Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Oldest Evidence of Writing in the Americas

While working in Scotland in 1970, my wife and I drove around hunting evidence of Celtic artifacts and stone circles -- circles must have had some sort of magical significance -- and visited every old castle we could find. At the end of this period, we drove through England visiting Stonehenge (also circular) at a time when one could actually walk through it and the Avery Stone circle, a very impressive structure to say the least. Meanwhile we knew little or nothing about the ancient civilizations of the New World.

Interestingly, we Americans seem to get more excited by the remains of ancient civilizations in Europe or North Africa than we do those in America. This notion first occurred to me as my wife and I went through some of the ancient Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula. We saw things there that were much more interesting than anything we saw in Scotland and England. Stonehenge was said to have had astronomical significance. The same is true of the main temple at Chichén Itzá and I believe at pyramids and temples at numerous other Mayan as well as Aztecan sites. Anyone who thinks that Europe and North Africa had the only interesting ancient civilizations is fooling himself.

On that trip to the Yucatan, we drove to the ancient city of Cobá, which even now, as then, is barely restored. This city had a huge pyramid. Whether it was as large as those in Egypt I don't know but it cannot be less impressive. And the Mayans seem to have built more of them. We climbed to the top of the highest one at Cobá and found ourselves looking over the tree tops of the forest for a very long distance. One other myth was dispelled on that trip. The Mayans didn't disappear. Their civilization did. They are still there.

Not only did it occur to me that we Anglos have too little respect for the civilizations of the Western Hemisphere, we have too little respect for older civilizations per se. I'm sure many if not most "civilized" persons today think that we are somehow smarter than ancient peoples, to say nothing of those who lived back in human prehistory. I suspect this is false. If you wonder why the "superior" Western civilizations were able to wipe out the civilizations in the Western Hemisphere you should read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It will disabuse you of the idea that Westerners were able to do that because they were smarter and thus able to develop better weapons than the native populations had. I think many "civilized" people believe we are more intelligent than contemporary "primitive" people that can still be found in various places in the world. Diamond makes the argument that contemporary medicine and the ready availability of food, at least among highly civilized people, has allowed such "advanced" people to keep alive persons of limited intelligence that would die if living in more primative circumstances (assuming that the survival of the fittest includes the intellectually fittest). Thus it may be that our gene pool has allowed us on average to become of lower intelligence than are "primitive" people.

A few days ago, my morning paper (I feel every time I make reference to the daily paper to start off a blog that I am channeling Mort Sahl) had a short piece on the discovery of a 3,000 year old slab discovered in Mexico that appears to have writing on it. Mexican scientists who have studied it say it has 62 distinct signs, some of which are repeated. These scientists claim that the writing system is reminiscent of the Olmec civilization.

What intrigued me about this Western Rosetta Stone was this passage in the Columbus Dispatch:
The researchers wrote that the sequences of signs reflect "patterns of language, with the probable presence of syntax and language-dependent word orders."
The original article appears in the current issue of Science. Unfortunately I have yet been unable to track down the article except in a pay-per-view way but I will somehow get a copy of it and report further.

What does it mean to say that the sequences of signs reflect "patterns of language" or the "presence of syntax and language-dependent word orders." Actually, this last bit is a bit garbled. Syntax is about word order among other things so the conjunction of "syntax" and "language-dependant word orders" wouldn't be two things, as implied by "and." Word order would be evidence of sytax. They should have said simply that there was evidence of word order. This is what I want to check out since it is not so easy to determine that there is language-like word order in a set of strings of symbos.

What I would like to see is evidence of sentences. Contemplate how you would recognize the end of each of the sentences in strings of marks you find on some stone slab on a trip into the wilds of Mexico. Your mind should boggle at this.

One might think that a sentence of English must have a verb so one must hunt for signs that seem to be verb like. Good luck. What these Mexican scientists have found would seem to be evidence of a writing system of some sort even if it doesn't consist of sentences. When one orders a set of things from a company that sells on-line it might come in a box and will often contain a receipt that might have no sentences on it at all -- just the name and address of the company and yours as well and a list of the items in the box. That requires a writing system.

