Re: Mutual Intelligibilty

Harriet Whitehead (whitehea@WSUAIX.CSC.WSU.EDU)
Sat, 26 Nov 1994 19:19:52 -31802

Steven Johnson's forward asks us anthropologists, "Are human beings
mutually intelligible?" and goes on to opine that under all the cultural
diversity, "people is people."

Steven, I sympathize with your sentiments, and I bet you get quite an
argument over this topic on the list. A lot of it will boil down to
"It depends on what you mean by....mutually intelligible," etc. Still, my
biggest culture shock upon arriving in a remote, very "bush" New Guinea
village, in 1987, was the realization that I was having no culture shock.
I persistently felt like I was living among a bunch of Americans trying
some sort of hippie communal experiment. Well, not quite. But still, here
were people uncannily similar to the old familiars, but without the
remotest historical relationship, saving some recent western infiltration.
It gave me pause.
Happily, upon returning from the bush, I find a new theoretical

wave underway, called variously "the cognitive revolution," "the theory
of domain-specific cognition," or just "mind design," in which it is
argued that there is a good deal of innate mental architecture that at
least starts off the same in human babies everywhere and that connects
them to the real world in an adaptive way (not necessarily a 'rational'
way, not necessarily a 'nice' way, just an adaptive way). The 'real'
world to which the mind is, arguably, adapted, includes the social world
of fellow humans, who share this mental architecture and thus 'connect'
in mutually intelligible ways to what the other is doing/evincing etc.
Obviously, similar architecture can be put to work in pretty diverse
ways; there's still room for lots of "relativity." Some people operate
the principle of reciprocity (to name one commonality) in terms of dinner
invitations, others in terms of women given in marriage, for example.
A good summary of the trend, critiquing the high cultural
relativists, is the chapter "Mind Design," in Steve Pinker's *The
Language Game.* For greater depth, heavier breathing, try *The Adapted
Mind*, eds. Jerome Barkow, Lida Cosmides, John Tooby. Or the recent,
*Mapping the Mind*, eds L. Herschfeld and S. Gelman. Good collections, both.

Happy browsing,
Harriet Whitehead
Washington State University