Peter Jennings, Noam Chomsky, and the Piraha

Peter Jennings, ABC TV’s recently departed news anchor, said (roughly), “I have never seen an issue on which everyone agreed. When I see a coin, I have to turn it over to see the other side.”

Dan Everett, a linguistics expert, spent 30 years with the Amazonian Pirahã people. The April 16, 2007 New Yorker story describes his gradual disenchantment with Noam Chomsky, the pied piper of linguistics.

Grossly simplified, Chomsky says the structure of language is innate in humans. He cites recursive speech, e.g. rather than saying “that man is tall,” and, “that man is walking,” we say “that tall man is walking.” Recursion is uniquely human, says Chomsky.

The Pirahã do not use recursive speech, says Everett. Nor do they refer to the past, nor count above about three. Their language lacks a perfect tense. Everett says they are remarkable for the degree to which they simply live in the present, accepting as real only that which they observe.

Everett says the Pirahã disprove Chomsky’s theory. Chomskyites beg to differ. Character assassination (disguised as academics) ensues.

(I will get back to Jennings.)

Other researchers visit the tribe to challenge Everett by proving recursion in the Pirahã. The data don’t seem to cooperate. That doesn’t deter the theorists—the data must be wrong.

Two other theorists accuse Everett of insulting the tribe by essentially calling them subhuman—stupid. After all, the logic goes, if they aren’t recursive—as Chomsky insists they must be, in order to be human—then they must be stupid. QED.

Everett insists they’re highly intelligent, one of the most savvy tribes in the region.

(See where Jennings is coming up?)

The author comically tries to explain insect repellent to a Pirahã; he mimics a buzzing fly landing on his arm, then slapping it. Everett translated. What? He hit himself? A plane lands on his arm?

Everett explains, and the main looks at the author with pitying contempt. “You told him bugs bothered you,” explained Everett. “But bugs are part of life. How could you be bothered by them?”

The Chomskyite explanation of people who don’t fit their theory is—they must be less than people. The Parahã, to be clear, are exactly the same: they show no interest whatsoever in the outside world, considering themselves superior. Those insect repellent fools? They must be less than people.

I once discussed a point with an Arican American woman co-worker. “You know,” I said, “it’s like that Rolling Stones song.”

“I don’t think I know it,” she replied.

“Sure you do,” I said, “it was a Top-40 song.”

She looked at me askance; “and just whose Top-40 would that happen to be?” she asked me.

It had never dawned on me that my pop-music experience wasn’t universal.

We praise a lot of traits in people: loyalty, fearlessness, conviction, compassion, integrity. In business, we praise intellectual rigor (though ironically our generally accepted business model for human motivation often resembles Skinner’s for rats). We value courage and entrepreneurial instincts, as well as leadership ability (whatever that means).

I’d like to give some props to humility. Let’s bow down to the fact that basically we don’t know diddly—particularly when we think we do. Let’s celebrate humility, which leads to honesty, and then perhaps to curiosity. Humility is the starting point that makes all things possible. Certainly that’s true for trust.

When you meet a man with the courage of his convictions, watch out.

Or, as Peter Jennings would have more generously put it, turn the coin over to look at the other side.