It ought to be possible to tell whether the slab is like a receipt -- lots of things like that have been discovered from older periods -- or is a genuine text of some sort. Good luck in translating it however. As the authors apparently say, it would be nice to have more data. Still, it is interesting to discover additional evidence of sophisticated cultures in this hemisphere before even the Mayan civilization if only so we can get over our hemispheric inferiority complex Humans cane to this hemisphere later than they left Africa and went North and East in the Eastern Hemisphere but they created some impressive civilizations which we White people did our best to destroy. I strongly suggest visiting some of them. It will be good for you.

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Blogger Kelly said...

I believe the pyramids in Egypt are much larger than the pyramids in Central and South America, although I do think architecturally the American ones are more interesting, at least from the outside. Also the lack of any large stones in that area of Egypt makes the Egyptian architectural achievements more impressive. But the Central and South American cultures were quite advanced, as I understand it. The Mayan calendar is one small bit of evidence to that effect.

You raise a very interesting point about natural selection. This was the most interesting thing about this blog to me. I have long been concerned that social selection has largely mooted the processes of natural selection. An outside observer, perhaps from a hypothetical highly-advanced alien civilization, might not see the difference between the two, at least from a practical standpoint. But without the help of society and technology, how many people do you think would live to reproduce if they had such diseases as hemophilia, dwarfism, or even nearsightedness? And what about the advances in reproductive technology that allow normally sterile couples to produce offspring? What evil consequences this portends I do not know, but it has been a matter of concern to me. Practically speaking I don't know what to do about it--reproductive licenses would be a bit too much like scary science fiction, but perhaps outlawing reproductive assistance could be politically feasible. I don't know.

12:28 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

We, as a society, have decided at least informally that we will not practice eugenics. Nevertheless there is a
American Eugenics Society
. Besides the fact that enforcing selective breeding violates the notion of equal protection under the law, it strikes me as immoral on its face. That was how most of the world reacted to learning what the Nazis were up to.

Do you accept the idea that we Western Hemisphere people suffer an inferiority complex relative to the "older civilizations"? I think there is one in the USA based on two prejudices -- prejudice against anything that goes on South of our border and prejudice against American (US) Indians. We have always portrayed the latter as primitive people and really haven't stopped doing so I fear.

I put the Jared Diamond bit because it is important to understand that certain civilizations become powerful not because of any innate superiority but good fortune. Europe flourished on the agricultural discoveries in the fertile crescent, not because they did any major domestication of plant or animal life on their own.

9:25 AM

Blogger Kelly said...

It does sound like a Nazi idea, but that's kind of an ad hominem argument (this isn't the right fallacy, but I can't recall the correct name and this one gets the idea across). It is perhaps an immoral idea by contemporary standards, but I'm not sure how it would violate the Constitution as written. As it has been interpreted, yes, but there's no reason that it would violate the Equal Protection Clause under any interpretation. It would instead violate the spuriously-founded ideas of reproductive freedom begun in Griswold.

I don't think we suffer from an inferiority complex. Perhaps instead a superiority complex--everyone wants to ignore the parallels with Rome because they don't want to see the bad in our own civilization.

12:08 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

You are right that the Nazi reference would be an ad hominem argument but I didn't mean it to be an argument against eugenics but an explanation of why it would surely be rejected by people. Should someone proposes such legislation you can be sure the Nazi thing would be flung right and left to put it down but it would be better to actually provide an argument against it.

Actually, we have a principle I think that our bodies are sacrosanct -- that the government can't meddle with them. This is at the heart of the pro-choice movement. It is at the heart of whatever laws force the police to get warrants to collect blood samples or take dna directly from a suspect. Eugenics would be major meddling.

