Kenya redux II: animal & language origin study [a safari on Noam's ark]

dinner party

EXT. night. L&L's lodge  in Laikipia

24.05.2011. Kenya

starting to form a routine here. during the week staying in Tigoni, hanging out on Leadbelly & Logo's farm, reading, running & cooking. weekends going up to Ol Maisor [up on the Laikipia plateau]. communing with domesticated animals on the farm & wild animals up in Ol Maisor [these photos taken there & here in Tigoni or in between], the meanwhile reading this book, The First Word by Christine Kenneally, at least what i can stomach of it. she manages to take an intriguing subject [the evolution of language] & makes it dull as dirt. it's like she pitched the idea to a publisher, then went through the motions filling 300+ pages with monotonous dumbed-down dribble, emphasizing all the wrong things [in my opinion], quoting long boring passages & perhaps even botching or misstating half her facts. it focuses more on the drama of pompous academics [mainly Noam Chomsky]—what meetings they attended, what universities they were at, what journals they were published in, their academic credentials & their trifle polemic squabblings—hardly talking about language itself, but a survey of the egos involved in it's study. in fact the first four chapters are even organized as such: 1. Noam Chomsky 2. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh 3. Steve Pinker and Paul Bloom & 4. Philip Lieberman. & no mention of the likes of Heidegger or Derrida or Deleuze & Guattari.

elephant fence

self-portrait with elephant fence & acacia [Laikipia plateau]

i read this kind of stuff & get annoyed at how naïvely anthropomorphic humans are, just because animals don't fit into our preconceived scheme of what we think «language» or intelligence is. there's countless examples [perhaps the one thing that makes the book worthwhile] of animals—gray parrots, porpoises, bonobos, elephants, border collies, etc.—exhibiting extraordinary lingual feats that some humans are not even capable of... but there's always some scientist or linguist that comes along & say's it's not language, that they are just animals mimicking, or that they might mimic morphemes, but have no capacity for syntax or processing language.

gray parrot grabbing

gray parrot in flight [Tigoni]

when you talk about the origins of language, the elephant in the room is talk of the difference between humans & other animals [with an underlying resonance tethered to the evolution vs. creationism debate]. as far as i'm concerned anyone that thinks a different set of scientific laws applies to humans than the rest of the animal kingdom belongs in a church, not in a university. any biologist that doesn't believe in Darwinian evolution should not be licensed to call themselves a biologist or a scientist. & anyone that thinks language or language capacity is unique to humans either has a limited view of what language is or hasn't spent enough time observing animals or is just dead to the rest of the world.

runner ducks

runner ducks [on the farm]

it was interesting nonetheless to read this book in this environment, amongst animals, in the cradle of human origins. besides the farm animals, there's three gray parrots in the backyard to talk to as well as all the wild birds & on the shelves of their library books like Alex & Mealex, about the gray parrot that died a few years back that not only had a vast vocabulary [150 words], but put together meaningful sentences & understood the concept of zero. & up at the lodge in Laikipia there's all sorts of talkative starlings chattering away. Logo was telling me that a study was done on the superb starlings right around there at Mpala ranch, showing that the complex songs of the starlings, were not only unique to individual birds or situations, but also exhibited a form of grammar or syntax. while i can't find that particular study, there's this study on starlings that was in Nature magazine in 2006. & then of course there's the elephants we observed in their backyard [the stars of the previous post]. while they don't quite have the physical vocal range or capacity that humans have, you can't tell me they are not communicating complex thoughts amongst each other.

parrots french kissing

tongue touching parrots in Tigoni

why Chomsky is so famous & influential [the «most cited living author» according to wikipedia [probably himself]] is beyond me. i've never read anything by him besides interviews & whatnot, but everything i've heard about him rubs me the wrong way [except for his political views]. for starters, how can you call yourself a linguist but only speak one language? that's like being a musicologist & not listening to music. or a geologist that never leaves his office. [i suspect Chomsky doesn't get out much]. & he's leading [or led] the «language creationism» debate, as i think of it, in saying that language is some sort of special gift to humans, something endowed, that it did not evolve how other biological traits did. [though now he's since changed his position from that which made him famous.] god forbid a mutation would lead to something as precious as language, or that other animals could have language, but mutations led to humans [& animals] & language is simply part of what we are. as far as i'm concerned, everything you need to know about Chomsky can be garnered from this interview by Ali G [my favorite line: «what's multilingual, is that something to do with animals?»

