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Grammars of Confusion

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Okay, let’s start here–human beings are hardwired for language.

That means that there is something about the physical structure of our brains that makes language possible for us.  If our brains were physically different, we would not be able to form languages or learn to speak them.

At the same time, we’re not hardwired to speak any particular language.  We each learn a particular language in a cultural setting, from the nuclear family to the kibbutz and back again.

There are therefore a wide range of languages on earth, at various stages of development, and with many differences.

But none of these languages is, as far as we know, radically different.  Even when we discover a language we cannot translate, because nobody speaks it any more and we have no Rosetta stone to relate it to other languages and it’s not part of one of the language families now existing, we can identify it as a language, because it shares what Chomskey–back in the days when he was actually doing linguistics–called “deep grammar.” 

All languages share a common foundation, and therefore common foundational traits, no matter how different they are on the surface.

Morality–the tendency to erect and attempt to live by what we call moral codes–seems to have this same quality, and a number of evolutionary psychologists are spending their time these days trying to work this out.

If you want to know one of the best books I’ve ever read, it’s Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which spends its time demolishing the entire idea of nurture as the foundation of the human personality.  It’s also a really great example of what a truly educated mind would look like–Pinker knows the science, but he also knows Jane Austen, Hegel and Snoopy.


All human societies–all human beings not raised feral (and maybe feral children, too, although  I don’t know)–erect and attempt to follow, or at least to explain through,  moral codes.  It’s a universal trait, and it’s almost certainly hardwired, meaning caused by the genetically determined physical structure of the brain.

And it operates on the level of the individual, for the same reason that everything–yes, even instinct and basic human drives–operate on the level of the individual.

There is no other level on which it is possible for biology to operate.

Nature isn’t concerned with keeping “the species” alive.  Nature has no concept of species, or anything else.  Each individual organizsm is busy keeping its own genes alive, and the fact that this means that something we’d call “a species” survives is a side issue.

All biology operates on the level of the individual, and the need to, and ability to, create moral codes certainly looks like something that is biologically encoded in us.

To the extent that this is true, all moral codes, no matter how divergent they may seem on the surface, will share certain foundational similiarities.

And, of course, they do.  Moral laws against murder and theft are universal.  The apparent differences are only apparent–a matter of who the moral group in questions defines as “human” and therefore subject to and protected by such laws. 

The universality of the double sexual standard for women (until the 20th century West) and of the routine assumption of the second-class status of “women’s work” (even in the 20th century West), look to me to be useful to Darwinian survival in an obvious way.

The principle problem in the survival of human beings as human beings is to convince women to have children, and preferably more than one.  And  Lymaree is right on both counts.  There is a genuine biological hunger to have a child–any woman who nears menopause withoutever having been pregnant can testify to just how strong this desire is–but children are also a huge drain on the physical and mental resources of adults, and especially of women.

But that second thing means that many women will be perfectly happy to have just one child, or at least as few as possible, to have them late rather than early if possible, and otherwise to forgo childbearing, at least some of the time, for other, more fun and more remunerative things to do.

A society in which women are automatically barred from reaching the highest levels of status in the public world, but are venerated and respected for having children, is one in which women will have more children than they have in ours. 

What’s more, a society in which women’s public lives are restricted is one in which there is less chance that the child that woman bears will not belong to her own husband.  To the extent that a society restricts the sexual activity of women, men find it possible to insure that their own genes will survive.

What interests me about this whole phenomenon, though, is just how resilient it is to the truly radical changes in technology and environment that have occurred in the last two hundred years.

Robert is right in thinking that the rise of the “knowledge professions” and of labor saving machinery had as much to do with female emancipation as politics or morality, but what’s really interesting to me is this:

In a world where women have full access to education, work and politics, where they can strive for any position, climb any corporate ladder, acquire any advanced degree–women are still paid best for being women.

Take a look at the Fortune list of world’s wealthiest individuals, and you’ll find maybe one or two women (next to a couple of hundred men) who’ve made their pile as inventors, entrepreneurs or corporate executives.  The vast majority of women on these lists fall into two categories:  the wives and daughters of such men, or entertainers.  