Another invalid argument form that would be used against it would be the slippery slope argument -- if you start that then what will be next? So, for instance, someone would say that the state might choose to disallow women in their early forties from having babies because of an increased incidence in problem babies (I am making this up as a fact -- it might not be but there would be some other fact they would use).

4:38 PM

Blogger Kelly said...

I'm going to bullet my response, because I think that it may be nifty and the points are distinct.

1. You're right that the Nazi argument would be sufficient to strike down any such proposed legislation.

2. The "principle" that our bodies are sacrosanct (I take issue with calling it a principle in the judicial context because its genesis and application are completely unprincipled) would indeed make such a law unconstitutional in the eyes of many judges/justices. However, by any principled means of judicial interpretation it would not be, under our Constitution. A true eugenics program may violate the 8th Amendment, but I don't think I would interpret it so, and I haven't read many cases on that amendment.

3. The warrant laws are rooted, at least, in the 4th Amendment (however, I am with Scalia in thinking that a warrant is not required beforehand, and is only meant to insulate an officer from civil liability for a wrongful search). This is not a matter of meddling, though. Instead, it's a matter of a "search", in the constitutional sense (which is a term that is far more complicated than one might think). Forced eugenics would not be a search. There is no reason that the government can't require persons to submit to such a procedure, although enforcement would be difficult due to the 4th Amendment. If a pregnancy results in such a situation, however, it wouldn't be difficult for those enforcing it to show probable cause, and then procedures guaranteed by the 14th Amendment would be followed in order to carry out the command of the eugenics law.
It may also be easier to make a voluntary check for the eugenics laws a prerequisite to receiving some kind of government benefit, e.g. a driver's license.
The plan I was talking about was not for forced eugenics, though. It was a plan for reproduction licenses, for which people would be required to submit an application and submit themselves to scrutiny of varying sorts. Anyone who had a child without such a license would be subject to prosecution, the conviction of which would require them to submit to eugenics.

Of course, this is all for the sake of argument, and I don't really promote such a plan. But it is an interesting topic.

3. The slippery-slope argument does not apply to legislatures. Because judges are supposed to apply laws in a principled way, they are subject to slipper-slope problems--they must follow principles to their logical conclusions. Therefore, in the judicial interpretation context there is no such thing as a slippery-slope fallacy; it's a valid argument. However, legislatures are free to draw arbitrary lines. They are better suited to balancing issues and because of their political accountability are not tied down by requirements of principled argument.

11:23 PM

Blogger Kelly said...

A caveat: the slippery-slope argument can be a fallacy n some circumstances in the judicial context, but in terms of interpretation generally it is a valid argument

11:25 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

If what you say is right -- that the legal system accepts slippery slope arguments -- then we have still another respect in which the law is defective. It is clearly not a valid argument form and it is easy to come up with real world cases in which a slippery slope argument is invalid and if it is invalid in one case it is invalid in all. That is how logic works.

A typcial Presidential sippery slope argument goes like this: If we don't stop aggression now, the aggressors will continue to take more territory. A classic counter-example is China's taking a strip of land off India (about 15 miles down the length of the country) and Nepal. Then they stopped.

During the Vietnam war there were two opposing slippery slope arguments. One was that if we don't stop communism in Vietnam it will spread into Cambodia and Laos and elsewhere. The other was that if keep fighting in Vietnam communism will spread.... The second one was correct and was the position of the anti-war movement.

8:24 AM

Blogger Kelly said...

I knew that it was hard to understand what I said. Perhaps I can make it clearer.

In the judicial context the following slippery-slope argument would be invalid: X is polluting the air near my house and if you don't stop him now then everyone will do it and the air will be unhealthy.

However, the following slippery-slope argument would be valid: if you extend common law nuisance protection to this situation, there is nothing to separate it from many other situations which are clearly legal, and you will be forced to find them tortious as well.

11:19 AM

Blogger Kelly said...

I fear that might have been even more confusing. The first situation is a matter of finding facts about a concrete situation. The second situation is about formulating abstract rules. Because judges need to follow principles, the slippery-slope problem can be very real, in terms of the rules they formulate, unless they can find a new principle which can stem the tide.

