What’s the Bottom of the Knowledge Structure Stack Look Like? Dan Everett and the Pirahã

A quiet morning with the pigeons — Cordoba, Spain

Instead of dooming your brain with more COVID analysis, I’m going to write about a very interesting New Yorker article from 2007, that happened to be recommended by someone I’d say is one of the smartest people on Twitter — and certainly by far, the most insightful young person by a long mile -@noampomsky. Check Ava out. She’s awesome.

The article, called The Interpreter, by John Colapinto, is about Dan Everett – a true adventure linguist, who, gifted with a facility to analyze languages from basically nothing, underwent religious conversion, became a Christian missionary, and lived with one of the most linguistically primitive tribes on the planet, the Pirahã. Intending to convert them, he found they had no interest in Jesus, since he was no longer alive. In fact, they had little interest in anything that wasn’t immediate. One of the only tribes to avoid assimilation from the larger Brazilian culture, they are still hunter-gatherers with an extremely sophisticated knowledge base on how to survive in the jungle.

The article mostly maps Everett’s struggles with attempting to apply Chomsky’s recursive grammar theories to the Pirahã language. Which fail utterly. They communicate in a distinctly tonal, almost animal-chirpy form of language, and have little interest in relating anything to anything else. The article goes to lengths to explain they are not some anomalous tribe of mentally deficient humans. In fact, their knowledge of plants and animals is encyclopedic. They just don’t care about tomorrow.

And they even have poor object permanence, or rather people permanence. When a person is out of sight, they are profoundly out of mind.

The example of their exception is a profound dismantling of the notion of language as a precursor to humanity. And if one believes my own theory of Structural Memetics, which basically states that social structure creates knowledge structure, there is simply no rationale to believe language, as a designed/created product, should come first. There is no question that language does participate in the feedback loop that creates human consciousness – as well as itself. But when it comes to the “chicken and egg” problem — it appears that the chicken came first.

What’s uniquely fascinating is that the Pirahã are likely the only extant example of humans dealing with solely the bottom of the knowledge structure stack. There are not even tribal creation myths to contaminate their thinking, though it is fascinating they manage to maintain a sense of identity without them.

Are they low empathy? Well, they’re certainly not practicing much connection or empathetic development with anyone outside their in-group. The article notes that they extensively use prosody, the sing-song tonality that mothers and fathers alike use to soothe infants. And they call the language of everyone on the outside of their world speaking “Crooked Heads” — here’s the pull quote from the piece.

Everett turned to me. “They want to know what you’re called in ‘crooked head.’ ”

“Crooked head” is the tribe’s term for any language that is not Pirahã, and it is a clear pejorative. The Pirahã consider all forms of human discourse other than their own to be laughably inferior, and they are unique among Amazonian peoples in remaining monolingual. They playfully tossed my name back and forth among themselves, altering it slightly with each reiteration, until it became an unrecognizable syllable. They never uttered it again, but instead gave me a lilting Pirahã name: Kaaxáoi, that of a Pirahã man, from a village downriver, whom they thought I resembled. “That’s completely consistent with my main thesis about the tribe,” Everett told me later. “They reject everything from outside their world. They just don’t want it, and it’s been that way since the day the Brazilians first found them in this jungle in the seventeen-hundreds.”

One thing to think about when reading this piece — what does it really feel like to live in the moment? The Pirahã have answers. But they’re likely not what you thought. As we relate, so we think can go backwards as well. And might not be as emotionally satisfying as one might think. Complexity and evolved love might just go together.

Naturally, the article written in 2007 doesn’t include Dan’s latest work. I wrote him on his contact page. We’ll see if he writes back. A cursory look at his blog indicates he’s still fighting the Chomsky-ites. Maybe he’ll appreciate a fresh approach.

5 thoughts on “What’s the Bottom of the Knowledge Structure Stack Look Like? Dan Everett and the Pirahã

  1. I had an email exchange with D Everett. I just suggested a small ‘correction’ to his view that Piraha or animals don’t use recursion.They dont use written language or mathematical logic but they do have a form of recursion.. Everett replied and agreed with me. (Its a sort of technical issue–i think th exchange is online soemwhere.).

    In a sense i’m sort of of aligned with Chomskian politics of ‘libertory socialism’ but i think him being designated or annointed the’ leading intellectual of the world’ has let his ego go to his head.

    As many have pointed out while Chomsky has been suing the term recursion since 1960s he never really defined it until a paper in Science Mag in 2000’s with M hauser of Harvard—-who was kicked out of Harvard for academic fraud,.

