Muzzle wipes and table manners

I just finished The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, a brilliant new book by my neighbor and friend Christine Kenneally. It surveys the research from the half dozen sciences that go into the new field of language evolution, and profiles the rather large-size personalities who have led the debates in the field, which are sometimes acrimonious. I think my favorite moment is when Christine notes that when humans acquired language, they also acquired foreknowledge of their mortality. “Talk about spandrels,” she quips.

As is my wont, I found myself making obscure connections to literary classics of an earlier era. One theme of the book is how scientists have made breakthroughs in imagining the evolution of language by breaking language down into the skills, behaviors, and capacities that make it possible. Gesture, for example, may well have preceded vocalization, when humans and proto-humans first began to communicate, and apes alive today sometimes gesture in ways that are easy for humans to interpret. Christine describes a baboon gesture known as the muzzle wipe that the primatologist Janette Wallis caught on video and showed to colleagues at a conference not long ago:

The gesture rarely lasts longer than a few seconds, so it is not easy to see, yet once Wallis told the audience what to look for, the muzzle wipe was clearly evident. Nervous baboons could be seen constantly putting their hands to their faces in difficult situations. She noted that monkeys make a similar move and that a chimpanzee will often put its wrist to its forehead in similar contexts. . . . Humans do put their hand to their face when nervous, and indeed, as she pointed out, psychiatrists and law enforcement officials often interpret a hand-to-face gesture as evidence of uncertainty or even deception.

For her clincher, Wallis showed a video of George H. W. Bush at a press conference, answering a question about his son’s drunk-driving arrest while scratching his nose. A different example came to my mind. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, the psychiatrist Dick Diver makes a peculiar boast one evening in the Riviera, while dining with a circle of leisure-class expatriates:

They were looking over the other patrons of the restaurant to see if they had repose—Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself, and they were seeking an example to confront him with. Things looked black for them—not a man had come into the restaurant for ten minutes without raising his hand to his face. . . . The luckier ones fingered eyeglasses and facial hair, the unequipped stroked blank mouths, or even pulled desperately at the lobes of their ears.

I think I was a teenager when I first read Tender Is the Night, so the passage at once created for me a new opportunity for self-consciousness and embarrassment in public. I wondered if some day I would meet people who casually measure one another’s repose by tracking how often they touch their faces. I haven’t, but then, I rarely dine in Fitzgeraldian circles. Or with baboons, for that matter.

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