For example:
The principle in ancient English law (approx. the 15th century, give or take) was that any harm you caused, regardless of fault, would make you liable. Creating liability for causing harm, though, created the slippery-slope kind of problem that it was applied unfairly in some circumstances. So the law found a new principle: negligence. The slippery-slope here is that some things are inherently dangerous (e.g. dynamite) and people will be uncompensated for harm caused by others as long as they followed the requisite standard of care. So you have to find a new principle: that inherently dangerous things will retain strict liability, whereas other things will follow the rule of negligence. And it goes on and on from here, and hence the evolution of the common law.

1:01 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

I realize that as a species we need to exercise a bit more control of our reproduction due to the limited resources of our current environment but, frankly, I find even the suggestion of the possibility of implementation of eugenic practices in any form to be repugnant and reprehensible. Rather than prevent or terminate the birth of "defective" individuals, shouldn't we instead focus on early diagnosis and the development of cures? I realize this was a discussion purely for discussion's sake, but seriously, I find some of what I read here simply unbelievable.

I wrote "current environment" above because I believe we need to establish as many viable reproductive communities off-world as possible. Someone has said that the dinosaurs died out because they didn't have a space program. I hope we turn out to be smarter in the long run.

("Evil consequences", Kelly? Incredible. Simply incredible.)

6:37 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Kelly, the instance of a "slippery slope" argument you cite as okay are not in fact slippery slope arguments. They are, instead, problems that arise from vagueness. Indeed, saying that a certain thing constitutes a public nuisance, then if the characterization of the thing is not sufficiently explicit to identify all of what the legislature means to identify and only that, then there will be problems but they are not slippery slope problems. The legal community, as usual, is out of touch with the intellectual community (philosophers in this case.) This happens over and over in the law and is one of the reasons the law is so intellectually bankrupt. The distinction between generic, descriptive, and suggestive marks is amazingly amateurishly drawn. The notion of "confusingly similar' is as bad or worse.

IbaDaiRon, you are right that the discussion is "for the sake of argument." I find any state-supported effort along those lines to be abhorent but wish we could make assisted suicide legal in certain cases. I am now witnessing the ravages of Alzheimer's and I cannot believe that when people get to the stage that they are almost totally unresponsive to others or to the environment, it would be a kindness to liberate them. Much more obvious would be cases of very painful, terminal diseases. A friend (probably one of your teachers) described for me his wife's last 12-16 hours of dying from cancer. We would put anyone in jail who caused another person that level of pain. Ergo, we should liberate such people.

8:05 AM

Blogger Kelly said...

Ibad, when you mentioned the colonization of other planets, I immediately thought of Douglas Adams and the story arc about the aliens who decided to move to another planet. They were to build three ships, filling one with all the intellectual elite (inventors, scientists, etc.), one with the working people (plumbers, carpenters, laborers, etc.), and one with all the other people (advertising people, middlemen, salespeople, etc.). They sent the latter one out first . . . and those people didn't seem to realize that the other ones weren't coming at all.

I'm on board with euthanasia, LG.

But I'm for some reason not appreciating the distinction you draw with problems that result from vagueness and a slippery slope argument. I like your mention of trademark law; the subject you discussed is one we've just finished discussing in class and I was amazed at some of the results that were reached in some cases. But I think the law needs a certain amount of vagueness so that juries and judges can find the result that feels right, but on principled grounds. However, I don't think the law needs any distinction between descriptive and suggestive marks. It seems superfluous to me.

I would say more, but I've got to go.

10:52 AM

Blogger Kelly said...

OK, here's an example of a valid slippery-slope argument in the legal context, and I don't think that you can just call it a problem with vagueness.

If SCOTUS were to decide that homosexual marriage is constitutionally required, they would be forced to also recognize the same right to polygamy. There is no valid principle on which to separate the two. The 2-person rule is at least equally as arbitrary as the male-female rule. This is why it would be better, if you think that homosexual marriage is a right that should be available, to go to the legislature and get an arbitrary line-drawing solution.