    Chomsky went after Everett (the way he went after me when i asked a question at the 2 lecutres i attended–his profound answer was ‘my grad sutdents already anwered the question’ and then he sicked his cult on me. I was made to feel as wlecome as I was at the Trump rally yesterday–i went as an observer tho i made a few comments which were not well received—but the ‘proud boys’ and ilk i explained to ‘ take a look around–there are 100s of cops here’. so keep your hands off. ).

    Everett is basically corretc. There are some other linguists with similar views (or mnay)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes–i’d say your stuff is a refinement written in your dialect or paradigm.

        As you say ‘there is no reason to think language precedes social structure’–which is basically the chomksyian view. He thinks it evolved so people could organize their thoughts ,and in a few writings he suggests these thoughts evolved first when there was no external world, and dealt with ‘platonic objects’ which are words. Later humans discovered the words they had in their head could be found in the external world–so you could organize both your thoughts and the external world.

        Words turned out to be useful— eg like Wigner’s ‘amazing effectiveness of math in natural sciences.’
        Later chomsky says people found words and language could be used for social communication–but that was a late development.

        Its sort of like the discovery of cars and bombs—first these were found or made (chomsky would say found—they already existed in the platonic unvierse) –but later they realized they could be used to go somewhere or drop on people you dont like.

        My view which I sort of suggested at one of these chomksy lectures was that language always had a social purpose and evolved that way. Chomsky says evidence that language is ‘internal’ is because we use it mostly or oftenly to ‘talk to ourselves’ (eg baby talk). My view was most of this talking to yourself is ‘rehearsing pickup lines’.

        I might diagree htat the chicken comes before the egg–this is undecidable.

        I like the quote about Piraha—i might have a version of their religion about the crooked heads.

        The example of how they ‘mangled’ Everett’s name i would say is an example of recursion–a simple form. Also i bet they care about tomorrow even if they dont have a retirement bank account. they keep their bank outside and know what is in it and where. squirrels do this as well–though chomnsky would deny squirrels have minds , language or recursion. if you ever mess around with wild snakes they have recursion as well. their behavuor is not a 1st order markov process or random walk.

        (i probably stupidly messed with a wild snake about a week ago –just picked it up out of the water to say hello–and it didnt appreciate it–didnt want a visit—ripped me up and i’m suffering the consequences
        .in a sense i’m a bit like the pirhaha but i do care about tomorrow–so i dont want to spend tomorrow in a hospital.
        supposedly you do this because then next week you’ll be happy. i dont care about next week –too far in the future–unless there is a reason to. *I like a gurantee–eg ‘if you do the homework and pass the class you are guaranteed your dream jiob and a a long happy life’).

        there is a group loosely based at oxford (N Bostrom–superintelligence–and trendy half-wit) that gets millions of $ to study ‘future of humanity’. ‘long termism’. (some of those people sort of ofered to fly me for free to attend one of their meetings–i said i’m not taveling 2 days for a 1 day meeting without knowing what its about apart from its a meeting. many of these meeting spned 90% of their time on ijntorudctions.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. http://ling.hawaii.edu/wlliam-ogrady/ shares my perpsective he sent me his book via email. it goes though the history of chomskey e-lites (electronic low calorie beer),. indigenous hawaiins are also quite tribal hawaiian language has only 7 letters.

    the g miller magic number 7l. i think chomsky claimed he discovered that as well along with all of math and phsyics. (i seem to notimec im dyslexic.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is one of my favorite topics. Over the past decade, I’ve written many times about Everett’s work with the Piraha. Have we never talked about it in the comments section? I’m surprised if that is the case, as the Pirah are a unique example that I return on a regular basis. There probably used to be lots of tribes like them, but what they represent is disappearing quickly from the world.

    You comment about language as a causal factor, in terms of culture and consciousness. Now that is a complex debate. For one, I find great insight from linguistic relativity. One of the main writers on linguistic relativity is Daniel Everett’s son, Caleb Everett, who grew up among the Piraha and other tribes. One of his books is more general while the other is specifically about numerical systems, one of the traits lacking in Piraha language.

    About consciousness, that comes down to definition and there are so many definitions. With Julian Jaynes, he meant something very specific by that, not general awareness, sensory perception, or biological reactivity. It’s one of those things that seems simple at first, but quickly becomes difficult to pin down. Jaynes’ theory of metaphorical structures probably could be connected to structural memetics. That would require understanding both theories in great detail.

    Some of my posts on these topics can be found under two tags:

    But there are other related posts that won’t be found under those tags:

    There is one post about Everett and the Piraha that is quite different from the rest:


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