on 15 April 1999
This is probably the best book for general readers on the evolution of the mind currently available. Contrary to Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct," you won't find any talk of "mentalese" or innate grammar here- as Deacon points out, saying that grammar is innate doesn't solve any problems, it just sort of pushes the problems to the side. Deacon focuses on the learning strategies (specifically, the ability to learn symbolic reference), as the basis for the evolution of language and the human brain.
Deacon does not believe that language emerges from a human-only increase in "general intelligence," which is sort of the folk psychology idea for the emergence of language- our bigger brains just made us "smarter," in some ill-defined way. The idea that intelligence and langauge are separate entities is made clear by Williams' syndrome, a clinical condition where the patient has a normal use of grammar and a superior vocabulary, but is severely retarded on most intelligence tests.
Anyone who takes Linguistics 101 (or tries to learn a second language) in college is amazed by the complexity of language. It amazes a lot of people that children are able to learn something so complicated so easily, but adults (who are more intelligent, also in an ill-defined sense) find it very hard to pick up a second language. Even animals and computer algorithms, who are better than children at learning complicated sequences of actions in order to gain a reward, cannot pick up language. Deacon explains this remarkable fact by presenting his ideas for how one learns symbolic reference, a kind of learning strategy different from any other in evolution, a learning strategy that sets humans apart. To tell you anymore then that would ruin the book, you'll have to pick it up for yourself.
Deacon's greatest gift is explaining brain evolution from the bottom level (changes in genes) and from the top level (environmental changes) with equal clarity. In doing so, he bucks both evolutionary psychologists who downplay environmental factors, as well as standard social scientists and laymen who do not understand the Darwinian evolution of the brain. The result is a natural explanation of the evolution of language.
As many others have pointed out, this book is a first step. A more technical book devoted to understanding the ability to learn symbolic references based on Deacon/Peirce's ideas would be really great. Maybe I'll sit down and write it myself.
Keep 'em coming, Terry!
on 11 February 1998
I had the pleasure of taking language evolution with Prof. Deacon this past Fall semester. In the course, we examined many critical aspects of the language origins controversy. Begining with Gall's area 33 and finishing with Pinker's: The Language Instinct. In the Symbolic Species, Deacon's approach is systematic, logical, and learned. In this book, he combines paleoarcheological, primatological, and neuroscientific facts composing an argument which counters those of Pinker and Chompsky. The highlight of the book, comes in part two and three where neuroscientific and primatological evidence are used to explain the origins of language resting not on some illusive module or LAD but rather on our unique ability to abstract and think SYMBOLICALLY. This is the hallmack of human thinking. Prefrontal development and expansion in combination with environmental pressures for better tool making and social organization, Deacon explains, might be what is responsible for our symbolic abilities which other animals have such difficulty with. All in all this is truly a remarkable book which every student of psychology, anthropology, zoology, and linguistics needs to read!
on 3 April 1998
The highlights of this book were the profound insights that literally transform how you see the world. One example is his view of language as something that has evolved to be learnable by the average two year old. Another was the idea of language as a "virus". His structure of icons, index and symbols is itself a powerful virus that I found difficult to stop applying to everything I have recently read. I loved the enthusiasm of his style ,but did think he could have integrated the physiological aspects more effectively as Gerald Erdelman did in Brilliant Fire...On balance one of the growing list of superb Neo Darwinian contributions to a new world view.
on 18 June 2007
Ten years old now, but still a must-read for anyone with the vaguest interest in human evolution. The book is divided into three parts - on language, the brain, and evolution. The language part, which draws heavily on C S Peirce's concepts of icon, index and symbol, is not bad, but the brain section is by far the strongest of the three (unsurprisingly, since Deacon is a neuroscientist by training). His constant emphasis on how different regions of the developing brain blindly compete for neural connections with other brain regions is truly revelatory. It's a welcome antidote to those less neurally grounded pyschologists who seem content to posit "cognitive modules" that have somehow been "designed" by natural selection for whatever-feature-you-like of human behaviour. However after that refreshing story, I found the last part of the book to be hugely disappointing. It falls back on a tired old just-so-story from the 1960s about how increasing tool use and meat consumption correlated with "man the hunter" sharing more food with his poor dependent wife and kiddies. Oh dear, I was expecting something much more original! If I had got it I would happily have given this book five stars. It's a bit long, peppered with typos, and most of the diagrams confuse more than they clarify - but who cares when it's absolutely stuffed full of bright ideas and cogent critiques!
on 28 June 1999
There can be little doubt that Terrence Deacon has written an original and thought-provoking book. However, general readers, such as me, will find it very challenging because of its highly technical content. Be prepared for hard work in trying to fathom Deacon's very well developed thesis.
on 1 December 1997
Human language is a subject of great interest to everyone, but knowing its origin and biological framework is almost intractable owing mainly to the fact that there is only one living species with this unique human trait. (Ideally, we would compare many species with different "versions" of a given trait in order to learn something about how it arises and what it is for.) Also, there is a difficulty whenever humans try to study themselves, and a tendency to interpret the beginnings and evolution of a human feature directly in the context of the modern world. For example, language is used today for many things, but which, if any, of these uses relates to its initial development and subsequent evolution? During the last century, the brilliant philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce developed a theory of thought that was internally compelling and logical, but (unfortunately) difficult to understand and somewhat obscured by a great deal of digression and possibly unnecessary complexity in presentation. Within the last century, a tremendous amount of evidence for the nitty gritty details of the evolution of our species, in the form of fossils and archaeological material, has been unearthed. During recent decades, great strides have been made in the fields of primate cognition (for example, language studies of apes like Washoe and Kanzi) and the neurology of the human brain. "The Symbolic Species" is the first work that I have read that integrates this vast array of evidence into a useful description and probable theory of human language evolution and functioning. Deacon steps clear of the usual "human" biases by re-asking, on entirely new and creative terms, the basic questions of human language function and evolution. He explains clearly CS. Peirce's logic, and develops from this (and other sources, including his own pathbreaking work) a model for human symbolic thought. Deacon does an outstanding job of making sense of the neuroscience and primate cognitive studies, fairly evaluating claims made in those fields, explaining them clearly, and conferring on the careful reader an expertise in these disciplines. Deacon's model for human language evolution and functioning is not merely presented as an alternative to other ideas or an addition to prior scholarly work. Rather, Deacon effectively (but politely) destroys much of the prevailing theory, but with due consideration and preservation of that which is most likely right in recent scholarship. It is not possible to intelligently read Deacon's book and still accept a Chomskian view of human language. Deacon's conclusions conflict directly with much of the (also brilliant) work by Stephen Pinker (i.e., "The Language Instinct"). Until the publication of this book, we can assume that Terrance Deacon understood human language evolution better than any other scholar. Now, with its publication, this important knowledge is more widely available. "The Symbolic Species" is not exactly light reading, but it is very accessible. Prior knowledge of this field is not necessary to fully understand Deacon's engaging presentation. "The Symbolic Species" is richly illustrated with Deacon's own visuals, which present data and models in ways that are really worth thousands of words.
on 22 November 1998
The evolution of symbolic capacity is too important to be left to the neuranatomists. This isnot to play down Deacon's impressive book. Having read the hardback, in the library, and having bought and being presently struggling with the paperback, what strikes me is that he has things -- important things -- to say to many of us, linguists, philosophers, whatever, to whom the details are not what is essential. What I mean is that this book needs a version more accessible which brings out the central message without losing us in a mass of detail.O,K. we need another book which says the same -- but to the rest of us, not only Deacon's colleagues.
on 19 November 2009
In essence, the book is useful as a guide across various studies in evolution, biology, linguistics, etc. The emerging picture is a balanced understanding of how actually language IS brain activity and v.v. The author displays quite convincing reasoning, although many times his writing style feels to be swinging off the topic too much. Altogether, a good book to refer to, especially for linguists and semioticians.
on 4 June 1999
i found this book very intresting. The most important part of this book is the argument against universal grammar. and is the best against it i have saw so far.
Deacon offers an alternative "memetic" view of language citing that it is designed for children becuase of its selection pressure. As well as arguing against a 'language organ' by showing various places of neurological activity in the brain. Kanzi the bonobo and the speaking abilities of her also offer a problem for universal linguistics.
I do feel this view runs short though. Although Deacon proclaims the universality of deep strucuture is due to selection pressure he gives no reason why language is this identical. also i do not believe the much more difficulty in adults learning languages can simply be attributed to it being based on adapting to children.
I feel the chomskyian view of language and that of deacon both have parts correct in them. something that makes the field of linguistics very intresting at the time. A must buy if intrested.
The chapters on human evolution also propose some intresting theories such as the first symbols not being verbal. but in ritual such as marriage. A goood overview of how co-evolution effected human development is also in this book. which will make it usefull to many aswell.
on 21 April 2000
I don't know enough to quibble with Deacon. I'm sure there must be something to criticize but I can't find it. The book provokes me to consider whether a better understanding of specialized languages like mathematics would illuminate more natural and more effective methods of instruction. Certainly the hierarchy of icon, index, and symbol strike a resonant chord in mathematical thought. I read Reuben Hersh's "What is Mathematics, Really?" during the same time frame and find a lot of potential in the interaction between the two lines of thought.