Which Came First — The Tool or Its Name?

Here’s some news that amazed me recently, and also got me to asking myself a lot of troublesome questions. Working gears have been discovered in an insect. Scientific American’s video of these gears in action is pretty breathtaking to watch. The story broke just a couple of months ago

The juvenile Issus—a plant-hopping insect found in gardens across Europe—has hind-leg joints with curved cog-like strips of opposing “teeth” that intermesh, rotating like mechanical gears to synchronize the animal’s legs when it launches into a jump.

And so human hubris suffers another body blow from the inventiveness of Natural Selection. Until now, mechanical gears were believed to have a distinctly anthropocentric pedigree. They first appeared (or so it was said) in the “south-pointing chariot,” invented by the Chinese engineer Ma Jun back in the third century CE. But no, the juvenile Issus has been using gears for millions of years. In what seems almost a cosmic practical joke, nature invented gears millions of years before it bothered to invent their human “inventors.”

The Jamais Vu PapersAll this reminds me of the fictional psychiatrist Hector Glasco’s ill-fated and ill-advised meeting with the real-life New York superagent John Brockman in 1989. The oracular Mr. Brockman held forth about hearts and pumps and such …

We talk about the heart as a pump. It isn’t like a pump. It is one.

Now this is a long-familiar example of nature beating human engineers to the punch. Artificial pumps date back to Ctesibius (no, I can’t pronounce it either), a Greek inventor of the third century BCE. But nature has been manufacturing pumps for as long as there have been hearts with two or more chambers, and hearts have been around for at least as long as there have been fish.

Similar cases abound. During World War II, for instance, around the time when the Allies were secretly developing sonar, scientists happened to discover that bats had been using sonar all along. Talk about security leaks!

It should no longer surprise us that the beautifully intricate mechanisms created by Natural Selection should … well, surprise us. But further paradoxes lurk in the realm of language. Regarding hearts as pumps, Brockman went on to tell Hector …

That metaphor is a human invention.

Indeed, nobody knew that hearts were pumps until William Harvey figured it out in the 17th century. So which came first, the tool or its name?

I suppose, if Hector had thought to ask Brockman this question, he would have answered that words like “sonar” and “pump” and “gear” weren’t around when nature first toyed with echolocation, primordial jumping devices, and throbbing two-chambered movers of blood. Neither were any other words. There wasn’t anything we would call “language” at all. And as Brockman put it …

If it’s not in the language, it isn’t. If you can’t say it, it isn’t.

And so, although little gears appeared in bugs untold millions of years ago, they didn’t actually become gears until we noticed them and called them “gears.” The same goes for pumps and sonar. Hector Glasco might take heart from this. “If it’s not really invented until there’s a word for it,” he might say, “then surely human beings actually did invent gears, pumps, and sonar! After all, aren’t we, and not nature, the makers of words?”

The words of another oracular figure come to mind—Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

But according to Brockman, even so lofty a linguistic authority as Humpty Dumpty is wrong, for words are the makers of us—and of everything else:

[T]he words of the world are the life of the world, and nature is not created, nature is said…. I’m talking about the idea that we are our words. We create technologies and tools, and we become the technologies and tools. So, too, with language. All we have is language. All we have is ideas.

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“Astride Occam’s Razor,” the story of Hector Glasco’s encounter with John Brockman, appears in both The Jamais Vu Papers and Jamais Vu VIEWS.

Jamais Vu Views

It’s finally out in both paperback and KindleJamais Vu Views, the companion to our underground classic The Jamais Vu Papers.


Some of you have been waiting for this book for two decades or more.

Others of you have no idea what we’re talking about.

So let’s go back to Los Angeles in 1987, for the birth of a crypto-legend …

The two us lived in a little house at the base of Mount Washington; at the top was perched the Self-Realization Fellowship. Its gardens are lovely, tranquil, and open to all. We loved to walk up there to retreat from that intense city, rest, and meditate. One afternoon, we were walking down Mount Washington after some especially stimulating meditation. As we headed home, ideas started flowing, and we talked and talked and talked. And so we started our own newsletter—the jamais vu papers, a monthly publication with a fictional storyline that included far-flung, far-fetched, and far-sighted ideas. (BTW, we got married the month the first issue appeared.)

Publishing a newsletter wasn’t easy back in those days. Does anyone remember waxers and paste-ups? We put the pages together in our little house and took them to a copy shop for printing. We sent free copies to as many people as we could get addresses for. We started asking other people to participate.

Real-life thinkers eagerly pitched into our fictional world, changing the story itself as it galloped waywardly forward, sideways, upward, downward, across parallel realities, and every which way. We interviewed Tom Robbins (our first-ever subscriber), and also María De Céspedes, Fred Chappell, Daniel C. Dennett, Jamake Highwater, Paul Krassner, Timothy Leary, and Fred Alan Wolf. Because these interviews took place in a peculiar no man’s land somewhere between fiction and reality, they became known as jamais inter-vus.

When the New York superagent John Brockman got wind of what we were up to, he signed us up with Harmony Books to rework our material into a novel—and he took part in a jamais inter-vu as well. The novel came out in 1991. Even after it went out of print, copies kept circulating until The Jamais Vu Papers became a bona fide underground classic. As copies grew scarce and zanily expensive, we published a new edition in 2010.

But alas, the novel could not contain nearly everything we’d put in the newsletter. A lot of great material had to be left behind, including jamais inter-vus with Stewart Brand, Jean Houston, Russell Jacoby, Charles Johnston, Russell Targ, and Robert Theobald.

Now, at long last, we’ve compiled Jamais Vu Views, which includes all of the original interviews—those that appeared in the book, and those that haven’t been seen since our newsletter was discontinued in 1991. If you are already a fan of The Jamais Vu Papers, you’ll be delighted by what you have jamais (never) seen before. And if you have jamais (never) experienced the reality-bending phenomenon known as The Jamais Vu Papers, this new collection is a great place to start.

Check it out at Amazon.com—in paperback or Kindle.