Discover more from Qui Ante Nos
Things didn't have to be this way
A Qui Ante Nos manifesto
Qui Ante Nos is almost two years old. My first post compared contemporary US political dysfunction to the Roman Republic’s surprising willingness to throw tens of thousands of soldiers into battle against an enemy that seemed to outsmart them over and over again. I tried for a while to stick to this format, taking a contemporary news event and comparing it to something historical that I thought added a new dimension.
But over those two years, my motivation and style have clarified, and I thought it would be worth writing a little Qui Ante Nos manifesto. It’s pretty simple:
Things didn’t have to be this way. The world, our society, and our lives, as they are now, are not the way they had to be. Our minds are naturally predisposed to thinking that this world we live in is a good one, and perhaps the only one. This one manifestation of the status quo bias that causes most people to, for example, place higher value on something if they happen to possess it. But even the great philosopher Leibniz concluded, with honesty and seriousness, that we live in the best of all possible worlds.
It’s important to learn what things happened in the past that led us to where we are now, but it’s also important to ask whether past events could have led us down a different path. That inquiry can open our minds to alternatives and shake us free of status quo bias.
Realizing that the world could have been different doesn’t make it so. If you conclude, for example, that the world didn’t have to be mostly patriarchal, that doesn’t mean it isn’t that way now. But at least that realization can show some paths for how we could change.
Here’s a small example of this kind of alternative-world thinking: Why are most human languages spoken, rather than signed? I’ve posed this question to many people over many years. Most of them tell me the answer is obvious, but I really don’t think it is.
The first class of objections are born out of ignorance about sign languages, that they are somehow fundamentally inferior to spoken languages in their ability to transmit information. Linguistics research is fairly clear that sign languages evolve the same way that spoken languages do. They have syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and even morphology. Babies make sounds, but they also experiment with hand shapes, which are the “sounds” out of which sign language “words” are composed. Language is intrinsic to what we think of as being human, but spoken language is not. We could all be using sign languages and have equally rich mental lives.
The second class of objections are born out of conflations between using a sign language and being deaf. Being deaf is certainly not an evolutionary advantage. Yes, if you are deaf and it’s dark, it’s very hard to communicate. You likely wouldn’t have successful night hunts. But you can be a hearing person and use a sign language, and you can use a sign language and supplement it with vocal communication. Hearing people use lots of nonverbal communication tools, like pointing and waving and making faces and using commonly-understood gestures. If you want the check at a restaurant, you can make that pretty clear without using your voice at all, and without looking ridiculous.
The third class of objections are very fine-grained evolutionary fitness arguments. For example, one might contend that a speaking society would have an evolutionary advantage over a signing society because the battlefield leader in a speaking society could communicate complex battle plans without having to put down their spear and shield. I would object that, if people in speaking militaries can learn dozens of nonverbal signals, then hearing people in a primarily signing military could learn dozens of verbal signals. Ultimately, I think most of these objections don’t hold up under careful scrutiny. For the world to be 99.9% speaking, signing would have to be so disastrously disadvantageous that almost no signing society could survive. Fine-grained arguments about how speaking might be more convenient in particular scenarios does not add up to this 99.9% dominance.
My solution to the puzzle is something about evolutionary necessity. If humans are perfectly capable of expressing themselves in spoken languages and sign languages, and spoken languages don’t have some immense Darwinian advantage over sign languages, then the remaining reason is that the earliest languages were spoken. There must be something in our genetics that causes humans who come into being in the absence of language tend to spontaneously produce and prefer spoken languages to sign languages.
I’m not entirely sure I’m right in my conclusions, but I do feel sure that most people are overconfident in their answer to my initial riddle, about why most people on Earth use a spoken language and not a sign language.
My goal here at Qui Ante Nos is to try to convince you that you should be less sure about why the world is the way it is, and whether it could have been any different.