Kenneally gives both sides of the debate but in my opinion there is no meat to either angle [as Kenneally presents it anyway]. it's about as pointless as arguing for evolution to a creationist. neither side can eloquently state their case & ironically its language itself that gets in the way. «Part of the field's struggle is that the very language used to get at these ideas does not serve it well. Language evolution research has illuminated a complicated geometry of species, traits, and relationships, and in the face of this newly defined space works like "uniqueness," "innateness" and "instinct" have come to mean everything and nothing.» language only means language in the language you are speaking or reading.

nani dog

Nani dog [Tigoni]

there are vague generalizations on both sides [as Kenneally presents it], frustrating because those refuting Chomsky [the Steve Pinker camp] don't do so so effectively or elegantly. then again, i am not even sure what's to argue about, it seems a mute point, an inevitable hypocrisy, like studying the brain with our own brains. who are we to say whether animals use «language» or not. who are we to judge their intelligence or ability to communicate amongst themselves?

elephant horizon

elephant spotted in Laikipia

or perhaps i, or Kenneally, am misinterpreting Chomsky. i suppose the only fair assessment is to read Chomsky from the horse's mouth & make up my own mind, but problem is he's so prolific & he flip-flops so much that you could spend your lifetime beating your head against his book spines trying to figure him out. & then Chomsky pulls shit like, throwing his arms in the air, saying: «All hypotheses are worthless, so here's mine, which is as worthless as anyone else's

self-portait with bird

self-portrait with parrot

& here's mine [hypothesis], these words. which are indeed as worthless a copout as anyone else's, including Chomsky. & it's not so much a hypothesis as a stream-of-consciousness travelogue with embedded thoughts shaped by Kenneally's book, so perhaps it is Kenneally that is leading me astray.

billy goat

big-balled Billy the goat [on the farm]

in the travelogue scheme of things, i finished the book in Tigoni & then friday we went again up to Ol Maisor. essentially a repeat of last weekend only this time we had Fede [an Italian colleague of J] in tow, so we took two cars. i drove the notorious pink hippo, the same car we had the first month we were in Kenya. the pink hippo is a Landcruiser originally owned by Pedro Sanchez when he lived here but that now seems to have a mind of it's own & seems to conveniently appear all over Kenya whenever you need it. in fact, not only is it it's own [leashless] dog, i think it might possibly have the ability to appear in two places at the same time. fortunately [& unfortunately] it's like driving a tank—unfortunately in that it's so big there's barely room for other cars & trucks to pass on these narrow pot-holed roads & fortunately in that if were ever hit, whatever hit us would likely just bounce off.



this time we arrived while there was still light, so we saw all the samburu villages dotting the road after Rumuruti. & we saw elephants again on the way. the first night i made carne asada tacos with grilled onions & peppers & salsa & guacamole. the second night Fede made carbonara [with cheeses brought from Italy] & bruschette for a dozen or so people. Ol Maisor is a huge ranch on the Laikipia plateau that was originally owned by this guy Japper who is somewhat of a legend in those parts, famous for his camels & insane camel safaris across vast deserts. his various offspring & in-laws & semi-adopted misfits stumbling onto the ranch carry the torch. some of these Ol Maisor characters came to our little carbonara soiree.

chic lodge

scene of the soiree

we went on drives every morning & evening & saw the usual assortment of elephant, zebra [including Grevy's], ostrich, oryx, gazelle, impala, geranuk, dik-dik, etc. unfortunately no cats or carnivores, except a jackal with two pups. last week we didn't see a lot of giraffe, but one drive we saw two herds of 20+.

also saw a massive leopard tortoise & had a smaller one that was in their yard.

tortoiseshell leopard

leopard tortoise

it rained the day before we got there which seemed to bring out a bunch of these toads, some of which would find their way into the house.


back to The First Wordfirst word, in regards to Chomsky, Pinker says «Because Chomsky has such an outsized influence in the field of linguistics, when he has an intuition as to what a theory ought to look like, an army of people go out and reanalyze everything to conform to that intuition. To have a whole field turn on its heels every time one person wakes up with a revelation can't be healthy.» They spend so much time arguing for the sake of arguing you forget what the issue is, which is really unfortunate because it could be an interesting field that has been soured by Chomsky & his minions or even his enemies which for some reason feel Chomsky is relevant enough to even waste hot air on.


