The Primitive Bias: Language & Religion

australia-aborigines-460-300x215“Traditional Australian Aborigine societies were, from a material and technological standpoint, relatively simple. This relative simplicity has blinded many to the fact that traditional Aboriginal worldviews were (and are) exceedingly complex. Indeed, these are so complex that it is tempting to posit an inverse relationship between level of technology and creativity of worldview.”
— Cris Campbell

One of the common misunderstandings of evolution is that it is progressive — leading to better and better forms. Likewise, many people view religions as evolving — as getting more and more sophisticated and better adaptive than earlier religions. Early religions are often then wrongly labeled as “primitive”. Such a mistake is similar to how people misunderstand evolution. Add Cris Campbell’s Genealogy of Religion to your RSS to read someone who fights against common misunderstandings of the hunter-gatherer worldviews (which, for good reasons, he refuses to call religions).

In linguistics too, speakers of dominant languages often look down on non-dominant neighboring dialects as being inferior, less sophisticated and primitive. It seems the primitive bias reflex is thus not just the consequence of not understanding evolution, but of assuming that present day holders of power *must* be more advanced than those who don’t hold power. I am sure Marxists have scathing criticisms of this cognitive trap.

Question to readers: Do you feel some languages or some religions are more primitive than others? Why?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

27 responses to “The Primitive Bias: Language & Religion

  1. rautakyy

    Finnish, my language, sometimes seems primitive, as in, structurally oldfashioned. But I do not think primitive means necessarily worse. It is a loaded term.

    Is it primitive not to destroy your environment in ever increasing competition for digital symbols of power and ownership (money) far beyond any actual need of the individual and worship such as a virtue? Not all human cultures have evolved into that direction, thought those that have not, seem to be losing the race of survival at the moment. However, it is just possible, that the capitalistic system is actually burying itself (and everything else alive in this world) deep in waste.

  2. Earnest

    The pendulum has swung to varying degrees on this in the past. Certainly there was fear & loathing of the “injun” whipped up by politicians here in North America as a justification for land grabs. But in the 1700’s there was a “noble savage” concept in the sentimentalist belief system.

    But both of these concepts were formulated by genetic Europeans. They were imposed upon aboriginal peoples without consent and without much true objectivity or serious anthropological study. This topic was off the radar of the intelligentsia of developed nations until very recently.

    Is sheer complexity proof of sophistication? Or is efficiency of concept communication something that elevates one culture over another? Our youth now spell with numbers and other non-alphabetical characters, saving keystrokes. Is it proper to rend our garments, as most parents metaphorically do, or is this a new pinnacle of human linguistic development?

    The Greek and Norse mythos seem elaborate and well developed to me, but that could be cultural familiarity talking. If I had been born in the jungle of New Guinea maybe I would think an indigenous mythos was far more elaborate, and therefore culturally superior to the Greek and Norse systems. Sabio is this entirely a point of reference question?

  3. @ rautakyy,

    (1) What do you mean by “structurally old fashion”. I’d wager that Finnish grammar (‘structure’) is as sophisticated as other languages.

    You are right, “primitive” is loaded.

    (2) Remember, early humans wiped out 100% of large mammals — or something like that. So early humans did destroy the environment for many species — and without second thought.

    @ Earnest,
    True — complexity does not necessarily imply sophistication which itself is a vague term. Hell, Astrology and Homeopathy are very complex and sophistication and both complete Bullshit.
    Your points are well taken.

    But my points here are:

    (A) the word “primitive” and though it comes from “Prime” meaning first or earliest, it actually has the connotation of inferior.

    (B) Earlier cultures are not necessarily less complex, more simple, or less adaptive.

    (C) Evolution is not directional

    (D) Confusing the wrong ideas in A,B & C can lead to complete hogwash! 🙂

    (E) Language shares deep system traits similar to religions.

    Wow, I can see that I tried to make too many points in this sort post.

  4. rautakyy

    @Sabio Lanz, (1) by struckturally oldfashioned, I mean the fact, that Finnish language has traits (like being highly fusional), that are typical to “archaic” languages and that have been known to have disappeared from many languages spoken by larger groups of humans – like in many of the Indo-European languages. Perhaps, that is not a primitive trait as such, if the opposite of primitive is complex, but “sophistication” is an elusive term much like “primitive”.

