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In my post “The naked years” I used this image to illustrate the transition from furry Australopithecus, to hairless H. erectus, to the sartorially elaborated H. sapiens sapiens:

Do you find the image offensive? I obviously didn’t, I’m not an artist and was trying to visually communicate a scientific concept, not “provoke.” My usual procedure when looking for images is to go to Wikipedia and find material in the public domain. For the last image I just entered “top hat,” and yanked out the first picture which had a fully body shot, and inserted it into the image montage. As I was crediting I noticed that the image was of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln of Turkey rolled into one. And so the post went up….

But that’s not the end of the story.

Someone posted the entry on friendfeed, which prompted this response:

Eivind, looks like Ali intended to tell about Turkish people’s commitment to the image of Ataturk. Initial reason for the Turkish censorship of Youtube was “insulting to Ataturk” From that point of view, putting an image of the man next to a chimpanzee is humiliating, even if it is out of the context.

First, the image isn’t a chimpanzee. Atatürk is next to another human, albeit an ancestral lineage. The commenters seem to have spoken more in jest, but Turks take insults to the founder of their nation seriously : “…the Turkish Parliament issued a law (5816) outlawing insults to his reminiscence (Turkish: Hatırası) or destruction of objects representing him.” As a larger proportion of Turks are Creationists than Americans, I can see where they’d find offense at this juxtaposition (though the Creationist ones might be less adulatory of Atatürk, who was a militant secularist, and privately an atheist).

I have not removed the image. Unless the editors ask, I will not I suspect, though I am always open to new arguments assuming I have the marginal time to consider them. I think the idea that this is an offensive image is silly. We’re all primates, equally descended from H. erectus. And the intent was to contrast the well dressed modern man with our naked ancestors. But, I can also agree that Turks are within rights to be offended. They aren’t me, and I’m not them, our experiences and values differ.

How about this image:


I don’t personally find it offensive, but I wouldn’t use it. Depicting George W. Bush in a simian fashion was so common on the political Left during his tenure that it wouldn’t serve the intentions of the post, which is to explore science, not political ridicule or satire. Conservatives would be offended, liberals would be amused, and the topic would probably be the image, and not the post.

How about this?


I wouldn’t put this image up either as an illustration. I don’t personally find it offensive in a visceral sense, Barack H. Obama is descended from ancient primates who we might term “apes.” But, I am sensitive to the long history in the United States of depicting people of African ancestry as apes or ape-like, and such an image might cause great offense and hurt others. At a minimum the image would be a distraction, just as the image with George W. Bush spliced in would be.

And that is why I can understand the Turkish perspective somewhat. The post-modern rejection of the pretense of concrete objectivity is valid in some circumstances, though that rejection is itself grounded in material, and the phenomenon which emerges from that material (brain and mind). But, that does not mean that I fly to total subjectivity here. To my knowledge Turks have not historically been depicted as apes. If I used “Orientalist” imagery to indicate the progression from barbaric Turk, to decadent Ottoman, to vigorous Turk, some analogy might be drawn between the first and last image of H. sapiens sapiens. So though I grant some Turks the right to be offended (even on the thread very few Turks seem offended at the use of the image), in this case I think there are objective grounds to also argue that the offense taken is not proportionate to the image because of the context.

But setting aside the issues of objectivity, why don’t I take the subjective aspect which I grant seriously enough to change the image (at least at this moment?). In this instance, no one is forcing Turks to view the image. But there is a more general problem: the non-uniformity of the sacred and the response of offense cross-culturally. Different cultures have radically different views of what is offensive, what is sacred, and often those views are simply at such opposition that a common understanding is not possible. Many Jews view the traditional Christian view of supersessionism as deeply offensive and objectionable. Many Hindus view the stance of many Muslims and Christians that they should convert “heathens”, “idolators” and “pagans” as deeply offensive. And yet for some Christians and Muslims to engage in the Great Commission or Dawah is a fundamental part of their religious faith. In the realm of practice, many conservative Muslims find the exposure of female arms and legs a provocation. Conversely, many women across the world feel that it is their right to dress how they wish to, and are offended at the idea that their very body is a provocation, such that it needs be cloaked.

