Sunday, June 07, 2020


I’m reading “The Great Human Diasporas” (1993) by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (father) and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza (son).  I’m embarrassed that there are so many important thinkers from Italy that I know nothing about.  This book is old and the information in these fields is increasing so quickly and reframing so much that it’s impossible to stay at the front. Nevertheless, much in this book is basic concepts that haven’t changed.  

One of the most interesting chapters comes towards the end after the origin of hominins, their evolved spread around the world and their separation into sub-categories, which has given rise to a parallel diagram of languages, branching off locally and sometimes being transported suddenly to new places.  

In my attempts to understand how the actual phenomena in the larger world can be traced back to small evolved capacities in individuals, I’m interested to note that humans can only learn language in their early childhood — if they are “raised by wolves” they never learn to talk — and can’t easily learn new languages after adolescence begins.  What it means and what actually is lost by maturation is not known.  So far.

The biological genome is physical, much controlled by location because people have to be close together to mix genes and because of differing ecosystems tied to what there is to eat, how hard the climate is, the altitude, and so on.  These are what determine survival — giving rise to evolution when the unsuccessful die out.  Language changes because of that large section of the “environment” that is other people.  Skill in communication may support trade or may trigger war, thus determining who survives.

These two forces tend to either push people together into towns and communities or to scatter people seeking better places.  There is also a phenomenon of small groups breaking away from the larger demographic but persisting in place, or of different peoples being brought in, like the slave phenomenon in America which merged with skin color as an indicator.  The third force for separate language then is culture, as the Black population that identifies as such speaks a vocabulary and turn of phrase that persists alongside the “national standard” English, maybe echoing Africa.  Something similar is true of young people or people like medical doctors or academic doctors who develop their own jargon and assumptions.

An interesting study would be that of the Sicilian/German mafia that developed near New York City, giving rise to a separate culture defining “us” against “them” with a demographically defined set of concepts that goes back to Sicily and has made the group sharply effective, but not beloved.  This is what Trump belongs to.  The major culture of America that he claims — sports, Christianity, old WWII movies — is seen by him from the outside. He has never been part of them, only sees stereotypes.  Some outside writers have observed mafia closely enough to pick up their language.  The same is true of drug culture to a degree.

Each of the groups made similar by shared genome and by shared language has a dense middle where most everyone is similar and then extends outward towards mixed phenomena so that between definite race groups that have been created by evolution over time, there is a space of people who are “both” or “neither” or maybe inventing something new.  To be pressed into binaries that are really spectrums means that the truth is that most are “mixed” is both trouble and opportunity.

The prime example is the Euro languages and assumptions coming in over the top of the indigenous ways of surviving and words for speaking of the world.  Since the Euro countries were different — Catholic nations assuming Indians had souls, though they didn’t treat them that much better, contrasted with the English Protestant meritocracy who didn't think they were human.  Add the vast differences of this continent and the adapting variations of language and genome across the land and regional differences reasserted themselves in pronunciations, food and drink preferences, ways of dressing and building, and proneness to afflictions.  The great hustle of “I’m better than you,” took advantage of every difference and counted them for or against each other.

On the Blackfeet rez the old-timers have kept the old language and the kids have morphed English so that people from Heart Butte speak differently than on the Blood reserve.  The story of how the female language advisor for “Dances with Wolves” taught everyone, male or female, the female words her tribe separates by gender is a revealing one.

Stigmatized subjects have many words that are never discussed so that kids in particular have a hard time finding out what they mean.  Their kid behavior is also a cultural genome of sorts that has radically changed since television arrived, mostly now guided by Hollywood versions of criminal and lowlife behavior in major cities.  The mismatch with a vast landscape and harsh living conditions kills a lot of people.  They are said to have “accents,” the rez drawl, which are really linguistic drifts in pronunciation.

Cultural, genomic, and linguistic “races” or concentrations that can be defined, do not have sharp edges unless the population has been isolated some way, maybe an island.  Otherwise, people mix and match like the young woman who told me proudly that she had three babies by three husbands, so one baby was white, one was black, and the third was tan.  The gene providers had all left, so she provided what culture those kids would get.

Sometimes a part of the whole that communicates with the next demographic over can become its own culture, which might not be a fortunate thing to happen.  For instance, a fourth semi-tribe of the Blackfeet on the US side was more open to trade with whites, which meant they caught smallpox and the group died.  Something like that happened to the Mandan people.

There have always been white people who were attracted to black or Indian or even Chinese people and have joined the desired group, learning their language and ways in spite of having a different genome.  Whether they change the genome of the larger group depends on why they joined. If their gender preference was not fertile, they would be more likely to contribute culture. Men were more likely to change, but women were more likely to be captured.

We are not used to thinking this way, but we ought to be.  Even in the 19th century and the years when people mixed on the frontiers were more realistic than our attempts to label everyone, ticking little boxes and ignoring major differences, mostly economic and in terms of opportunity.  It’s a harrowing time, breaking up hardened soil.  And that belongs to talk about the political evolution.

No comments: