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Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
2 September 2010

During a recent vacation I took the opportunity to re-read Stephen Jay Gould's excellent collection of essays The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History" (published by Viking in 2001, the year before Gould's untimely death).

In his essay "A Tale of Two Work Sites" Gould reminds us (page 257) that it was Herbert Spencer (not Charles Darwin) who laid out in his book Social Status published in 1850 the basic approach to understanding society and culture that later came to be called Social Darwinism. This is the application of the concepts of "struggle for existence" and "survival of the fittest", a term coined by Spencer (not Darwin), beyond the realm of biology to all things social and cultural, including human language. As Gould points out:

"Darwin himself maintained a highly ambivalent relationship to this movement that borrowed his name. He felt the pride of any creator toward useful extensions of his theory - and he did hope for an evolutionary account of human origins and historical patterns. But he also understood only too well why the mechanism of natural selection applied poorly to the causes of social change in humans."

Gould continues (page 257):
"Social Darwinism often serves as a blanket term for any genetic or biological claim made about the inevitability (or at least the "naturalness") of social inequalities among classes and sexes, or military conquests of one group by another."

Spencer's approach insisted that interaction between elements in evolving systems and their environment must be left free of interference in order to ensure progress from homogeneity ("primitive" human society) to complex and structured heterogeneity (as in "advanced" industrial society). Only this will the fittest survive. This view was later dismissed, as Gould (page 260) points out, by Darwin's champion Thomas Henry Huxley as the 'gladiatorial school' of evolution.

Darwin's metaphor of the "struggle for existence" presented in The Origin of Species "included any strategy that promotes increased reproductive success, whether by outright battle, cooperation, or just simple prowess in copulation" (Gould page 260). In other words, for Darwin natural selection could be spelled out over time through coexistence between species, say, not just in a grim fight to the death.

Unfortunately, the grimmest of Spencerian Social Darwinism is alive and well today, often wrapped up in the terminology and graphical representations of mathematics and economics. An example is an article published on 15th July 2010 by Razib Khan on the Discover Magazine blog called "Linguistic diversity = poverty". Khan recognises that many minority languages around the world are endangered but argues that people who speak such languages do so at a cost, namely that it makes them poor ("The cost of collective color and diversity may be their individual poverty (i.e., we who speak world languages gain, but incur no costs"). The only way to join with other people and get economic advantages is to abandon languages and shift to dominant means of communication. This shouldn't be a problem, he suggests, because language is purely utilitarian, unlike 'cultural traits' (thus "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."). So, it's good for languages to die out as this "reduc[es] transaction costs and allow[s] for more frictionless flow of information, ... it also removes one major dimension of intergroup conflict", To prove his point, Khan presents a graph showing that "very high linguistic diversity is not conducive to economic growth, social cooperation, and amity more generally scaled beyond the tribe". So there you go, give up your language and you won't be poor any more.

Some people seem to be convinced by this kind of rhetoric - one of the commentators on Khan's article says "I made a decision as a child to dump my parents’ language for English. I was born in Malta, and live in Australia since a young age. I could see no good reason to speak a minority language on any level. ... I sincerely hope that Maltese does become extinct. It does not deserve to survive on any level."

Other people are not convinced, however, and several of the commentators point out the important role of heritage and identity that is linked to language maintenance, often in a multilingual context. Language is not purely utilitarian. If it were why would people continue speaking Diyari long after it makes any 'economic sense' to do so, or why would millions of Javanese, Balinese and Sasaks continue to maintain a language, Kawi, that has not been acquired as a first language by children for 300 years or more and has no 'value' in the modern economic sense? Maybe it's not about survival of the fittest and killing languages to stop being poor after all.


Greg Downey has published a longer and more detailed critique of Khan's blog post that covers a range of issues, including those I mention, from an different perspective. Interestingly, in a chapter on "Linguistic anthropology" in the forthcoming Cambridge Handbook of Sociolinguistics edited by Raj Mesthrie, Alessandro Duranti argues that "linguistic anthropologists share some core ideas about a small set of essential properties of language, all of which are centered around one basic assumption, namely, that language is a non-neutral medium". In other words, since Boas in the 19th century we have figured out that language is not neutral and utilitarian (contra Khan) and that is what makes it so interesting and complex.

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