    (2) Yes, perhaps we could very well call cultures “primitive” according to their level of ignorance causing the destruction of their very living environment. Many cultures we today call primitive are the ones, that have – by necessity of survival – found harmony whith their environment. That is, in my mind, a good example of “sophistication”. Besides, I do not think it is impossible for a modern and progressive society to achieve such a harmony. Much is already being done in modern societies to attempt to find such a harmony, like programs to preserve nature and sustainable development programs.

  5. (1) All languages are “old fashion” in that sense — Agglutination being no older than many other principles. And agglutination may atrophy in some languages while it reappears in others. My point: evolution does not have direction in either organisms or languages.

    (2) Could we call your culture primitive cause you don’t know how to built a hut, catch-clean-and-prepare game, find herbs for medicine, survive the winter? Does that make you less “sophisticated”?

    (3) I think the idealism of cultures finding “harmony with their environment” to be myth as I stated in my earlier comment — an environmentalist myth.

    Nothing sacred here, eh?

  6. rautakyy

    @Sabio, haa haa! You are right, nothing sacred.

    (1) I agree on your point about evolution. However, languages do sometimes evolve to explain more complicated, or advanced concepts. In that sense Finnish is certainly not the most “archaic” language. Languages spoken by smaller populations do have a tendency to change slowlier than those spoken by large populations.

    (2) How much are “primitive” and “sophisticated” just terms to measure the value we give to other cultures by the standards of our own culture?

    (3) If finding harmony is just a myth, then are we bound to destroy our environment just by being greedy humans? I hope not. Am I projecting my idealism on cultures, that are merely unable to destroy their environment because of their “primitive” technology?

  7. (1 & 2) Language do “change” to become more complicated OR less complicated — they go both way. Unfortunately the word “evolution” often has forward connotations that are mistaken.

    But, like organisms, some languages change slower or faster than others due to geography, social controls and others. So some languages are more stable but not more primitive, nor more sophisticated. You are right, those are pejorative terms of valuation — something to be avoided.

    (3) As far as harmony — it is a wrong concept to tie to environment — IMHO. Remember, other organisms have no such idea and would gladly kill off us, if we did not fight them. They would kill off each other if I could. Life in the universe is at war but simultaneously cooperating with a few to survive. “Harmony” is a New Age idea brought in by German Romanticism. Likewise, progressive evolution is part of that package.

  8. Hey Sabio! Great question. I agree with Rautakyy. To state it another way, if all our technology failed and our houses levelled in a natural disaster, who among us would be able to find food in nature and build our own homes? In this way modern humans in Western cultures are extremely simple and helpless. The sophistication it takes to survive off the land completely is passed down via generations.

    It’s been discovered recently that Neanderthals probably did not cause as many mass extinctions as previously thought; most of the literature shows that large mammals were wiped out by natural disasters, early climate change, volcano eruptions and sometimes meteorites.

    Where did you get your 100 percent human extinction event from?

  9. Hmmm, Emmy, not sure of that data (thus “or something like that”). No matter though. I wager that if the world was now populated with 6 billion Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians or your favorite earth-loving, harmony group, the environment would be equally if not worse challenged or they’d kill themselves off faster. But hypotheticals are a waste of time, eh?

  10. @Sabio:
    I think we need to define terms properly. (“The beginning of wisdom, is the definition of terms”. Whatever happened to your nice quotes on the side? I don’t see them. What about your links?)
    When it comes to language, “primitive” would refer to “less expressing power”, for instance. As such, it appears that most linguists agree that all languages are equivalent in the sense that one can express, more or less, the same thing in all. (This is quoted from memory and is not supposed to be scientific.) My feeling–since you ask for feelings–is the same, but I do find the degree of easiness of expressing something varying from language to language. For example, English has a huge number of words (such a sponge!) so one is not bound by the lack of a certain word. (Greek, however, lacks some words, such as the word “privacy”. But it has other advantages, so it balances out.)

