Language is a Spandrel of the Mind

by Jonathan Wallace

I am reading Daniel Dennett's excellent Darwin's Dangerous Idea, in which he devotes some space to the concept of "spandrels" in evolutionary thought. A spandrel is more or less an accidental byproduct of something else of more adaptive significance. Later, the spandrel itself may become an adaptation, though it did not start out as one.

Dennett mischievously mentions in passing the theory that language itself may be a spandrel. In order for language to exist, the human brain had to reach a certain level of complexity; but the processing power of the brain may originally have been "selected for" in connection with an ability to hunt in tandem or throw projectiles. After enough generations of selection for these skills, the brain was powerful enough to create language.

A Martian with a sufficiently powerful telescope would presumably be startled by the apparent immobility of much of the human race every day (if he did not realize we were caught up in a web of words during this period.) A Martian tracking me today would have seen me uttering sounds on the telephone, tapping at a keyboard for several hours, reading a book, and then sitting in a nearby building staring at moving colors on a screen while listening to sounds. Nine hours have elapsed since I woke today, and though I am alone (on a business trip to Austin Texas) I spent roughly eight of those hours involved with written or spoken words.

The Martian would see us creating and consuming words and even buying and selling them (shades of Beckett's "Think, pig!") It would be hard for him, as an outsider, to understand how our abstract symbolic language has become so important that so many of us spend the majority of our time doing absolutely nothing else (such as hunting, farming, piling rocks on top of each other, tearing them down, or fighting wars.)

My father was a physician whose c.v. at his death included something like 140 published papers on gout and rheumatism. Before I was even born, he bought complete sets of Dickens and Twain to start preparing a library for his future children. He loved words, but at least some of the time there was an actual patient --a tangible person --involved in his work. Although part of his interaction with patients was carried out in words, there was also physical examination--auscultation, listening through a stethoscope--which for once bypassed language.

By contrast, I went to law school and so learned to sell words from the start. When I left the law, I became a software business executive. As I had in the law, for many years I measured success by the number of documents I produced. Instead of briefs, affidavits and motion papers, the word-receptacles became employee manuals, newsletter articles, requirements analyses. Recently, I noted that my day has changed to include almost no writing. Instead, I spend it in meetings, and talking on the telephone-- activities that seem to me more intangible still because they involve no printed "work product."

It was probably in pursuit of some deeply held need to produce words in a more durable format that I began publishing The Ethical Spectacle about the same time I made this transition. I could begin measuring my own sucess again via my avocation, in the production of so many essays per month.

Our words are as often barriers to understanding as they are means for communicating ideas. I have written elsewhere how the word "God" is often a stopsign meaning "ask no more questions". We all know how words serve as labels which similarly allow us to stop thinking about something once it is categorized for us. Sometimes those labels don't just limit thought but send it in a wrong direction; a scuba diver would be well advised not to judge every barracuda or moray eel he sees, according to the baggage associated with those words. In a business conversation, I alarmed someone greatly the other day by using the word "product"; when I referred to the same software as a "toolset" he felt much better. To me, the two words were almost interchangeable, but not to the man with whom I was speaking.

A single word often serves as a barrier to thought; we use words in this way every day. Imagine then the effect of dense thickets of words. Most of us at one time or another have met the persuasive liar who enfolds us in a web of untruth. We regard this character as a sociopath, but think it entirely normal to wrap each other in a web of "truth". Without violating any legal or social rule, we can create clouds of words which hide reality from each other, make it unnecessary to confront truth, and which all too often stand in for the more badly needed physical gesture.

There are so many situations in which a physical touch is all that is needed, where in its place we emit galaxies of words: advice, unnecessary and unwanted protestations, redundant statements of what everyone knows has happened, and the like. The worst offenders are those who think their stream of consciousness is interesting to everyone (and on days when I have listened to my own voice too much, I know I am one of them!)

In Queneau's Zazie dans le Metro there is a parrot who throughout the novel repeats the same words over and over: "You talk, you talk, its all you know how to do." Queneau had it right; less talking, less writing, fewer words might give room for clearer perceptions and cleaner emotion. Too much food, wine, language is an intoxicant. Less is better. Language is highly over-rated as a means of communication.