MLU: That's a fascinating discovery with profound implications. To quote from the Cognition paper you wrote with Frank, Fedorenko, and Gibson: "Thus, numbers may be better thought of as an invention: A cognitive technology for representing, storing, and manipulating the exact cardinalities of sets."
On a more personal side, you have written that the Pirahã ultimately caused you to lose your religious faith. How did that happen?
DE: The Pirahãs were not the only reason that I abandoned my religious faith, but they were the final straw, the ultimate catalyst. Through my contact with Brazilian intellectuals, via my graduate work and initial teaching at the University of Campinas in Sao Paulo, I developed friendships with brilliant people who did not believe, but also did not fit the stereotypes of 'unbelievers' that are bandied about in the church. These were people with commitment, character, and depth. The Pirahãs were also people of depth and character. Their intelligence and knowledge, their strength and courage, and their friendship to me, a stranger in a strange land, were energizing and challenging. Then as I tried to tell them about Jesus and the stories of the Bible and they sat there listening, because they were friends, they would ask questions about the evidence that I had for my faith. These questions had a couple of effects on me. The first was to get me to think to myself something like "These people are really trying to understand me, because they take me seriously. But really, what the hell does what I am telling them have to do with where they are? I am telling them about deserts, and crucifixions, and sacrificial lambs and none of that is part of their all-important daily experience. Yet, rather than telling me to go peddle my goods elsewhere, most of them are kind, tolerant and respectful of my strange beliefs. What right do I have to do this? Have I been as tolerant of them?"
The second effect was for me to realize that I had no direct, verifiable evidence for what I was saying, something that was incomprehensible to the Pirahãs--"you talk about what you have seen or heard from someone who has seen, not some old story that just makes its way around through the centuries." All of this made me think. And then I realized that I was happier with Brazilian intellectuals and Pirahãs than with other Christians. In fact, it seemed like religion didn't produce much 'fruit' at all in people's lives other than smugness and condemnation. There were some good social things to it, but it was beginning to seem more and more like a crock. And the Pirahãs helped me see that. Recently, I have enjoyed watching Julia Sweeney's monologue, "Letting go of God" and she covers the ground I traveled extremely well, letting me know that many others have been through this with me.
MLU: I think you'll find that you are in good company here at Machines Like Us, where most of the website's contributors find no need for religious faith in their lives.
Discoveries about the brain and language seem to be happening rapidly. Just this week researchers from Johns Hopkins University announced that they have identified a specific part of the brain--named the left fusiform gyrus--which they say is necessary for normal, rapid understanding of the meaning of written text as well as correct word spelling (Cortex, Feb. 2010). Also, the New York times ran an article about a recent scientific discovery in the predator alert calls of Campbell's monkeys, which seem to have the ability to create complex calls out of multiple elements--a "morphological" (word building) process previously thought to only take place in human language. And of course there has been a lot of discussion recently about a gene called FOXP2, which has reportedly been shown, when mutated, to disrupt human speech and language (Nature, Nov. 11). What might these findings tell us about the brain and language?