Language as symbiosis

Symbiosism, Symbolism and the Leiden definition of the meme
George van Driem
Leiden University
Notes from the article
The idea that language is a life form in its own right was popular amongst Indo-European linguists in Germany in the early 19th century. Friedrich von Schlegel described language as ‘ein lebendiges Gewebe’ (1808: 64), and Wilhelm von Humboldt spoke of the ‘Organismus der Sprache’ (1812: 8). Later, inspired by Ernst Haeckel’s popularisation in Germany of Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species, August Schleicher formulated a lucid statement on the organismal nature of language.
 Another more intrinsically intriguing cause for a reluctance to accept the symbiotic view, however, may lie in a natural resistance built into our minds against recognising the linguistic symbiont for what it is. Language may not want to be found out. Our mind, caught in the web of language, is neither inclined nor even well-equipped to discern its own linguistic soul.
The perceived difference between Kortlandt’s view of language and my own symbiosis view has often been phrased, even by Kortlandt himself, along the lines of the master viewing language as a parasite, whereas his pupil sees language as a symbiont. Part of the confusion is terminological in nature, for technically a parasite too is a symbiont. Symbiosis is when two phylogenetically distinct organisms live together in some sort of intimate relationship. Symbiotic relationships abound in nature and take on many forms. The most far-reaching form of symbiosis is a relationship in which both organisms cannot live without the other and effectively become as one life form. Most life forms on the planet today originated as symbiotic relationships.
 Pierre Joseph van Beneden, professor at the Catholic University at Leuven, adopted the term mutuellisme, brandished by the French social reformer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon for his ostensibly benign variety of communism, to apply to mutually beneficial relationships between species. The Belgian marine biologist later popularised the idea in his 1876 book Les commensaux et les parasites, which also appeared in German and English translations that same year. He distinguished various types of symbiotic relationship, i.e. parasite, free-living commensal, resident or obligate commensal and mutualist.
Van Beneden stressed that beneficial reciprocity was as prevalent as commensalism. He described in detail how commensalism and mutualism contrasted strongly with the deleterious effects of parasitism and likewise carefully distinguished between various forms of commensalism and the intimate and reciprocally beneficial interdependency which characterised mutualism.
Van Beneden’s work inspired the German botanist Heinrich Anton de Bary, who in 1879 popularised the word Symbiose ‘symbiosis’, an already extant term of Greek origin, in a public address to German biologists and physicians at Cassel as a cover term to designate all forms of ‘Zusammenleben ungleichnamiger Organismen’, i.e. the living together of organisms with different names, viz. belonging to differently named taxa.
 An idea often takes shape in more than just one human brain. Sometimes the same idea occurs independently to the minds of different individuals at very different times or even recurrently to various people throughout history. Alternatively, the cultural environment may be ripe for an idea which occurs independently to the minds of different individuals at roughly the same time in history. Yet scholars seldom recount the course of events in precisely that way, and the history of ideas is usually told as a tale that does not reflect this more complex reality. The view of culture as a dynamic evolving process in which words and ideas act as the transmitted units of evolution is in fact a rather obvious way of looking at human culture, and so this conception of culture has occurred to many people. Victor Hugo wrote that ‘le mot, qu’on le sache, est un Être vivant’ (1856, I: ℓ. 675).
The term ‘mneme’ was adopted by the Belgian entomologist, poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, whose work was preoccupied with symbolism and who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1911. His entomological works La vie des abeilles, first published in 1901, and La vie des termites, first published in 1926, were translated as The Life of the Bee and The Soul of the White Ant respectively. Both books went into numerous printings in English in the first half of the twentieth century. Maeterlinck attempted to explain the workings of memory in termites and ants in terms of engrams, i.e. neural memory traces, which were added ‘upon the individual mneme’ (1927: 198).
 A widespread awareness that cultural evolution too must be a Darwinian process prompted Hudson Hoagland in 1962 to suggest what must have been obvious to many people. Hoagland proposed that ideas are the units of selection and that ‘ideas may be considered to social evolution what genes are to biological evolution’ (Huxley 1962: 203). Hoagland saw competing ideas as units of what he called ‘psychosocial selection’ in cultural evolution. In 1964, Henry A. Murray coined the term idene as an analogue in social evolution to the gene in biological evolution (Hoagland 1964: 111).
 Another useful way of thinking about the language-borne units of cultural evolution was proposed by Kortlandt in 2003. The units of meaning are neuronal configurations which behave like a group of ants in an anthill or like the termites of a termite colony. Ant foraging is perhaps a more apt model for the exploratory behaviour of linguistic meanings in the human brain. Anthills are characterised by intricate patterns of exploratory behaviour which give the appearance of being the outcome of a careful overall pathfinding strategy, but which in fact result from numerous relatively simple responses by individual ants to the availability of potential food supplies. Ants leaving the nest secrete trails of pheremones which they follow back to the nest. Ants who have found food secrete more volatile pheremones. Trails that are not reinforced often enough by pheremones tend to evaporate after a while. As a consequence, some ants regularly stray away from weak trails and wander off in a random fashion.
 Our species has overrun the planet. A conventional measure of success for a species is reproductive fitness, and ours has manifestly been enhanced by language, whilst at the same time language thrives through us. By this criterion, therefore, language is a mutualist symbiont. If language were to be a parasite, then why has it not led to the extinction or at least attrition of our species? As Kortlandt has darkly hinted in this context, time will tell. Moreover, he stresses that language is our own undoing even now, for throughout history and in each of our daily lives our most vexing problems derive from language.
 Language remains largely impervious to the well-being of man, and it colours and even stunts the perceptive faculties of its hominid host. Certainly, from the perspective of language, human brains are tools for the reproduction of language. The idea that language exerts an unfavourable effect on perception itself and blinds us to reality is an old idea already espoused by Bertus Brouwer and Frederik van Eeden. Language shapes our conceptual reality, yet there is a complex relationship between language as such and language borne ideas. Whether or not the capricious nature of non-constructible sets portends our doom as a species, two other issues are relevant to an understanding of how the relationship between language and man straddles the distinction between mutualism vs. parasitism.
 One issue is whether or not language debilitates its hominid host. We humans are inoculated with language at birth. Language infests our brain and stays with us until we are entirely brain-dead. Our brains teem with linguistic signs, and each time a linguistic form with its associated meaning is activated in our brain, a Darwinian generation time has elapsed in terms of the neuronal group selection which characterises the rapid life cycle of linguistic signs. By analogy with biological models, it has been my contention that language itself is a mutualist, whereas not all meanings borne by language are mutualists.
 We are not just flesh and blood, we are what we believe. We are symbiomes of body and soul. Our species constitutes a unique type of symbiome in the natural world because of the singular and still quite primitive nature of the semiotic symbiont, language. The dual biological and semiotic mechanics of the symbiome are the key to understanding human mental health. Symbiomism is the school of philosophy which understands our human identity as symbiomes of a biological and a semiotic symbiont. Man is both the hominid host and the language that dwells in his brain and that mediates much of his thinking. Good health is the state in which both constituent symbionts are healthy and abide in some sort of happy equilibrium.
 We are as much our essentially linguistic soul as we are its corporeal hominid host. Being healthy involves keeping both components of a symbiome happy. Our brain houses a consciousness which sustains the illusion of a thinking self with a free will. In reality, our feelings, thoughts, yearnings and behaviour are the outcome of the jostle and interplay of the biological propensities and lust for creature comforts of the human host in symbiotic association with a capricious linguistic symbiont which serves as the vehicle for the ideas waging war within us. So when we speak, who is doing the talking?
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