David Mitchell, Darwin and Dead Languages

Poor old Darwin, always used to justify the status quo. Things are as they are because of natural selection, understood here to mean that things were chosen naturally and are therefore the most efficient (the best fit). It’s no use trying to change things, you are fighting against nature. An example of this reasoning, can be found in David Mitchell’s soap box piece about Scottish Gaelic, where he rails against  “absurd levels of politically motivated funding” used to support and develop the language. Now, why David Mitchell should concern himself with the decision of the Scottish Parliament to spend money as they see fit is a matter for Mitchell himself (he doesn’t say how much is spent or on what else he would like the money spent), but we would take issue with his particular understanding of the natural order and of natural selection.   

It would appear to us that it is most natural for humankind to transform the environment around it. Mitchell implicitly accepts this when he asserts in a contradictory manner “the extinction of an animal in the natural world is almost never because of natural selection, it’s because of the actions of Man”. However, unless you subtract man from nature (exactly what Darwin fought against) then the extinction of  these animals is exactly that, natural selection. One species (the extinct animal) was unable to survive in a world dominated by another species (Man). Now, that’s not very nice and because humankind is invested with quite remarkable mental capacities, it can be avoided without endangering humankind itself. Indeed, in the tradition of Darwin, Mitchell clearly values bio-diversity and would like us to avoid any reduction in our bio-diversity.

How perverse then that he should continue: “The extinction of a language, however, still is natural selection. If it dies out it’s because human beings no longer need it to communicate”. So, how useful is a tiger? We don’t need them anymore because they are rather aggressive, compete with us for food and, anyway, modern technology can reproduce their pretty tiger-skin design, can’t it? But perhaps our relationship with other parts of nature is not simply instrumental. Perhaps our inter-relationship is a profound statement of who we are, what we are. And the same can be said for language. It is not a simple instrument of communication but the encoding of beliefs and culture, a profound statement of who, what we are. Indeed, Darwin was inspired by language when developing his theory of natural selection, not because of the dominance of one language over another but because of the spread and transformation of one language into many languages (like the tree of life). 

No, Darwin’s theory is not a conservative theory. It is a theory of how positive and negative feedback shapes success and failure and how dynamic that process is. There are reasons for the popularity of choosing to speak and write certain languages and these reasons are essentially socio-economic. The actions of individuals to promote Scottish Gaelic are as natural as the actions of certain individuals to promote conservation of wildlife. These individuals are shaping the environment around them and, therefore, shaping themselves, their nature. The more resources at their disposal the more likely they are to succeed. Mitchell would not like us to passively accept the “unnatural” extinction of species, why should we passively accept the extinction of languages? As for his comments about books preserving a language, surely this is as insulting to promoters of Scottish Gaelic, as zoos and photographs preserving the tiger is to Mitchell.


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