12:09 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Wow, this discussion is way off the topic of the blog, which means no one will ultimately be able to find it.

Defining marriage as a relationship of a loving pair of people is nondiscriminatory. No types of individuals are left out. So allowing homosexual relationships just broadens the notion of what counts as a "loving relationship." There is nothing in this definition of marriage that warrants an increase in the number of people involved.

Wikipedia has a nice discussion. Slippery slope arguments sometimes turn out to be prophetic. Sometimes they don't. That's why they are invalid -- not logically valid. There are some such arguments that are more compelling than others. I can see why the law would be concerned with those.

Take the idea that the Patriot Act will lead inevitably to more restrictions on our freedoms, something that liberals claimed. They turn out to have been wrong. We have in fact rolled back some of the Patriot Act provisions and are in the process, in the area of use of torture, still rolling them back. That slippery slope wasn't so slippery after all. That's the problem. And whether they involve the law or not is irrelevant.

You are simply misusing the word "valid." "Valid" means 'logically valid' or it means nothing.

1:06 PM

Blogger Kelly said...

LG, I think you've got my meaning. But your response to the homosexual marriage issue shows an ignorance of the power of the Court. The Court cannot posit a definition of marriage; that would be blatant legislation from the bench. If they indeed did want to decide that homosexual marriage is compelled by the Constitution, they would have to say that the Equal Protection Clause commands that there be no discrimination against homosexuals in this context (although in my mind this is quite the stretch).

They would then be compelled to decide, if they were intellectually honest, that the same constitutional provision commands that there be no discrimination against married persons (they have already hinted that there could be such an EP problem in some family law contexts).

And although I have made the same mistake with "misusing" the word "valid" on this blog before, this time I'm going to say I'm surprised that a linguist would say that a word can have only one meaning. "Valid" does have other meanings, such as a valid contract, a validated parking pass, or that the things X said to me made me feel validated. The sense in which I used it here is that it's valid not necessarily for purposes of pure logic, but within the confines of the legal argument framework (which uses pure logic but is not confined to it entirely).

12:41 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Well, I'll continue to kibbitz off-topic, if that's OK?

Kelly, I don't remember that from Adams, but then I haven't read all the the Hitchhiker novels yet (I'm assuming, since you mention aliens). Are you familiar with the short story The Marching Morons? I read it in a scifi anthology in high school, when it was already over 25 years old, so it's a little dated now, but I remember it as being a pretty good read. (I didn't check but it may be online somewhere.)

A little bit of a tie-in with the comments here, about the long-term effects of the survival of "less fit" individuals. (Worth a look, since it might be the origin of the meme.)

7:00 AM

Blogger Dark Star said...

Kelly wrote:
>>> If SCOTUS were to decide that homosexual marriage is constitutionally required, they would be forced to also recognize the same right to polygamy

I disagree strongly with this. This is actually a fallacy and I will explain why.

Marriage is fundamentally a contract, not just between two individuals, but between the individuals, the Union of the individuals, and Society. As with any contract, consideration is given to the Union in exchange for duties imposed on it.

And there is a VAST body of law and precedence dealing with How to form AND dissolve a Union -- what happens with finances, what happens with children, and so forth.

That simply doesn't exist for arbitrarily complicated unions so these things are not equivalent. Even if it did exist it would be different and need to be judged on the individual merits.

Furthermore, Marriage is an INDIVIDUAL Right granted to mentally competent adults to marry other mentally competent adults -- so let's not go down any slopes that involve children or animals or any other ridiculous strawmen.

I do not find anything wrong with Polyamory (a loving relationship between more than two informed, consenting, and empowered adults) but getting from there to polygamy requires the resolution of a vast number of social issues that are simply not isomorphic with couples.

Because there is not the equivalence that you suggested between the two different things, your argument is not sound.

1:02 PM


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