Gnomes and Chimps

Why are we getting things so wrong? The country cannot agree on basic facts and it seems we have lost the ability to communicate with each other. We have even bigger problems though. Namely the extinction of the whole species due to climate change. More worrying than this, is the number of animal species going extinct every day. Some estimates say 200 species are going extinct every single day.

Before humans, animals existed without destroying the entire world. It may be tempting, in this way, to view humans as exceptional. However, most of us don’t have much control of the world we are destroying. As a result, many of us are making myths to explain our present conditions.

In an age like this we should turn to linguist Noam Chomsky for wisdom. Mr. Chomsky sees the fake news era going back to the very companies that are condemning it now: “Huge amounts of capital are expended every year to try to undermine markets… by creating uninformed consumers making irrational choices; and driving them to consumerism – which atomises [society] – rather than serious things. That’s what ought to be taught in economics courses: massive efforts by the business community to undermine markets.”

Even a “neutral” free market ideologue has to ask how well an economy is working when we are consuming everything based on a lie. Now politics itself has been reduced to a brand. As a result, people are governed by their emotions, rather than their reason.

In spite of our spectacular failures, Chomsky resists human exceptionalism. Take the case of Nim Chimpsky, a poor chimpanzee named after Chomsky who was cruelly raised as if he was a human as an experiment. The rest of the chimp’s humanity was how well the chimp could mimic human language.

Chomsky is not impressed by this: “It’s all totally meaningless, so I don’t participate in the debate. Humans can be taught to do a fair imitation of the complex bee communication system. That is not of the slightest interest to bee scientists, who are rational, and understand something about science: they are interested in the nature of bees, and it is of no interest if some other organism can be trained to partially mimic some superficial aspects of the waggle dance. And one could of course not get a grant to teach grad students to behave like imperfect bees.”

Are we now in a new age of human communication, one that can’t be measured against other times in human history, much less against the communication of animals? Are we now speaking the language of extinction? Are we just mimicking human communication?

The nature of our mimicking would be recalling cues in the language in order to get a certain part of the population to emotionally react, rather than using the language honestly to convey its true meaning. Language’s utility then would be not in its relation to objective truth but rather its ability to market a subjective truth. The point in which somebody would act on the language they heard would only be in relation to how much it stirred them up.

In this way, we are getting further away from animal communication. We are overwhelmed with stimulation and symbols for greater meanings we aren’t reflecting on. A material good is no longer only itself, just as a material fact is no longer itself. It rather is mediated through an ever-expanding alienation from the natural world, in which hundreds of species die a day, only to be replaced by an arbitrary good tied to abstract meaning.

As we lose control of our lives we don’t recognize ourselves or our neighbors. The decisions we make become foreign to us and we desperately need others to be like the self we cannot grasp. We cannot communicate with ourselves or others and even our bonds become mysterious and tenuous. Noam Chomsky lets us know we are killing ourselves but that language is too plain, too painful for the circus at the end of the world.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at