Thursday, August 31, 2006

The page 69 test

Marshall McLuhan suggested that you should choose your reading by turning to page 69 of a book and, if you like it, read it.

To test this notion I reached for the closest book at hand. It was Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, not the sort of thing that usually dominates my reading time but it happened to be at my side.

It is fascinating stuff. Much of the material is (way) over my head and, after an initial surge of straight-on reading past the hundred-page (or so) mark, I've slowed down and now dip into it between novels.

Anyway, is page 69 a good place to get a sense of the book?

Amazingly enough, it is. The page is in a section of the book headed "ergasts" (for Homo erectus or Homo ergaster or, for those who studied dinosaurs when they still walked the planet, Java Man or Peking Man). Homo ergaster is the first fossil ancestor we have who is unequivocally of a different species from ourselves.

Page 69 begins:

Even I, however, have no hope that we shall ever know what they [ie, Homo ergaster] said to each other, or the language in which they said it. Did it begin with pure words and no grammar: the equivalent of an infant babbling nounspeak? Or did grammar come early and--which is not impossible and not even silly--suddenly? Perhaps the capacity for grammar was already deep in the brain, being used for something else like mental planning. Is it even possible that grammar, as applied to communication at least, was the sudden invention of a genius? I doubt it, but in this field I wouldn’t rule anything out with confidence.

I'm familiar (or at least used to be superficially familiar) enough with the debate over whether language is innate or learned to be intrigued by this stuff, and the book is chock full of discussions of this sort.

Then, still on page 69, Dawkins gets into how some new research using genetic data from a family with an unusual hereditary defect might be used to identify certain parts of the brain involved in language development. At which point I find myself at sea.

And all that is reasonably indicative of what the book has so far held in store for me: a few amazing insights and speculation, followed by some science I don't really understand but would like to.

McLuhan's test holds up for Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, surprisingly enough.

--Marshal Zeringue