Origin Is Another Word for Only Survivor, Research Time, 11/07/2013

Nimrod the Neanderthal butler
in Ghost Light also bears more
than a superficial resemblance
to Phil Sandifer, author of
TARDIS Eruditorum, and the
man who first told me about
Jean-Louis Dessalles.
Another book I’m reading at the moment is Why We Talk by Jean-Louis Dessalles. First, some acknowledgements. I’m halfway through this book, and I’m incredibly thankful to Phil Sandifer for telling me about Dessalles through his essay on the 1989 Doctor Who serial Ghost Light at TARDIS Eruditorum. The actual essay on Ghost Light is kind of insane, with its paragraphs wildly arranged in the essay according to a ridiculously erudite formula. I think it’s a satire on Ghost Light’s reputation in the Doctor Who community as being far too dense, disordered, and packed full of ideas for its plot to unfold sensibly in 75 minutes. It didn’t help that the music volume on the transmitted and VHS versions was louder than the spoken dialogue. But it’s clear to follow if you pay attention. And maybe watch twice. You don’t like your TV to be challenging sometimes?

Anyway, back to Dessalles. His book is an exploration, in the terms of evolutionary biology and history, of how language developed. I can’t yet tell you how well he achieves this goal because I haven’t yet finished the book and I’m not about to search the internet for spoilers. But one element of Why We Talk, which Phil pointed out in the Ghost Light essay, was its account of what an origin is. Frankly, Dessalles’ conception of origin (or rather his destruction of the traditional conception of origin) is a foundation point for the utopias project.

Our usual concept of origin has been around about as long as the Myth of The Fall, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the state of nature let the concept survive into an atheist context. Origin = Eden. Our origin is the state of perfection from which our development has been a corruption from this pure state. What twaddle.

Instead, we have a wonderful demystification of all our myths and legends about origins. We often think of origins as a Tower of Babel moment (more religious imagery sneaking into our supposedly atheist scientific philosophy!) where the phenomenon in question was birthed in its single, unified, and authentic form. Diversification occurs with time, and the authenticity of the origin’s unity is lost. Instead, the origin of all that exists today is the common ancestor of the diverse yet related bodies that exist today. To take Dessalles’ example, all languages that exist today can be understood as having evolved from a single common ancestor language. 

But this wouldn’t be the Ur-language, the first implying the only. Instead, that common ancestor used to exist in an atmosphere of similar linguistic (or biological) diversity as there is today. It’s just that the descendants of those other languages have since died out. So it will go in the future as well. Many languages that exist today will die out, and the survivor languages will diversify into a new variety. There's a paragraph-long quotation in the above-linked Ghost Light essay if you want to read it in Dessalles' own words. Or you can find a copy of the book; it's very good and worth reading the whole thing if you're into the intersection of evolutionary biology and culture in a manner that's intelligent, knowledgeable, and insightful.

However, you might still ask how the diverse collection came to exist in the first place. That’s a legitimate question to which I can’t come up with an answer in a space as limited as a daily blog entry. I’ll let you know what Jean-Louis says when I finish the book.

Not only would I recommend reading Why We Talk, you should also consider watching Ghost Light, one of the best stories in Doctor Who, with a mind-blowing script and stellar performances from all the actors, especially Sophie Aldred, who was pivotal in setting up the nature and role of the Doctor Who companion for the 21st century.

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