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Michael Agar @alcaldemike


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June Tuneup

Working on water in New Mexico is starting to feel like working on drugs used to. Intellectually interesting as it all is, there are a lot of problems, a growing amount of information, and a large number of people willing to put those two things together. But, like both the drug issue with its decades long "war" and current alarms about water and climate change, the political will to change how we do things is absent. I'm speaking of the US now, not necessarily the rest of the world. I could tell plenty of stories of how US influence blocked not only its own, but also global drug reform. And at the moment we have a presidential candidate and many members of Congress who want to withdraw the US from the recent climate change agreement in Paris. And in New Mexico? Good luck with the state, something I wrote about in a recent op-ed piece for the Santa Fe New Mexican. The land of enchantment is paralyzed by the top.

So, in my old age, I started thinking about a more fundamental problem, human cooperation and conflict. The truth is, I first muttered "the hell with it" and went back to my days at the Language Behavior Research Laboratory at Berkeley and started thinking about language and culture, about "languaculture" as I called it in Language Shock. Back in the day, we discourse types focused on language as the publicly available symbolic system that served as an inroad to understanding and explaining biographical and historical differences between "us" and "them." We never talked much about the evolutionary origins of language and culture among humans as a species. So, a few months ago, I thought maybe I'd go way back in time and take a look at that to get some perspective. Drugs and water? No way to be of any use there.

Holy Mother of God, as we used to say at St. Michael's. The amount of recent work on the emergence of languaculture, across species and through time, has already blown up my bibliographic software. The topic has grown into its own transdisciplinary field. I'm exploring it now, trying to construct a framework that lets me put a few of the pieces together in my own twisted way. ("Putting something together in a twisted way" is an interesting clause. It reminds me of several home improvement jobs I've done.)

But a funny thing happened on the trail through a few sources. One theme in several I looked at was the question, languaculture, what is it good for? A functional view, sometimes in an imaginative way even from an early human point of view. The question has many answers, the traditional evolutionary measure of natural selection, the imaginative answer of better living among early humans, the logical answer of building on communicative abilities that were probably already present based on interspecies comparison, and laboratory-based answers given the spectacular amount of relevant brain science in recent times. All deserve their own elaborate discussion in addition to other areas not mentioned in that preliminary litany.

One thematic answer across several areas is this: Languaculture is a tool that facilitates flexibility in service of cooperation. The traditional empirical anchors for this claim are tasks like hunting and warfare. More recently the notion of allo – parenting has come to the fore, the idea that it takes several kin in collaboration to increase the chances of human infant survival and growth. It's not all helping each other out though. With languaculture also came refined skills at deceit and manipulation. And cooperation in war brings up all the insider – outsider hostility issues that have to be part of the story as well.

But that link between the emergence of languaculture and its use to advance flexibility and cooperation in some of the ancestral tasks that fulfilled early human Maslovian needs – it returned me to the frustration with earlier work in the drug field and more recent work in water. Whatever happened to flexibility and cooperation in those areas? At low levels of scale, it had always been – and still is – possible to find little islands where languaculture worked its magic. Once in while you see it at higher levels of scale as well. Drug policy in the Netherlands, though I'm not sure of its current status, used to be the poster child for national drug policy reform. And California under Gov. Brown initiated a serious effort at the state level to foster cooperation in the face of climate change. The jury is of course still out on that one – some decisions have been criticized because they are anthropocentric without consideration of what nature would say if it had a voice.

At any rate, the notion that the origins of languaculture might be examined to understand and develop new approaches to human cooperation in contemporary times looks like a useful and interesting path to follow for a while. Probably there are libraries full of books, 20 new research institutes, and a new job title – CCO, chief cooperation officer. Why are you laughing? Just watched a Trump rally? I know for sure that there is a massive amount of relevant material about conflict and cooperation in general, though most of it, as far as I know, doesn't look back to the beginning of Homo sapiens sapiens where languaculture got its start.

So I think I'll read and maybe do a couple of book reports to get started, especially given a recent omen. No sooner did my fuzzy question take shape than a new book caught my eye, another example of the principle that you are what you notice. Actually my significant other spotted it and said "maybe you oughtta take a look at this." It's called Tribe: On Homecoming And Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, the guy who wrote The Perfect Storm. Maybe I'll write a blog about that in awhile. It's trade nonfiction – so likely to be a migraine free read – that drives for that non-reductionist link between human origins and contemporary human problems that I'm after.

My own writing is dormant at the moment, except for the occasional journal or book manuscript evaluation. I want to read for a while now. I'll be back next time with a book review.

Life is interesting.

Selected Works

Nonfiction
Wonder why studies you read about your world usually don’t get who you are and how you really live? Frustrated that “the numbers” don’t solve the problem? Does it bother you that policies and programs, more often than not, don’t work like they’re supposed to? People, organizations, countries–they rely on information about real human social lives. Usually they don’t have it because they only test what they think they already know in narrow situations of their own design. The results have value, some of the time, but it’s not nearly enough. We need a human social science that begins and ends in the real worlds of the humans that it claims to be about. One has been around for a couple of hundred years. The Lively Science tells the story of its historical roots and the reasons for its neglect, blends in new intellectual tools, and argues that it’s time to get on with a science that changes research objects into human subjects and learns who they are and what they’re trying to do before conclusions are drawn.
Living in a world of linguistic and cultural differences
A personal story of decades of work in the substance abuse field, a story of how our ineffective drug policy came to be and stayed in place. Now available as an e-book at iBook on iTunes and on Barnes and Noble.
The story of the working world of independent truckers in a time of deregulation
Nonfiction, Introductory Text
An introduction to ethnography