    But when we come to religion, “primitive” is quite uncertain. It is hard to define the term, isn’t it? (The main role of language is clear: communication;. The [main] role of religion is not clear. Certainly, it’s not what a religion would claim [god/gods/etc].) So, let me take “primitive” as meaning “more prone to violence”. We can then start partially ordering religions and see, for instance, that Jainism is less primitive than Hinduism–with respect to this criterion.

    But you are asking what my feeling is–I think–regardless of all my pseudo-scientific, pseudo-learned attempts above. Well, my feeling is that all religions are equally primitive, even those that one would classify as cults. However, not all of them are equally entertaining. For instance, the Quran is much more boring than the New Testament. I don’t see any difference or more primitiveness in the acts of my Mongolian friend’s relatives offering food to a dead tree (it’s called shamanism or something) than the usual acts of more westernized religions. They are both the same. (Enter, however, a more specific criterion like “violence” and you (i.e., I) start having some kind of filter.)

  11. @ Takis:: On Quotes

    LOL: First, thanx for the compliment on my “nice quotes”. Next, thanx for giving me evidence for what I am recently writing on — of the tricks our minds play on us — even on atheists: If you’ve noticed, I changed my blog’s banner and my avatar — which I often do because I love change. Well, during this change I also thought, “Hey, I’ll switch the RIGHT column stuff to the LEFT.” I usually prefer right, but I wanted to see what it felt like. Like I said, I often prefer change over comfort. The quotes are still on the blog, but they now live in the right column. So you see, we see (or don’t see) what we expect to see.

  12. @ Takis: On Expressing Power!

    Yes, defining terms is key to fruitful dialogue.
    There is a myth bias that some languages are more expressive than others — this “expressiveness” may be part of the “primitive” idea, and there may be many other sub-components of individual’s unspoken nuances of “primitive”, so we might as well start there.

    In every country I have lived and learned a language, there has been one or a few dominant languages and lots of other powerless dialects who are mocked by that dominant dialect. In fact, it is assumed that the dominant dialect is the more elegant, sophisticated, complex, organized, careful, and (yes) expressive.

    So, do all these countries have it right? Have they all wisely chosen the most expressive dialect of the land to become the national language or dominant language? Of course they haven’t — this is a judgement that develops after the fact.

    As you know, I practice medicine where I treat all segments of our population here in the USA. And I have been amazed to see this bigotry pop up in my mind. But because I am also often a careful observer, I have observed the idiocy of my assumptions as I see the equal and often greater sophistication and expressiveness of other non-dominant dialects.

    Steven Pinker writes of this Expressive Myth — but it would take me too long to find it just now. So hopefully my above example helps illustrate one of my angles on this issue.

  13. @ Takis On Religion

    So, we possibly agree on language expressiveness being, in the balance, equal.

    But as you point out, if we explore “primitive” when applied to religion, “expressive” would not be an easy subcomponent. In order to figure out subcomponents, you have to understand what “religion” is — another huge issue on my blog. And quickly we see that the word is far more contrived and arbitrary than the word “language”. But understanding the various component often lumped into the word will help.

    One such component is “morality” — well, I think all religions, in the balance, accomplish the types of behaviors (morality) that they are aiming for. Another function (component) of religion
    is social cohesion, and the same equality holds there — at least in an evolutionary sort of way (that is, adaptiveness changing with time and circumstance). And so we could go on.

    To a Muslim, the Quran is incredibly beautiful — they all speak of it. And far from boring. You are judging from the outside. It is very “entertaining” for them. “Violent” is likewise an outside judgement. A religion may say an action is more or less violent, but if they have wandered into violence as a survival tool, then it has to be judged in terms of functionality, doesn’t it. You see, how do we design outside, objective judgements for language or religions, upon which to decide if they are primitive or expressive or ….

    Mind you, I am not a relativist. I too will judge religions by their violence. But, it is not a measure of their “primitiveness” — for modern religions can be very violent. It is a measure of MY preferences. “Primitive” then be comes a rhetoric tool for my preferences — an ugly fact that even supposed proud rationalists are loath to see.

  14. Hmmm, Emmy, not sure of that data (thus “or something like that”).

    I’m surprised, Sabio. Most “Skeptics” I know are big on data; at least providing a baseline for what appears to be a guess on your part. Not even a single study?

