freedom of expression
Allan Cameron is a novelist, poet, non-fiction writer and translator and is a member of the Dove Tales board.
He was brought up in Nigeria and Bangladesh and at the age of twenty moved to Italy, where he lived for many years.
He is publisher at Vagabond Voices, an independent publishing house which has introduced many foreign writers to the Scottish reading public.
THE OPPOSABLE THUMB
We now know more about “primitive” languages and are not so dismissive of them (indeed we admire their complexities). But what matters here is that by considering language to be the main determinant of what it is to be human we are also compressing the whole of humanity onto the same stage in evolution, and marking out the distinctiveness of its separation from other animals (evolution does appear to be a series of steep climbs and plateaus, so this human plateau is not an unusual occurrence).
In this sense, the recognition of the importance of language in our nature is a humanism, and takes us back to the humanist tradition that straddled the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era. For English-speakers, Hamlet’s soliloquy immediately springs to mind.
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
Hamlet (1601), Act 2, Scene 2, l)
But of course, when we now argue that language, rather than the more mundane opposable thumb or bipedalism, is the badge of our distinctiveness, and that we are therefore divided by culture and not biology or divine intervention, we are not denying our closeness to the animals; we are simply indicating the particular gift of nature and evolution that has ensured our survival and perhaps made us dangerously successful.
The opposable thumb allows us – alone amongst the primates – to get a really good mechanical grip on the world around us, while language has enabled us to express our individuality and to communicate with others in great depth. It has nurtured our reflective side and allowed us to store up knowledge. The hand with an opposable thumb has allowed us to grasp the sword, battle-axe, spear and dagger. It set us on the path of war. As technology developed, the contributions of the two attributes became more balanced. The opposable thumb made it possible to hold a pen and record language, and language became a tool of power and class differentiation.
Together these two remarkable attributes have allowed the construction of all the great machinery of coercion that surrounds us - coercion that affects us and affects our entire environment.
I have heard that dolphins too might have the faculty of language expressed through the modulation of their clicking sounds. If this is true, they are extremely fortunate not to have a hand with an opposable thumb. Perhaps they have languages and dialects. Perhaps they recite poetry to each other in the South Atlantic while one of their number simultaneously translates it into White Sea for the benefit of a delegation from the north. But no one can lift a weapon and no one can impose their will. So dolphins leap from the waves, and humans toil and look on jealously at a talented species that does not appear to have been expelled from its earthly paradise. We feel an affinity but also feel that we came off worse in our airy element than they did in their watery one.
We may be inclined to adopt attitudes of moral superiority in relation to men like Darwin, but we are all affected by the spirit of our time, often to the detriment of our own ideas (and of no one more than Darwin could it be said that he was not affected by the zeitgeist but, rather, invented it). It must have been very difficult for Western Europeans, like any other people who finds itself militarily unstoppable, not to believe in their own innate superiority and to translate that false sense of superiority into exceptionally cruel behaviour.
It could be argued that they were less cruel than many other peoples who found themselves temporarily in such a position and whose reputation relies on myth as much as it does on historical fact: the Vandals, the Huns and the Mongols (whose orgies of destruction annihilated cities and brought to an end the advanced civilisations of the Middle East and Central Asia, and ultimately left the way open to the decline of the Arab world and its maritime empires and to the rise of Western Europe and its rival ones).
But to put that argument, we would have to conceal (or continue to
conceal) the unpalatable truths of what the Europeans did in sub-Saharan Africa in relatively recent times, for which there is ample documentation: the most hidden of the hidden holocausts.
Another reason for European superiority was that the Victorians, who suffered in many ways from their Industrial Revolution, were winning a battle that was as old as settled communities – the battle against our own dirt. Today, after the terrible events of the twentieth century, one would have hoped that no sane person could insist upon the moral and intellectual superiority of the European.
From In Praise of the Garrulous
Published 2008, Vagabond Voices