clarity are other factors that get enhanced with structured syntax. Needs to distinguish things of different types and to qualify things are the types of things that led to greater complexity.

In the last section he analyzes and criticizes the idea of recursion – phrases within phrases. Chomsky uses it to argue that language is cultural rather than biological but the author thinks that the origin of language is ultimately biological. This seems a bit strange or rather obvious to me as it seems that culture itself is ultimately biological so the biological origin seems much more likely to me. 

Anyway – this is an awesome book that really opens up some thought about what it really means to be human.