Ol Maisor sky

Kenneally says: «At the Evolution of Language conference in Rome in 2006, Tecumseh Fitch listed the many ways in which the field had made progress since the 1866 ban on the subject. He started by noting that for the first time at the language evolution meeting, no one had mentioned the ban.» but isn't saying that no one had mentioned the ban mentioning the ban? that pretty much sums up how much progress has been made in the debate. [not to bash Tecumseh Fitch, because besides having a bad-ass name, i agree with most things he says [like this recent article & i suspect he's the one truly behind the recent articles in which he's collaborated with Chomsky that do speak sense].

leopard tortoise

leopard tortoise

oh, we also found an elephant skull. when j was here some 8 months ago [without me] evidently an elephant had been shot by poachers on Ol Maisor. they went to go look for it, but never found it. i spotted the skull in the general vicinity where they thought it had been shot, so they were thinking this was the same elephant. the front of it's face [from what you could tell by the skull] had been cut off, for the tusks of course. it's still a huge problem here, perhaps more than ever.

elephant skull

tuskless elephant skull [looking up at roof of mouth]

of course there's going to be an inherent limit to teaching other animals our language that is driven by necessity. what's the point [besides getting a little snack] of learning our language if they can't use it to communicate to those within their own species? it takes at least two common organisms of the same species to have language. intra-species communication is a whole different ballgame, while it can demonstrate capacity, its not something that will be passed on unless there is a use for it. there's an insightful anecdote Kenneally mentions in the book, about two gorillas that Sue Savage-Rumbaugh was observing: «The apes had successfully acquired many signs and used them effectively. There didn't seem to be anything odd about their language use until one day they were asked to talk to each other. What resulted was a sign-shouting match; neither ape was willing to listen.» reminds me of the recent article about how the last two Mexicans who speak ayapeneco are not on speaking terms.


sheep in Laikipia

in using Zipf's law to study the entropy or order of language [something i alluded to in my recent post on the so-called Voynich manuscript] ends up dolphin-speak shows the same level of complexity & structure as most human languages. in that post, or moreso in the follow-up after, i speculated about the need for communication, for a language, to document the edibility of plants. Kenneally takes this one step further: «Nothing occurs on the human scale without language. No language means no agriculture, no animal farming, no science

tigoni tea girl

Tigoni tea picker

in the study of the brain's capacity for language, as Terrence Deacon says, we shouldn't be asking how the brain evolved language, but how language evolved the brain. it starts with language. whether it's language in our DNA or language for intra-species communication. not only do i think language evolved our brains, but if you think of language as sensory I/O, as a way to gather & express information, it also evolved our bodies, for motility. to move our eyes around this landscape.

these tea fields are where i've been doing my running lately.

tigoni tea fields

most of the fossilized evidence of the evolution of homo sapiens from other apes resides in East Africa & Kenya. so you could probably say language, as we know it, originated in Africa.

gray parrot in flight

Logo's parrot in flight

one thing cool about traveling around Kenya with Logo is that not only does he speak Swahili but a few other dialects, like Kikuyu. & he knows a lot about animals, especially birds. that's his parrot above that i've been trying to teach to meow & say «papagallo» & «i am Spartacus». one of the parrots has even incorporated beak taps & clicks into his repertoire, like he's a Bushparrot.

grilled pumpkin

grilled pumpkin [back in Tigoni]

sunday we drove back to Tigoni for another half week with the goats. things cooked in the last week or two, with almost all stuff sourced from the farm: orzo-vegetable soup [with homemade chicken stock], eggplant & pepper risotto, artichokes, grilled corn, goat cheese caprese & roasted pumpkin soup. tonight is pumpkin [they've got loads] & potato curry & thai green beans in red chili & basil.

tigoni tea fields

Tigoni tea fields

i read The First Word because i wanted to learn more about the debate & recent developments on the evolution of language, but the more i read [at least books like this] the more i don't want to know... at least from the perspective of linguists—i'd be more apt to trust biologists. another book i read recently [right before coming here], The Monkey Puzzle, co-authored by Jeremy Cherfas [our friend back in Rome who is watering our plants while we are away] had some good stuff on evolution & language & our brain's capacity for it.

colobus monkey

colobus monkey [Tigoni]

seems to be a common thread developing here on 5¢ense [the very first quotidian flash [a.k.a. DIY tweet] posted back in 2005 was about gorillas using tools *for the first time* [that *scientists*] acknowledged—they were using sticks to measure the depth of a swamp in the Congo before they stepped into it.] this as i mine the literature in the interest of Ark Codex.

bifurcated tree

Tigoni tree

besides The First Word, i've also been re-reading Heart of Darkness in italian [Cuore di Tenebra] for the sake of learning italian & also because it's worthy of a third read [& somewhat relevant to this trip]. was also reading some of the stories from this little gem of a book i found in L&L's library, A Grave for a Dolphin by Alberto Denti di Pirajno. Denti di Pirajno, perhaps more famous for A Cure for Serpents, was an Italian duke that lived in East Africa & wrote these strange & wonderful stories about his experiences here.

alberto denti di piranjo

A Grave for a Dolphin by Alberto Denti di Pirajno

reading some other things but will go into them in the next post [heading east from here].

acacia berry

giraffe under acacia [Laikipia]






©om.Posted 2011 Derek White