Monday, August 13, 2007

Genesis 11:1-8

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Hmm. That's funny. Remember Genesis 10:4, just a few paragraphs back? "From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language." And 10:20? "These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations." And 10:31? "These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations."

Well, that's inoperative. Suddenly there is only one language on the earth. But, we know that isn't true, because by this time -- according to the Biblical chronology, sometime around 2,400 BC -- there had already been written languages for almost 2,000 years, and uhh, there were many different ones. If you're interested in this subject, I would just start with the Wikipedia article.*

The history of spoken language is obviously more difficult to reconstruct, but if you're willing to ignore the biblical timing and just want to know whether it is true that there was once a single, original human language, that's actually controversial. Spoken language left no trace until the early 20th Century (thanks to Mr. Edison), except for whatever can be deduced about it from writing systems. Since early systems did not use phonetic alphabets, they are of limited use for reconstructing spoken language. But what is more important is that language pre-dates writing by tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

The proximate ancestors of humans, Homo erectus, persisted for about 2 million years. Their brains were considerably smaller than ours, and their vocal apparatus wouldn't have allowed for the complex, fluid speech we use today, but on the other hand apes communicate with meaningful, non-syntactical sounds, so they might have had a system of communication more complex than that of apes but less complex than ours. In any event, the evidence that it wasn't a real, fully developed language is that their material culture was essentially stagnant for all that time. We find no evidence of representational art, or ritual, and we find the same crude, disorganized kit of stone tools for all those millions of years.

Then, about 200,000 years ago, we find the first fossils of so-called anatomically modern humans. Not long after that, somewhere between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, was the event called cultural take-off. Suddenly stone tools become much more finely made and specific. In various times and places, new toolmaking techniques are invented and tools are made very specifically for specific purposes. They are clearly designed to be hafted as axes or fitted to spears or arrows, there are fine blades and heavy choppers, etc. Just a little later is sufficiently close in time that more perishable materials are preserved, so we find bone tools and traces of fibers. Soon thereafter we also find musical instruments, statuettes, elaborate burials, cave paintings. Something extraordinary happened and it's clear what it must have been. The ape started to speak, and now we could preserve and transmit culture, explain how to do things, discuss ideas, describe what we had seen to others, plan together, share our ideas about why the world was as it was and what it might become, write bibles and build towers.

But did language arise once, and spread from a single time and place, or were our ancestors poised to develop it and it arose at multiple points? We just don't know, although there is strong evidence that humanity passed through a very small population bottleneck in Africa around 200,000 years ago, and that these few people were the ancestors of all humankind, and maybe this one small group was the first to speak and language as well as life is their legacy to all of us. The basis for this belief is too complex to go into here, but if anybody is truly perplexed by all means let me know.

Whatever may have happened in the dark backward and abysm of time, we know that language evolves over time and that the confounding of language on earth arises from a continual process of change which ultimately results in the descendants of people who start with the same language becoming mutually unintelligible. At one time the ancestors of the people who today speak Spanish, French and Italian all spoke Latin. The English spoke a language related to German, but then the French invaded and they wound up speaking what is called a creole, which is my first language today. Pero hablo español también. God didn't do this, history did, and we have a full and clear record of it.

But enough of the profound idiocy of people who believe that the Bible is literally true. What does this story tell us about God? First of all, he's physically up in the sky somewhere. He has to "come down" to see what the people are up to, which means he also is not omniscient. Furthermore, he's highly insecure. He's afraid they can build a tower that will reach up to the heavens. Apparently he's unfamiliar with the facts about the universe he created, because there isn't any sky, it's an illusion caused by the scattering of sunlight from oxygen atoms in the atmosphere. If you try to reach the heavens, you just go up, and up, and up, forever. Before you get very far at all on the cosmic scale of things, you're above the atmosphere and you die, but you still haven't gotten to the place where God lives.

Nevertheless, he's jealous even of that puny tower. He doesn't want the people to accomplish great things, so he does what he can to mess them up. Of course, if he really was all seeing and all powerful he would have foreseen all this and never let it happen in the first place. Anyway, that's just sociopathic. My parents always encouraged me. They wanted me to take chances and create and build and accomplish. If god is our heavenly father, he's a dysfunctional parent and we had better move out and stop paying any attention to him.

Fortunately, God's pathetic scheme has failed. Nowadays, we have built tens of thousands of towers that make the Tower of Babel look like an anthill, and cities that could swallow up Babylon a thousand times over. We fly through the air, send words and pictures from one end of the earth to another in a nanosecond, and we have even walked on the moon and sent our robots beyond the solar system.

So God ---

Na na na na na. You lose, sucker.

*Quite possibly the earliest writing, or at least the earliest true written language that was fully syntactical, did arise in Mesopotamia. I point this out because the Iraq National Library and Archive has recently been occupied by American and Iraqi soldiers, threatening part of the irreplaceable heritage of all humanity. For more on this, see recent posting at Iraq Today.