JB: How do you know that it's the way the peers speak it that matters? How do you know it's not the grownups?
HARRIS: There's an interesting story that Derek Bickerton tells, of the children of people who immigrated to Hawaii around the turn of the 19th century. The parents came to work on the sugar plantations and they came from all over the world the Philippines, Puerto Rico, China, and so on. They had no language in common, so a pidgin language developed among them a sort of skeletal language that permits people to communicate the bare essentials but that is inadequate for complicated ideas.
The children of these people got together and found that they too had no language in common nothing but the pidgin, and that wasn't good enough. So they created a language! Out of the mouths of babes came a full-fledged language called a creole! This was a language they couldn't have learned from any of the adults they knew, because none of the adults could speak it. And it became their "native language," the language they brought with them to adulthood. Bickerton studied these people when they were middle-aged or older, and he found that an immigrant's child of a given age used the same version of creole as the others of the same age it was the language they had used in their childhood peer groups. The language evolved over time, but the people who learned a certain version of it in childhood continued to speak that version all their lives. No trace of the language of their parents was detectable in their speech the language of their parents was forgotten.
JB: So what do your observations of language tell us about the transmission of culture?
HARRIS: I think other aspects of a culture are transmitted the
same way as language. In developed societies the parents start the process at
home, so the kids come out of the house already knowing something. But whether
they keep what they learned at home will depend on what they find when they get
outside. And they don't have to learn anything at home, and they'll still
be okay. There are many societies where the parents hardly talk to their babies
at all, and the babies don't learn the language until they graduate from their
mothers' arms into the local play group. They learn the language, and they learn
how to behave, from the older children in the play group.
HARRIS: Not entirely, because anything that has an effect on the majority of kids in the peer group can affect the entire group. Even though parents may not have much influence as individuals, they can have a great deal of power if they get together. Hebrew used to be a dead language a language used only for ceremonial purposes. A bunch of grownups got together and decided to make Hebrew the language of their new country, and they taught their kids to speak Hebrew. The kids found that their peers spoke Hebrew too, and Hebrew became their "native language," even though it wasn't the native language of their parents. It worked because the parents who decided to do it lived in one place and their children played together and went to school together. It wouldn't work if only one family in a neighborhood decided to do it. So parents who want to have an influence on their kids should get together with other like-minded parents and send their kids to the same school. That's the way the Amish do it, and the Hasidic Jews. In fact, it's what middle-class parents do when they move to "nice" neighborhoods so their kids can go to "nice" schools.
JB: Does this tell us anything about memes?
HARRIS: The idea of memes is that bits of culture tend to reproduce themselves like genes. Successful bits of culture are passed on, unsuccessful ones die out. The trouble with this theory is that it doesn't take account of the human tendency to split up into separate groups that become culturally distinct. Memes spread freely within a group, but between groups there's a motivation to reject the memes of the other group and do something different. A meme can give rise to a similar meme, but under slightly different circumstances it can engender an anti-meme. I don't think the meme theory can account for that.
JB: Give me an example.
HARRIS: They worship many gods, so we will worship only one. They say, an eye for an eye; we say, turn the other cheek. They eat cows, we don't. They hold their forks that way, we hold our forks this way. They say "tomahto," we say "tomato."