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Nim and Nothingness
No. 423: Saturday, May 26, 2012
Out of nostalgia the other day I ordered from Netflix a documentary (Project Nim) about Nim Chimpski, the sign-language chimp that some starry-eyed 70s researchers tried to bring up as a human child. At the time Nim was learning sign language, there were several other chimps (Washoe, Lana) being taught human language in various modes, the presumption being that aside from an inadequate vocal tract, chimps could in principle learn to communicate in language as well as children at some level, if not on a par with human adults. Nim was one of the more interesting cases since ASL is much more natural for a chimp than pressing buttons on a language board, as Kanzi, one of his fellows, had been trained to do.
The documentary was like most such films excruciating; full of pseudo-dramatic "movie music" and constantly inserting photos of people and events to "illustrate" the narration.
I’ll spare the reader the irrelevant nonsense about how different women in the project either slept with male participants or became "maternally" possessive of the young chimp, as well as the obligatory expressions of human guilt for inflicting unnatural constraints on a non-human creature. Whatever his travails, Nim, who lived well into his twenties, was a lot better off than most animals we make use of. But the question of what we must call Nim’s moral development is not irrelevant. At a certain point, after he bit a woman’s cheek all the way through and smashed someone’s dog against a wall, it was decided to end the experiment. Which did not prevent the film from closing in true hippie style, with the last words telling us that chimps were wonderful creatures and "very forgiving," meaning no doubt that Nim "forgave" his minders for returning him to an animal compound (from which he was eventually "rescued") rather than letting him bite their cheeks and worse ad infinitum.
Nevertheless, for the purposes of this Chronicle, the documentary contained one precious moment. This was when the Columbia professor (Herbert Terrace) who had initiated the experiment, having been asked whether Nim had really learned language, admitted that "he learned how to beg." That is, Nim had learned lots of signs for things, but he only used them to obtain those things; his syntax, in a word, never got past the imperative. Teach him the sign for "banana," and he would use it to get a banana. Although the film never raised the issue, I was struck by the clear parallel between Nim’s inability to construct declarative sentences and his more dangerous inability to acquire a moral sense. Although far more intelligent than a dog, he couldn’t learn the inhibitions that the dog has inherited in the process of domestication. What the dog could "learn" of human morality through Darwinian selection while remaining an animal, the chimp could not learn the way a human would learn it. Which is why, as the professor informed us, chimps can’t be kept as pets past the age of five or so without risking one’s life. This lesson still has to be learned every once in a while by someone who thinks our 99%-common DNA permits humans and chimps to become friends.
One point made strongly by Terrence Deacon, among others, is that human language is not derived from animal calls; the two systems are unrelated. Humans too have "calls," such as weeping and laughter, that are unrelated to articulated language. To clarify this distinction, Deacon makes use of the Piercean categories of indexical and symbolic signs. An indexical sign is one that is a trace of the experience that prompts it, say, a footprint or an involuntary sound, whereas a symbolic sign is emitted intentionally for the purpose of communication. No doubt when we have complex inherited signal systems such as those of the often-studied vervet monkey, this distinction becomes a bit muddled. From the standpoint of evolutionary fitness, we may say that the "purpose" of the vervet signals is to facilitate communication among the monkeys concerning dangers and opportunities in their environment. But there remains nonetheless an essential difference between being informed concerning a major danger or food source by hearing (1) articulated human language or (2) screaming, even if both may provoke similar action on our part. In terms of Deacon’s analysis, vervet signals are screaming (albeit with a variety of different screams for different circumstances) rather than to human speech.
But an additional complication arises when we teach a chimpanzee to use the signs of human language. Everyone knows that chimps on their own do not develop symbolic communication. But the temptation of the language-to-chimp researchers was enhanced by the ambiguity between the use of human-taught symbols and their symbolic use. Teaching a chimp a "word" of ASL, something that chimps would never invent for themselves, leaves open the question of whether one has crossed the threshold of symbolic communication.
A gesture of sign language, or an articulated word, for that matter, is not a "symbol" in itself, but only in the Saussurean framework of other signs. But even this is not the real crux of human language. I will venture to say that only GA has understood what human language is, and understood that its "symbolic" or "arbitrary" nature is not of the essence, but is rather a consequence of the real fundamental quality of language. This, ironically enough, Jean-Paul Sartre, who never had anything to say about language except that prose was "transparent" and poetry was "opaque," understood better than all the linguists. Language, representation, or simply: the human, discovers/creates a néant ("nothingness") of freedom that separates us from the world we intend, and which we freely intend in a way that animals cannot because they lack this space. It is in effect a collective space, a scene of representation that we share with the other speakers of the language, and which was inaugurated in the hypothetical originary event.
Thus Nim’s ability to acquire a vocabulary of a few dozen signs, which no doubt gives proof of a great deal of intelligence, cannot in itself establish his use of symbolic, that is, human language. However well he learns to "beg," he will never learn to form (declarative) sentences because he will never possess the human néant in which the free articulation of language takes place. This doesn’t mean that a chimp, or a far less advanced creature, is incapable of "free play," the fanciful triggering of routines as a result of who knows exactly what random inputs. But a playful reaction to one’s environment, in which one is not immediately engaged in activities such as eating or sex that are directly involved in individual or species survival, is not the equivalent of nor indeed in any way connected to the intentional formation of representations, any more than animal language is directly connected to human language.
