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The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain Paperback – 22 Apr 1998


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Product details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (22 April 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393317544
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393317541
  • Product Dimensions: 1.6 x 0.3 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 125,757 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species begins with a question posed by a 7-year-old child: Why can't animals talk? Or, as Deacon puts it, if animals have simpler brains, why can't they develop a simpler form of language to go with them? Thus begins the basic line of inquiry for this breathtakingly ambitious work, which attempts to describe the origins of human language and consciousness.

What separates humans from animals, Deacon writes, is our capacity for symbolic representation. Animals can easily learn to link a sound with an object or an effect with a cause. But symbolic thinking assumes the ability to associate things that might only rarely have a physical correlation; think of the word "unicorn," for instance, or the idea of the future. Language is only the outward expression of this symbolic ability, which lays the foundation for everything from human laughter to our compulsive search for meaning.

The final section of The Symbolic Species posits that human brains and human language have co-evolved over millions of years, leading Deacon to the remarkable conclusion that many modern human traits were actually caused by ideas. Deacon's background in biological anthropology and neuroscience makes him a reliable companion through this complicated multidisciplinary turf. Rigorously researched and argued in dense but lively prose, The Symbolic Species is that rare animal: a book of serious science that's accessible to layman and scientist alike. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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As our species designation-sapiens-suggests, the defining attribute of human beings is an unparalleled cognitive ability. Read the first page
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 15 April 1999
Format: Hardcover
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 11 Feb 1998
Format: Hardcover
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!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 3 April 1998
Format: Hardcover
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Mr. G. P. D. Ingram on 18 Jun 2007
Format: Paperback
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!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 28 Jun 1999
Format: Hardcover
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.
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