Quote of the Day

The significance of language struck [Richard] Wrangham most forcefully on an occasion when a group of [Mbuti] hunters had killed an elephant…. Excitement was intense, and appeared dangerously volatile as the animal was skinned and dismembered. In terms of activity and noise, the scene matched anything of a comparable nature that Wrangham had observed among chimpanzees…. THe noise was cacophonous, but amid the din patterns of negotiation became discernible. The hunters and those with immediate rights to a share of the carcass were told to honour the obligations of kinship and give meat to their relatives. Old debts and favours were settled in exchange for meat; new pledges were contracted. The talking went on for hours, doubtless reinforcing a long-standing web of reciprocal obligations that was fundamental to the social order of the region. Wrangham says:

Chimpanzees in a comparable situation would have gone berserk. They would have screamed and squabbled and physical strength ultimately would have determined the distribution of the meat, and there probably would have been some violence between competing individuals. There may have been some bad feeling among the Mbuti too, but aggressive tendencies were constrained by the intervention of other individuals. They could talk about their differences, and bring in the issues of what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. In short—they could negotiate. Talking reduced the fighting.

—John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent

I wonder if this is why the dream of bringing disparate human communities together through music—Schopenhauer’s “universal language”—simultaneously seems to be so tantalizingly reasonable and wishful thinking: it re-enacts the process of negotiation, but without the specificity to make anyone feel satisfied. (For every instance of music peacefully bridging a divide, it’s not hard to find an example of music being used to foment division and/or violence.)


  1. Thanks for the recommendation—that does look like fun. (It is recognized that I have a strange sense of fun.)Wrangham’s work caught my eye because it’s coming at the subject from a straight-up anthropological/biological point of view, without the usual philosophical or historiographical commentary. At first I wondered if that was because I have an innate bias towards “objective” science, but I think it’s because of the scientific <>literary<> style. Hmmm, that sounds like a future blog post.

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