Female entertainers are rewarded largely for being “hot,” meaning for being young and sexually available.   They can have all the singing, dancing and acting talent in the world, and they’ll do no better than middling well if they don’t “look right.”   And if they do look right, they can often make quite a lot of money–or marry it–on that alone.  

Even Oprah fits into the category of a woman being paid for being a woman.  She’s our national Mother, and Mothering is what we expect from her.

Note that some of these women can become enormously powerful, especially as iconic Mothers–but that’s been true throughout history, and it doesn’t chane the landscape here.  If you need to keep women in a place where they’ll be driven to have lots of children, then providing them with a role that provies them with wealth and power as long as they don’t leave the reservation makes a lot of snese.

I don’t want to sound as if I think there’s some sort of plot here.  We seem to do this instincitvely, and no amount of hectoring from the New Moral Forces of the age seems capable of making us stop.  The paradigm even works on a stratified class level–the  Hooters waitress makes a whole hell of a lot more money in tips than the waitresses in comparably priced restaurants where the uniforms are more modest, and the few men who have ever decided to take jobs at Hooters find their tips are in the toilet.

The very capacity to think in terms of morality, like the very capacity to form lanuages, is hardwired into human beings. 

And all biology is, at base, i ndividual.

Written by janeh

July 3rd, 2009 at 6:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Grammars of Confusion'

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  1. “women are still paid best for being women”

    I think this understates the effects of the post-baby boom changes, especially since they are still being worked through. You are looking at a small number of very rich people. There are millions of women who never have been and never will be rich – but who earn enough to support themselves. A LOT of them can support themselves, and their children, reasonably well – that is, they aren’t working in some of the traditionally overwhelmingly female occupations such as clerical, child care and sales work. This has already had enormous social implications – just to begin with, in the willingness to stay in a marriage that’s not quite satisfying enough. In my mother’s, and certainly in my grandmother’s, day a woman who was unhappy at home might or might not be constrained from leaving by social condemnation or religious beliefs, but she would certainly hesitate before a life of near poverty such as that most single (and widowed) women had to fear when most jobs were segregated by sex, and there was suspicion about women on their own in any case. Women don’t have to be rich to have much more power and autonomy from societal changes.

    And the change has barely begun. 50 years is nothing. Sure, young girls fall for versions of the Cinderella story. I swear the tendency of young girls to believe that their prince will come, or, conversely, that their prince is lurking inside the unlikely person of the local Bad Boy is genetically encoded, although if things that enable the species to continue are more likely to be hardwired than other things, this doesn’t seem like a good candidate since although it may lead to more reproduction (except for the girl who lets 30 years go by waiting for her prince), it doesn’t seem likely to foster successful raising of the infants to maturity.

    But we already have all kinds of variations on child-bearing and child-raising just with the improvement in the ability of women to support themselves independently. It’s a bit soon to say whether all these experiments are going to work well, but they are being carried out. And that, I think, shows that whatever hardwired tendency we have to reward the young and sexy and restrict women can be modified considerably in practice.

    What kind of society will arise from these changes, I can’t say. Maybe it will be the kind that will pass on only their name and some cultural influences to some new society formed from immigrants who outbreed the originals. Certainly that prediction has been made. I just don’t know if the maternal instinct is strong enough in enough women to impel them to have lots of children in a society in which some of them still don’t earn much, there’s a strong cultural imperative to own objects (you can really annoy people if you point out that they don’t really need that big house or expensive car, or at least you could until the economic collapse), or in which they do – often by choice – all the work of raising the children themselves. Maybe it is, and I’m just not the person to understand it. I knew someone with four children – considered a big family by today’s standards – who said she’d have loved to have more, but her husband died young. Some women do want large families. I don’t know if enough of them do to counter-act the effect of the ones who don’t.

    And *that’s* hardwired – or, perhaps, the desire for children is hardwired to cut out once the mother has one or two and some confidence they aren’t all going to starve in the next bad harvest. As soon as a society becomes industrialized, children become more of an expense and less of a labour force, and public health improves (as it must if you are going to have big industrial cities), women start having fewer children.


