Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Evolution of Isolating Mechanisms, as Observed in France (or, The Cheese)

This is another in my series of essays about what I learned in France. Be prepared for some surprises.

In an earlier essay, I explained that geographical isolation has led to speciation: for example, both France and America have maple trees, but not the same species. The Atlantic Ocean keeps the European and American species from intermixing.

But another major force in evolution is isolation caused by actual biological or social processes. These are isolating mechanisms. These mechanisms permit members of one group—which may later become its own species—to recognize other members of that group, and to distinguish them from outsiders. Isolating mechanisms have led to a great amount of evolutionary diversity. For example, most mating behavior functions in this way. When a male and female blue-footed booby get together, how does the female booby know that the male is really the right species? You’d think the big blue feet would be a dead giveaway, but no—she expects him to go through a silly and humiliating booby-dance.

Humans are the prime example of isolating mechanisms. Human social groups have many, complex, and difficult behaviors that take a lifetime to learn and therefore label an outsider as an outsider for life. I discovered this in France. I will never ever ever be French.

In many ways, I am pre-adapted to be French. I already drive a small car, and am satisfied with modest luxuries and being quiet. I already treat food as an experience rather than as just a way to stuff my face. An American driving a big fuming pickup truck and yelling loudly would never fit in to French society. But I am not that kind of American.

But I will never be able to communicate fluently in French. Many languages communicate primarily by consonants. Hebrew even omitted the vowels and just wrote the consonants. But in French, most of the consonants are ignored, even the ones that, according to the rules, should be spoken. Many of the syllables are dropped. For example, commençaient (they began) is pronounced “ko-mans” (you can barely hear the s), just like commence (I begin) and commencent (they begin). In commençaient the final five letters are silent and usually the final six. I can read most things in French but understand hardly anything that I hear.

But French has about thirty different vowel sounds. Some of them are easy to distinguish. Everyone knows that eau and eaux and os and and ou and eu and eux all sound different. That’s the easy stuff. But there are other examples, even more subtle, about which I would tell you except that I don’t know what they are. If you use a slightly incorrect vowel sound, they will not understand you. Maybe in Paris they will rudely pretend to not understand you, but in Strasbourg, they really sincerely politely do not understand you.

And if you cannot handle those vowels, you are no more a Frenchman or woman than a catbird is a mockingbird—close relatives, but unable to speak to one another.

Another cultural feature that weeds out the outsiders is cheese. There are certain kinds of cheese in France that are so ripe that, as I understand, it is illegal to export them to America. An example from the Vosges Mountains, near Orbey, just southwest of Strasbourg, is Muenster cheese. It was invented in the Muenster Valley, of which I posted photos in an earlier entry. Oh, you can buy mild stuff that is called Muenster here in America. But the stuff in France has a fragrance that fills a room even if it is wrapped.

Real Muenster cheese, some French are proud to say, smells like shit. And it is something that is overwhelming even to many French. A family that hosted us to dinner on our final night in Strasbourg (a wonderful family, who got out the special 1971 wine and treated us royally, a family of intelligent, creative, polite people) told us the story of how one of them took a well-wrapped piece of Muenster cheese onto a train compartment. Nobody would share the compartment with them except a young family with a baby. The young family immediately checked the baby’s diaper and, finding it clean, glanced over at my hosts and quickly left. I repeat, they told us this story proudly. (I swear it’s true. You can’t make stuff like this up.) They also found that you can smuggle anything you want (even though they did not actually do so) if you put it under some Muenster cheese. Then they unwrapped some for us. I just politely watched the others eat it. It was expensive and they were saving it for a very special occasion, which was us.

You can study French in college, but you may never be able to learn the subtleties of French speech, and you will probably never learn to love, really love, the kinds of French cheese that are illegal in America. You will never be French unless you already are. So don’t try. Instead, you should try being exotic. If you are part Native American, you will be revered as a curiosity. I got pretty good use of the only two words of Cherokee I know (osiyo and wado) and from the story about my grandfather having a Cherokee name (Tsisqua). If I ever move to France, I will put a dream-catcher in my window.

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