Freeman Dyson on Human Biological and Cultural Diversity


71GFajetVcL[1]I personally benefit greatly from the global dominance of English. I’m not very good at learning languages and speak only English. If I was blogging in, say, Swedish, I’d have a very limited audience. But having the dumb luck to grow up speaking English, I still get more than a few Swedish readers.

But the rise of English as the global elite cognitive monoculture strikes me as worrisome. Relying upon a monoculture for their calories didn’t do the poor Irish much good in 1846. I’m worried that intellectual blights could get lodged in the Silicon Valley – Hollywood – Washington – New York – London axis of global cultural dominance.

In his 1979 book Disturbing the Universe, physicist Freeman Dyson (perhaps the last survivor of the Turing-Oppenheimer-Shannon-Von Braun-Korolev generation of WWII math and physics guys) wrote:

Naively, one would expect, when an intelligent species evolves the use of language, that there would be only one language. One would expect that the first speaking animals would evolve a fixed structure of words and meanings, as immutable as the genetic code that evolved three billion years earlier. The wise men who wrote the Bible understood that there was a problem here.

They created the legend of the tower of Babel to explain why we have so many languages. Obviously they thought, and many people today think, life would be simpler and human relations easier if we all spoke the same language.

It is true that a world with a universal common language would be a simpler world for bureaucrats and administrators to manage. But there is strong evidence, in our own history and prehistory as well as in the history of contemporary primitive societies, to support the hypothesis that plasticity and diversity of languages played an essential role in human evolution.

It is not just an inconvenient historical accident that we have a variety of languages. It was nature’s way to make it possible for us to evolve rapidly. Rapid evolution of human categories demanded that social and biological progress go hand in hand. Biological progress came from random genetic fluctuations that could be significant only in small and genetically isolated communities. To keep a small community genetically isolated and to enable it to evolve new social institutions, it was vitally important that the new members of the community could be quickly separated from their neighbors by barriers of language.

So our emergence as an intelligent species may have depended crucially on the fact that we have this astonishing ability to switch from Proto-Indo-European to Hittite to Hebrew to Latin to English and back to Hebrew within a few generations.

It is likely that in the future our survival and our further development will depend in an equally crucial way on the maintenance of cultural and biological diversity. In the future as in the past, we shall be healthier if we speak many languages and are quick to invent new ones as opportunities for cultural differentiation arise. We now have laws for the protection of endangered species.

Why do we not have equally strong laws for the protection of endangered languages? …

Just as speciation gave life freedom to experiment with diversity of form and function, the differentiation of languages gave humanity freedom to experiment with diversity of social and cultural traditions.