    No matter though. I wager that if the world was now populated with 6 billion Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians or your favorite earth-loving, harmony group, the environment would be equally if not worse challenged or they’d kill themselves off faster.

    Again, I don’t understand, Sabio. Do you have some knowledge of Native Peoples’ living that suggests they would live less sustainably than the modern Western dweller? Please explain.

    But hypotheticals are a waste of time, eh?

    Well, the whole post was sort of a hypothetical. For one we all had to agree on a definition of the word primitive in our heads, since none was provided. Do you have a good definition of this?

    In context of how different groups live, we would say that Native Peoples have a “sophisticated” knowledge of their ecosystems. That is the word most anthropologists and biologists use when referring to someone’s (anyone’s) familiarity with the natural world.

    So it stands to reason that a Westerner would have a more primitive understanding of nature than someone who was raised in a traditional native manner.

  15. Hey Emmy,
    From your tone (if tone exists in writing), I am not certain further discussion will be helpful. Maybe I will have to do future posts on Idealistic View of Native Americans & Environmentalism, but that will have to wait for later. But if I do, you could show me further wrong then. Meanwhile I will continue being a bad skeptic.

  16. Ha! Sabio, I’m not sure what kind of terrible, mean tone you’re hearing in your head when I comment. But rest assured, you don’t have to have your feelings hurt. My thoughts here are simply to engage in the discourse you invited from your post!

    I’m not sure what you meant by “Idealistic view of Native Americans”. The quote on your post right away sets the stage as a conversation where we’re stereotyping (this idea that modern Aboriginals couldn’t possibly have modern technology) so the hypothetical begins with us using examples that are based on stereotypes.

    But if we’re going beyond that – certainly in the age of internet, anyone can become a survivalist, a sophisticated mushroom hunter, a forager, with enough time and devotion. And any Native American can buy a house and ignore the natural world.

    But then we sort of lost your question as to whether certain groups are “more primitive” or not.

    I’m not sure what you mean by Environmentalist – are you trying to say that Native Peoples are automatically activists by virtue of their birth?

  17. @ Emmy,
    I neither said “terrible” nor “mean”. As for the “Idealist Attitudes TOWARD Native Americans” (hope that is better and clarifies), you’ll have to wait for that post. But I am sure there are lots of posts like that out on the web, including the Myth of Chief Seattle’s Speech.

    But to the point of this post — I think you can see how “primitive” is use rhetorically and not empirically. Or, other measures should be considered before using the term “primitive” to describe something because of its packed emotional content.

  18. Here’s my .02 on religion. I do see a sort of evolution, as religions struggle to keep up with the age in which they find themselves. The invention of writing created a toxic environment, and religions arose based on the words magically* recorded in Holy Scripture. Now with universal literacy those seem ‘primitive’. The success of the Mormons always struck me as due to their being more in tune with the 20th century, then later, we got Scientology and Raelians. Modern Physics and Astronomy pose new challenges to anyone pushing the supernatural, and lately ‘atheist churches’ are springing up. It’s interesting to speculate what new religions will catch on in the future.

  19. Now $0.02 on languages? Lx changes is cyclic. Analytic languages become more agglutinating become more polysynthetic become more inflecting become more analytic. Of course whatever stage they are at the speakers consider all other types ‘primitive’, lulz. Along come signed languages to upset the whole paradigm (both polysynthetic and inflecting). They were considered too primitive to be even languages, because as my professor explained , “I don’t see the complexity.” “Did you look?” Well, no, but when he did, gosh, more complex than anything.

    The same phenomena everywhere applies. While caravels were fumbling around finding the wrong continent, polynesian navigators were sailing open canoes between little bitty islands a thousand miles apart. The Spaniards didn’t see the complexity in those primitive islanders. Dan Brown’s books explain the complexity of native American knowledge, that when the cicadas emerge it is time to dig up the roots of the arrowroot but only if the blue tailed warblers have returned. Of course I had to make all that up, in my primitive ignorance, but such detailed knowledge was an integral part of those “simple” societies that Campbell sneers at just because they don’t know HTML. Likely Monsanto will kill us all because they don’t see the complexity in primitive knowledge.