I could go on. And, I have to add that the problem exists within societies. The same people can view the same images, or consider the same beliefs, and come to radically different conclusions as to their acceptability as judged by “common decency.” There’s no easy solution to this problem, but, we need to remember that other people don’t always share our implicit values, experiences and outlooks, and so we shouldn’t view their own actions and views as we would our own in those circumstances. I’m aware of this personally because my milieu is that of secular liberals, and I am a secular conservative. I don’t go into situations assuming people share my values, because they don’t, and I tread in a manner which pragmatically acknowledges that reality of my existence.

This is a weblog written by an American, predominantly for an American audience. Additionally, though it is a politically diverse weblog, the readership is overwhelmingly well educated and secular. That colors what I say, how I say it, and how I assume the audience will react (I doubt most of you recognized the image as of Atatürk. Even I did not think of it, and I take interest in things Turkish!). But many people find aspects of my posts deeply offensive. Generally they deal with human genetics and tread on some nationalistic shibboleth. I don’t often publish those comments or respond to those reactions because I don’t think there’s any fruit to be had there. If I changed what I wrote to satisfy all those who were offended I just wouldn’t write very much. The internet is international, but for purposes of practicality I have to constrain the circle of offense to the United States, and to a lesser extent the Western world. As I suggested above, many people are offended by contradictory things, so ultimately the set of things mentionable converges on the null set if you really try to satisfy everyone. A reasonable human life is bounded by a common set of values, understandings, and cultural moorings. I’m not a dogmatist of course. But I reject the idea that comparison of an individual to a chimpanzee is offensive in and of itself. Chimpanzees are intelligent and interesting animals, as are we. Those are my values, and in my space (or the space that the editors of Discover Magazine provide) they will reign supreme. I can not live under the worry that someone, somewhere, may be offended.

I wrote this post in part to clarify this particular issue, but also obliquely to address events in the wider world of cross-cultural offense. People are taking sides, and arguing in broad brushes. That’s fine for politicians and public figures, who live in a different world. Most of you who know me understand that I take a dim view of the median human cognitive capacity, so I have little hope that a subtle and nuanced discussion can be had out in the open in a broad-based fashion (that assertion, that the average human is not very intelligent, is very offensive to many people, but that is just how I feel, and I own it). But those of us who deal in the domain of the mind should push ourselves further, and try to acknowledge both that we’re active agents within a particular cultural system and hold to specific values, and, that we can use our higher cognitive faculties and enter into a state of Epochè, and view phenomena from the outside.

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In yesterday’s link dump I expressed some dismissive attitudes toward the idea that loss of linguistic diversity, or more precisely the extinction of rare languages, was a major tragedy. Concretely, many languages are going extinct today as the older generation of last native speakers is dying. This is an issue that is embedded in a set of norms, values which you hold to be ends, so I thought I could be a little clearer as to what I’m getting at. I think there are real reasons outside of short-term hedonic utility why people would want to preserve their own linguistic tradition, and that is because I am no longer a total individualist when it comes to human identity. I have much more sympathy for the French who wish to preserve French against the loss of their linguistic identity against the expansion of English than I had a few years ago.

Language is history and memory. When the last speaker of English dies, or, when English is transmuted to such an extent that it is no longer English as we today understand it, our perception of the past and historical memory, our understanding of ourselves, will change. There is a qualitative difference when Shakespeare becomes as unintelligible as Beowulf. Though I tend to lean toward the proposition that all languages are a means toward the same ends, communication, I agree that there are subtleties of nuance and meaning which are lost in translation when it comes to works of literature and other aspects of collective memory. Those shadings are the sort of diversity which gives intangible aesthetic coloring to the world. A world where everyone spoke the same language would lose a great deal of color, and I acknowledge that.

But we need to look at the other side of the ledger. First, we’re not talking about the extinction of English, French, or Cantonese. We’re talking about the extinction of languages with a few thousand to a dozen or so speakers. The distribution of languages and the number of speakers they have follows a power law trend, the vast majority of languages have very few speakers, and these are the ones which are going extinct. We are then losing communal identity, a thousand oral Shakespeare’s are turning into Beowulf’s and Epic of Gilgamesh’s, specific stories which have to be reduced to their universal human elements because a living native speaking community is gone. Let me acknowledge that there is some tragedy here. But this ignores the costs to those who do not speak world languages with a high level of fluency. The cost of collective color and diversity may be their individual poverty (i.e., we who speak world languages gain, but incur no costs).