    3 Jul 09 at 8:37 am

  2. At random:

    Might also look at Moir & Jessel, BRAIN SEX, which focuses on differences between male and female hardwiring.

    No, of course nature doesn’t have species–or purpose. Inanimate things have properties, animals have behavior and people–including cats–have purpose. DNA is right on the animate/inanimate border.

    But there may be something else going on. Discussions of an “altruistic gene” or a “gay gene” follow a very similar logic: if certain contra-survival and reproduction behavior is hardwired, either it’s a glitch or a feature. (IT joke.) If it’s a feature, it persists because it helps the genome survive and multiply, including, of course, other copies of the gene.
    We’ve got some clearer similar cases: having two recessives for sickle cell anemia is fatal and messy, and the same with Tay-Sachs. But the recessives stay in certain gene pools because ONE copy of sickle cell confers malarial resistance, and one copy of Tay-Sachs works against tuberculosis. (Best of knowledge: not my field.)

    Whether we’re hardwired with a moral code or for aquiring a moral code the way we aquire a language I don’t know, and I’m not sure we can find out without the sort of experimentation I don’t want to see conducted. As Jane says, certain things seem to be on all the lists, but it’s a very limited number of things, and a culture that didn’t draw a line at casual murder or theft isn’t likely to endure and continue to teach. If we understood the exceptions–why so many people violate the norms–we might be further along.

    Worth hedging too, that the whole “human being/not a human being” thing is a rhetorical simplification. There are plenty of cultures out there who would rob me, and some who would murder me, but who wouldn’t barbecue me. I’m human, but no kin of theirs. What we mostly seem to have is not a binary human/not human standard but a diminishing circle of moral obligations the further one goes from immediate family–but it’s worth noting that other (cultural) forms of kinship–the Church? the Party? the Academy? the Lodge?–can sometimes outweigh DNA.

    Women and money: measuring people by their paychecks is a very male thing, mostly–which may drive men, who expect to be so measured, into fields with better checks. But the cultural and technological changes are coming so rapidly right now that it’s hard to measure where exactly we are.

    To return briefly to “high prestige” teachers being paid less than “low prestige” factory workers, though: Consider that THE THERORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS still pretty well nails prestige: teachers, like lawyers, are “high prestige” because they don’t get dirty or work with their hands. But the teacher works in an air-conditioned room, puts in nine months a year, and gets to be the only adult in the room–no one else there she has to respect. The man on the assembly line is tired, dirty, taking orders constantly from people he neither likes nor respects, and working 11 months a year or more. I’m surp[rised the pay differential isn’t greater. If K-12 teachers weren’t mostly paid by taxpayers, it might well be.

    The Labor Department did a survey a few years ago, asking people how much they were paid and how many hours–and days–they worked. By their own reporting, K-12 teachers were on a par with electrical engineers on an hourly basis. They just put in a lot fewer hours. There’s a reason political conventions and month-long tourist trips skew heavily to teachers and retirees. Ther rest of us would have to burn precious vacation hours. Which is not to say that some teachers don’t deserve far more pay than they’re getting–but how do we get the money to the right ones?

    As for the urge to have one child, it may well be culturally driven rather than genetic–and if it were all that strong, I wouldn’t have been left at the altar.


    3 Jul 09 at 6:26 pm

  3. I have an indirect ancestor (first cousin umpty times removed) who lived in the 1600s, and who was prominent enough that occasionally someone writes a biography about him. I read the most recent one, just out of curiosity. He doesn’t physically resemble any member of my family, & I wasn’t expecting to find any other resemblance. I finished the book convinced that somehow far more of our personalities than I had ever dreamed were hardwired, including a lot of things that wouldn’t seem to make the slightest difference in perpetuating our genes, and some that would work against it. Not only was he recognizably a member of my family, quirks & all, but the one thing that every contemporary who mentioned him said first–that he read more than anyone they had ever met–is also what anyone who knows me would probably say.

    It appears to me that we are not only hardwired as a species for the potential for things like language, and social organization, and morality, but that there is probably more hardwiring which is specific to smaller divisions of our species–clans, families, & so on. Any given trait may or may not come out in an individual, but those traits may be more common within the group than outside it.

