by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
Sometimes there is no good news unless you search for it. I found some recently, for instance, when I wondered if college students today are still obliged to purchase and—though I doubt they ever did—read Michael C. Howard’s Contemporary Cultural Anthropology. Well, it seems they aren’t.
Howard’s miserable work evidently did not survive its fifth edition in 1997, used copies of which are currently available at Amazon for as much $147.30. My own copy, third edition, would not fetch so much, I think, as it bulges with countless critical remarks scribbled along the margins and on every available white space.
For example, here is the final observation, written as I finished the book on August 10, 1989:
“This is my first reading of any book that described itself as ‘cultural anthropology.’ Are they all, I wonder, as awful as this one?”
That question was repeatedly answered in the affirmative over the ensuing years, as various publishing houses continued to send me sample copies of their own textbooks, hoping I would select one of them for my course, Cultural Anthropology 101. Looking through them, one-by-one, I never did.
The reason is simple: Right from the start my course had taken on the form of a systematic, semester-long drubbing of Howard’s work, and I was disinclined to switch from one bloody nose to another.
The deepest flaw in Howard’s deeply flawed anthropology is its Darwinian view of anthropos—Man—a view that fails to account for the formal qualities that separate the human being from other kinds of animal life.
The presence of this flaw is perhaps most obvious in the author’s treatment of language. Howard, who discusses speech in the section called “Culture and Communication,” reduces language to the purely social function of conveying messages; accordingly, human speech is regarded only as a refinement of the grunts, squeals, and chirpings by which other animals send information to one another. (Even in this treatment, Howard fails to use the best evidence in support of his thesis: talk shows and rap music.)
However, if one determines to approach the phenomenon of language through the lens of Evolution, I think it behooves him to take the available evidence seriously. And what is the evidence? Human beings are the only creatures whose language does evolve. This evolution is what distinguishes man and sets him apart.
Suppose for the moment that my canary, Chirpies, and I were suddenly to be transported to some distant place and former time—let’s say the high period of the Ming Dynasty. I, not Chirpies, would suffer from the journey. My little canary is totally fluent in canary language from all periods, going back to the first canaries. So, on the supposition of our visit to the Ming Dynasty, Chirpies would sit there on his stupid branch, cheerfully exchanging gossip with all the other canaries, while I was reduced to smiling and nodding a faint agreement from time to time, quite at a loss to follow even the bare gist of their conversation.
Indeed, Chirpies, something of a smart aleck on occasion, might start to rub it in. With a view to my further humiliation, he might venture the exchange of monosyllabic pleasantries with the finches and sparrows. Or, for all I know, he might be telling them,
“Don’t mind Stupid here. He fancies he’s further evolved than we are.”
Language, the area in which it is easiest to demonstrate a very large measure of evolution in human beings, is the one place where there is zero evidence of evolution in other animals.
Most folks, unless their brains have rotted from exposure to anthropology textbooks, recognize that human language serves a double function; it moves in two directions: within and without. Words are not only the sounds by which we communicate outwardly with one another, they are also the means by which we commune inwardly with our own hearts. They are the medium of reflective thought.
Holy Scripture ascribes primacy of place to this internal direction of language. Before even the second human being appeared, Adam had already named, to himself, the various animals. The human race had a father tongue before it acquired a mother tongue. It is instructive to reflect that Adam, when he laid eyes on his newly formed companion, did not talk first to her, but to himself:
“This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”
After that, we may suppose, he added something along the lines of
“Good morning, Eve. Let me introduce myself. I’m Adam. What we’re about to do now is called breakfast. So how do you want them, scrambled or over-easy?”