Over the arc of human history individuals and communities have shifted toward languages with more numerous following. Sometimes, as in the case of the marginalization of the dialects of France for standard French in the 19th century, there was a top-down push. In other cases there needed to be no top-down push, because people want to integrate themselves into networks of trade, communication and participate in the family of nations on equal footing. Losing the languages of your ancestors means that your ancestors are made to disappear, their memory fades, and is replaced by other fictive ancestors. Modern Arabs outside of Arabia will often acknowledge that they are the products of Arabization (this is most obvious in the case of regions like Egypt or Mesopotamia which have long and glorious historical traditions pre-dating Islam). But they also in particular circumstances conceive of themselves as descendants of Ishmael, because they are Arab. A similar sort of substitution occurs when peoples change religions. The early medieval European monarchies, such as the Merovingians and the House of Wessex, traced their ancestry to German pagan gods. Later European dynasties tended to establish fictive ties to the House of David.

But letting one’s ancestors die also means that one can live with other human beings, and participate clearly and with a high level of fluency. You may object that this does not entail monolingualism. And certainly it does not, but over the generations there will be a shift toward a dominant language if there is economic, social and cultural integration. The way we can preserve local traditions and languages in the face of the homogenizing power of languages and cultures of greater scope is to put up extremely high barriers to interaction. The Amish have preserved their German dialect and religious traditions, but only through opting out of the mainstream to an extreme extent (and the Amish are bilingual too).

On a deeper cognitive level some readers point out that there are hints that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may be correct. This is still not a strong enough reason for the perpetuation of linguistic traditions which are not widely subscribed. Humans have a finite amount of time in their lives, and the choices they make may not be perfectly rational, but quite often in the aggregate they are. When it comes to some aspects of cultural diversity, such as dress and religion, the importance we place on these traits is imbued by aspects of human psychology. Not so with language. Communication is of direct utilitarian importance.

Now that I’ve addressed, at least minimally, the tensions on the macro and micro level when it comes to linguistic preference, I want to address the aggregate gains to linguistic uniformity. My family is from Bangladesh, which had a “language movement”, which served as the seeds for the creation of that nation from a united Pakistan. Though there was a racial and religious component to the conflict I don’t think it would have matured and ripened to outright civil war without the linguistic difference. Language binds us to our ancestors, and to our peers, but also can separate us from others. A common language may not only be useful in a macroeconomic context, reducing transaction costs and allowing for more frictionless flow of information, but it also removes one major dimension of intergroup conflict.

So if only everyone spoke the same language there would be peace and prosperity? Perhaps not. Recently I have been convinced that it is best to have an oligopoly of languages so that “group-think” doesn’t impact the whole world in the same way. I’m basically repeating Jared Diamond’s argument i n Guns, Germs, and Steel, as to why Europe was more cultural creative in the early modern period than China. Institutional barriers can allow for more experimentation, and prevent “irrational herds” from taking the whole system into dead-ends. Another way to think of it is portfolio diversity. Though linguistic diversity will introduce frictions to communication, on the margins some friction is useful to prevent memetic contagion which might occur due to positive feedback loops.

Below I present my model in graphical form. One the X axis is a diversity index. Imagine it goes from 1 to 0. 1 is the state where everyone speaks a different language, and 0 is the one where everyone speaks the same language. A state of high linguistic diversity converges upon 1, and one of low diversity upon 0. I believe that as linguistic diversity decreases one gains economies of scale, but there are diminishing returns. And, beyond a certain point I suspect that there are decreases to utility because of the systematic problem of irrational herds. I didn’t put a scale on the X axis because I don’t have a really clear sense of when we’re hitting the point of negative returns on homogeneity, though I don’t think we’re there yet.


Note: My confidence in the hypothesis that there are negative returns at some point is modest at best, and I have a high level of uncertainty as to its validity. But, I have a high confidence about the shape of the left side of the chart below, that very high linguistic diversity is not conducive to economic growth, social cooperation, and amity more generally scaled beyond the tribe.

• Category: Economics, Science • Tags: Culture, Diversity, Language, Norms 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"