    Lee B

    3 Jul 09 at 8:27 pm

  4. I’ll give you hardwired to acquire language. However, what you’re calling a “moral code” looks to me like strategies to raise children (the next generation of DNA) to breeding age. Murder and theft disrupt those strategies by removing caregivers, offspring, or resources. Oddly, cannibalism does not so affect the strategies. Many cultures have embraced it. That cannibalism has been a feature of human societies for eons is proved by the existence of diseases that can be passed on in no other way. And yet no one today calls cannibalism good moral behavior.

    Families were one way human societies found to successfully raise children, as a single mother and her offspring in primitive days were pretty much doomed. I’m not sure you can call human hardwiring to form families any more *moral* than the solitary lives of tigers or the communal colonies of naked mole rats. People tend to call their own particular systems of family-building “moral” despite the fact that different systems are just as successful in raising children. Polygamy is awful, monogamy is disgusting, group marriages repulsive, single mothers (in modern times) destroy the fabric of society.

    One of my professors quoted somebody when he said “A zygote is just DNA’s way of making more DNA.” At base, any successful way to get organisms into a breeding state is going to persist, or recur, over time.

    What *may* be hardwired is the human trait to, once a system of family-building and child-raising is established, to call that system “moral” (or good, or right, or The Way It’s Always Been Done, And God Says So) and derogate others that deviate sufficiently from it. I would imagine this is because homogenous groups of people all choosing similar standards of behavior are in general, more successful and less stressful to the conforming individuals than those groups where there are competing systems in conflict.

    But we’re coming down to an extremely fine line here. The hardwiring is *not* to form a moral code…but to find a successful strategy and characterize it as moral. Even though it’s just a behavior that gets children raised.

    And Lee? That bit about the distant ancestor showing traits you recognize in yourself and other current family is a hoot. I’ve seen the inborn behavior even in very specific ways operate in my own son. He was raised without much contact with his dad, but even at a young age would react *exactly* the same as his father to things like getting a bump on the head. Amazing.


    3 Jul 09 at 11:05 pm

  5. Oh, Robert, it’s easy to see you haven’t taught in the K-12 system! I wouldn’t do it again for twice the pay – and teachers here aren’t paid badly. For ‘gets to be the only adult in the room–no one else there she has to respect’, put in ‘gets to be the only adult in the room, has to exact respect or at least grudging obedience from 20-40 other human beings of widely varying personalities, and including at least some who have been told at home to stand up for themselves, they don’t have to listen to anyone – and who have interpreted these instructions literally in a brain fuelled by adolescent hormones. Ideally, you try to get some information across to them, and prove that you’ve done so, but really of course, you’ll probably never know how successful or unsuccessful you’ve been. Then the bell rings, and you do the same thing with another group. Or perhaps you go out to supervise the students at recess or lunch, sneaking a couple minutes to get to the toilet. And the bell rings again. In your copious free time after school, you get to explain what you did with all the autonomy behind that classroom door with bosses you might not respect very much ranging from subject area supervisors to principals to consultants from school or provinicial authorities, and you know you’re going to end up doing compulsory inservices from all of the above and others besides on educational matters, plus how to restrain violent students without injuring them or being charged with assault, how to treat anaphylactic shock with an epipen, how to teach sex education, and so on. Finally, you get to take marking and/or preparation home.

    A lot of people who do physical work find satisfaction in producing something, and doing it well. Teachers never get that – they may, if they’re good and also lucky, find out that a handful of the students they have had will succeed, and credit them on the list of teachers who inspired them. The true professionals – the ones like doctors and lawyers who were traditionally self-employed – have far more autonomy in their workplace than teachers do – and they don’t suffer from the tendency of the entire population to assume that because they were once in school as a student they know what it’s like to be a teacher. And teachers are not holding high prestige jobs, not any more. Everyone’s an expert (having, as I said, been a student), and all the news reports are about teachers’ incompetance. Everyone knows ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’, and the average grades of people who get into teacher training programs.

    OK, rant, over. Back to our regularly scheduled discussion.

    I’ve never said that ALL women have very strong biological urges to have children. I didn’t myself. But a lot of us do.


    4 Jul 09 at 7:08 am

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