Readers of The Origin of Language will recall that the declarative is far from the originary form of language. Thus you might ask whether the chimp’s "imperative" use of language doesn’t put him at the same stage as early human language users who had not yet developed the declarative. The answer is no, because these early users had no one but themselves to teach them language, and they could learn it only by understanding the originary sign as a mode of deferral, of separation from the indexical gestures of appropriation that they would normally make toward a desirable object. Human language is informed by this deferral even when it is used imperatively. But when we short-circuit the procedure and teach the chimp our signs, we do not and cannot teach him the deferral that goes with them.
The originary history of language will probably never be known, but I would assume that if the first sign is the "Name-of-God," then early ostensives and imperatives were sacred uses of language, and the declarative represented a potential secularization of language—potential but not necessarily immediately implemented as such. This entire history is bypassed when teaching a chimp to point to things via the signs of ASL. And no doubt in addition to "begging," Nim could use language "playfully" to refer to objects either desired or in his environment. But my assumption about the declarative is not that we needed new mental circuits to construct this form but that it was a product of what I called the lowering of the threshold of significance, that is, a social rather than an individual phenomenon. And certainly the society surrounding Nim was open to declarative sentences, and efforts were made to teach him, not so much the syntax as the idea of the declarative—an "objective" statement about the world, not immediately relevant to his needs. Nim could say banana, perhaps even green banana in the orchard, but not the green banana is in the orchard (but don’t take this as a command to bring it to me). In other words, Nim couldn’t say the cat is on the mat.
Animals do not have "intentions" in our sense because they lack the néant of an internal scene of representation on which to formulate them. The mystery of "free will" is simply the mystery of language. We don’t need quantum theory to demonstrate that the existence of a scene of language allows us a supplementary layer of detachment from "instinctive" reaction to reality. Whatever ultimately "determines" our action is irrelevant, except to the extent that under controlled circumstances we may possess the ability to specify and manipulate these determinants. The real question of free will refers to our responsibility for our acts, and the moral notion of responsibility, which derives fairly directly from the moral model instituted at the originary event, is itself a highly determining factor (what Freud called the superego) in our behavior. It is a particularly silly fallacy to assume that our actions are "determined" in such a way that whether or not we know that we will be held responsible for them will not affect this "determination." After all, this knowledge is itself an objective fact, detectable in our neurons as well as anything else, and of undoubted influence on our actions.
Which leads us back to Nim’s propensity to injure his keepers, which he shares with all chimps, although the less dominant ones—those whose physical force is less than that of their fellows and who therefore learn to defer to others’ dominance—are less aggressive. Humans too learn dominance patters, and the life stories of gangsters are full of assertions of dominance, but this is not the specific feature of human morality, and in well policed communities—the ones that work—such dominance, which has come to be stigmatized as bullying—is not permitted to operate unchecked. The fact that a human environment of gentle caring could not prevent Nim from engaging in violent, destructive episodes for which any notion of "guilt" would be a wholly anthropomorphic attribution is, I think, an exact parallel to his inability to learn to use human language as something other than a sophisticated version of an animal signal system. The scene of representation, the néant, is the same in both cases, and its absence had the same results in both cases.
Let me close with a reflection on another matter. A few Chronicles ago, I complained about GA’s "obscurity," and Matthew Taylor rightly reproached me with what he was too polite to call whining. Whining about not being read is something writers should keep within the family circle. But I don’t think this admonition altogether exhausts the problem. The utter invisibility of GA’s ideas is something we, if not the world at large, must take very seriously. For in order to justify continuing to operate in the GA framework despite this invisibility, we are obliged to hold that the current intellectual universe that ignores our existence reflects a doxa whose narrowness is of universal concern.
What then is the relationship between this, let us call it, intellectual decadence, and the other signs of the "decline of the West" remarked on by writers such as Mark Steyn or Victor Davis Hanson, critics of Western oikophobia? Above all, is this trend reversible, and can GA do anything to reverse it? Steyn, for example, is a highly successful writer and pundit who certainly needs no help from us in publicizing his ideas. But to the extent that we accept Steyn’s analyses, we imply that their ultimate ground is to be found in our anthropology. And indeed, the human-centered ethic of GA tends to confirm Steyn’s intuitions concerning, for example, the necessity that societies reproduce themselves and make it their duty to transmit their patrimony to the next generation rather than conceiving the purpose of life as hedonistic self-indulgence, as do all those Europeans, and not a few Americans, who see retirement at 55 as the ultimate criterion of the Good Life (unless, like Greek hairdressers, their participation in hazardous activities mandates retirement at 50).
I would challenge any evolutionary psychologist or anyone else to provide a more parsimonious explanation for Nim’s non-human limitations than what I have given here. Whatever we think about "animal rights," GA is a theory of human self-respect. Today this self-respect, as Girard has sharply observed, is as the ironic triumph of Judeo-Christianity’s fundamental principle wholly focused on the defense of "victims." So the question posed to our most advanced societies is whether the historical evolution of human self-respect is destined to lead to the abandonment of all respect for the firstness by means of which the human has progressed to its present stage. If all that matters are "victims," that is, those who are somehow handicapped by not being in the 1%, then only the kind of blatant hypocrisy—sustainable for how long?—by which we accept the benefits of firstness in reality while denouncing them in principle—drving cars while condemning pipelines and fracking—can protect humanity from self-destruction. GA’s strength is that it provides us with a reason, to paraphrase Robert Frost, to take our own side in an argument. I think even Mark Steyn could use a little support on this point.