    My verdict; the amount of your primitiveness is largely a measure of my ignorance. (The latter of which I likely just demonstrated by writing a brazillion words about.)

  20. @Uzza:
    One phrase caught my attention: “Dan Brown’s books explain the complexity…” Are you referring to this Dan Brown, the one who wrote those silly bestsellers (Da Vinci code and the like…)? These books are just (entertaining, silly–depending on one’s disposition) pop fiction, they don’t explain anything!
    But I must be mistaken. The chance that a serious person would ascribe explanatory power to the aforementioned Dan Brown is one in a million. So who is the Dan Brown you are referring to?

  21. OMG, Tom Brown, not Dan Brown. Tom Brown Junior. The Tracker. Not the fiction guy. So embarrassing.

  22. @ Uzza: Yes, it will be interesting to see what new religions spring up!

  23. Interestingly spun examples, Uzza.

  24. @Uzza: Thanks! (You see, I have heard people quote Dan Brown as a source for historical and/or theological concepts….)

    As for new religions, we already have several new ones popping up. If you have a religion and wonder how you can start it up (say, you only have 3 members), all you have to do is come to Sweden. The Swedish government will recognize almost anything–no pun intended here. For instance, they recently recognize the Church of Kopimism. This means that one can legally get married in this new religion and the marriage is recognized by the Swedish State.

    Even existing religions (except Islam) get transformed rapidly in Sweden. They take a very pragmatic approach: we need more members, not adherence to our original dogmas. For instance, the new archbishop of the (Lutheran-the main) Church of Sweden (will be enthroned in June) has stated that she does not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. Moreover, her motto is Allahu aqbar.

  25. rautakyy

    @Sabio Lanz, yes you are absolutely right, I am a hopeless romantic. (Look at my gravatar!)

    Perhaps “harmony” is as loaded as a term as “primitve”, or even “complex” are. I do not consider myself as having too romantic ideals about the “primitive” natives of any country, though. After all, I am a native of my own country.

    In the natural selection, cultures that are aware of the fragility of their environment, or that are simply unable to harm it, have less of a risk to be destroyed by harming their environment. Hence, they tend to last longer – at least while the natural change itself does not take too dramatic turns. On the other hand, cultures that are very able to manipulate their environment should also be more adept to survive dramatic environmental changes, self induced, or otherwise, exept if some other cultural traits (like for example capitalism) hinders their ability to master the environment positively.

    @Takis Konstantopoulos, here in Finland it is very hard to get a state admission for a new religion. For some strange reason Lutheran bishops of the state church (and not for example university professors of religion studies) get to choose what is considered a religion and what is not. The bishops have put up some strange and awkward restrictions, like that a religion must have a holy scripture to be recognized by the state. Some very recently made up religions fit such prerequisites better than many ancient and documented religions, simply because they can make up holy scriptures to fit the demand.

  26. @rautakkyy:
    I recently had a discussion with a Finnish woman (academic) who was absolutely convinced that Finland is backwards compared to Sweden in *all* areas. After discussion, and several examples (always with references!) from my side, she was convinced it ain’t necessarily so. (Beware of those who call themselves “progressive” and are prepared to go to extremes to prove that!)

    But what you write is funny (and informative!) What is a holy scripture? How is that defined? I guess, paraphrasing Sabio’s quote, the only difference between those who have a holy scripture and those who do not is the amount of real estate they own.

  27. rautakyy

    @Takis, I am actually rather proud of us Finns being a progressive nation (perhaps not as progressive as the Swedes in some areas), though that too has it’s downsides. 😉 Perhaps “progressive” and “conservative” are better terms to describe cultures, than “complex” and “primitive”?

    A neopagan group “Karhun kansa” (people of the bear) that derives their mystical beliefs from ancient Finnish folklore applied for a position as a state recognized religion, but were not admitted first because they had no “holy scriptures”, but they simply changed their application by adding some ancient poetry as their “holy scripture” and got their status as an official religion. But the idea, that an ancient form of Finnish religious beliefs had an actual “holy scripture” is a bit ridiculous, because we are talking about a tribal nation that was forced into Christianity before we had developed our own literary system, or even borrowed one from our neighbours.

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