u Notes from the Underground: November 2008

Slang as signaling

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

(This post was originally a comment on a blogpost explaining the usage 'jai'. Yuppies and college students in India have an extensive collection of slang - 'pseud', 'put', 'level', 'light', 'set' etc. etc. See Aadisht's blog for more examples in natural usage.)

Not to be an asshole, but the constant invention and ostentatious usage of slang by a lot of yuppie Indians strikes me as a signaling mechanism. Its point seems to be to advertise membership of a select (or at least self-perceived select) group. The corollary is that once there is widespread adoption of a particular slang, people feel the need to invent new slang to differentiate themselves once again from the uncool masses.

Linguistically or communication-wise, there is little point to the slang. I do not claim that it makes the speakers more stupid (I am not that kind of a language maven), but there are simpler, more unambiguous, and probably more elegant ways to communicate than to use such slang. This gives me all the more reason to suspect that slang usage is signaling - the costlier a signal, the more credible it is (think peacock’s tail or a deer’s stotting). Slang usage is made costly by overloading the meaning of the slang, making the usage itself grammatically unconventional, and by making the meanings counterintuitive.

Btw, I am not dissing or criticising slang usage by saying all this. Signaling explains a lot of human behaviour, and this just seems to me to be another instance of it.

Book review: Thomas Sowell's "Race and Culture"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thomas Sowell's "Race and Culture" is a mostly compelling and occasionally irritating defense of the anti-cultural-relativist thesis: "The differences between cultures are not inconsequential - on the contrary, they are important for understanding why some groups are rich and some are poor, and some are developed while others are not." In support of his thesis, Sowell frequently cites various examples of ethnic immigrant groups who arrive in a foreign country with little money, but accumulate significant wealth in a few generations. Examples abound: the Gujaratis in East Africa, Lebanese in West Africa, Chinese in Malaysia, Germans in Brazil, and of course, the Jews in various parts of the world at various points in history. Other sociologists, and the natives in such cases themselves, often see such groups as "mere middlemen" who get rich by bleeding the rest of the society around them. (A recent tragic consequence of such attitudes being the expulsion of thousands of South Asian families from Idi Amin's Uganda.) Sowell forcefully argues for the contrary: such immigrant groups often create real value in the native economies, and furthermore, they are able to do so because their cultures are advantageous in certain respects - e.g. they encourage hard work, thrift, a willingness to forego current consumption for future gains and so on.

While Sowell clearly acknowledges the superiority of certain cultures over others (to the extent that they lead to better lives for the people following them), he is also keen to use the historical record to show that cultural superiority is often temporary, and in no way implies racial superiority. Whereas Britishers in the 18th and the 19th centuries gave birth to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, they were considered too ill-disciplined and barbarian to be worthy as slaves during Roman times. While much of Christian Europe was foundering through the Middle Ages, Muslims in the Middle East had a much more progressive, knowledge-seeking culture.

Besides this, the book covers other interesting aspects - how race and ethnicity play out in politics; the relation between race and intelligence - a part I mostly skimmed over because I had had enough of the IQ controversies. A particularly interesting chapter on slavery shows how European cultures are not the only ones guilty of slavery, and that slavery has been a universal phenomenon throughout history. The norm in history until the 19th century has been that the races which happen to be strong at any given point enslave those that are weak and conveniently close by. (The only exception, perhaps, is India - although we Indians made up for it by outcasting a quarter of the population as untouchables.) Although societies differed (in space and time) in how they treated slaves, slavery as a practice itself was considered perfectly normal. The *real* surprising thing is how civilized opinion in Western Europe changed from pro-slavery to anti-slavery in the matter of a few decades. Whereas Britain was the biggest slave-trader in the 18th century, by the 19th century popular opinion had turned so much that they were actively using their imperial and military might to *stop* the slave trade.

The irritating thing about Sowell is that he frequently attacks the sociologists who have defended the wrong theories for reasons of political correctness. While such sociologists may deserve criticism, these attacks also quickly grow repetitive and tiring. Give me the substance and spare me the drama, is what I say.

Book review: Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal"

Beginning in the 1960's with the work of George Williams, there has been a revolution within evolutionary biology with the development of theories that employ what can be intuitively understood as the "selfish gene" or the "gene's-eye" view. If Richard Dawkins' 1976 best seller "Selfish gene" was a wonderful introduction to the public at large of this revolution, then "The Moral Animal" is a worthy sequel where the full implications of applying the gene's eye view to human evolution are hammered out. Many aspects of human behaviour - how we select our mates, how men and women are promiscuous in their different ways, the love-hate relationship between siblings in a family, the importance we (men in particular) attach to social status, self-deception, altruistic behaviour - can only be understood by keeping in mind that our behaviours are the product of natural selection, and in particular by employing the gene's eye view of natural selection. Robert Wright has a lucid, albeit simplifying, writing style, and he uses a clever strategy to keep readers' interest from flagging - for each significant idea or theory he introduces, he illustrates it in the next chapter using incidents from Charles Darwin's life. (Is there a more apt subject for a case study in evolutionary psychology?)

Robert Wright's content and approach are on the whole, I think, different from later popularizers of evolutionary psychology such as, say, Steven Pinker. Whereas for Pinker (and John Tooby and Leda Cosmides before him), attacking the "blank slate" concept of human mind is all important in every discussion of evolutionary psychology, this issue hardly surfaces in "The Moral Animal". Personally, I was quite sick of reading about this topic, so its absence was a welcome relief.