Burling's relatively short volume is very readable, non-technical attempt to mark a path looking at real world forces in connection with the evolution of speech. Centrally, and without bold claims, he stresses the importance of cognitive evolution proceeding physiological evolution: shared meaning, and the understanding of intention must proceed more sophisticated communication practices. He repudiates the position of those who believe in the necessity of rapid phological evolution: again, as so often demonstrated in evolutionary studies, a rudimentary, or more basic form of an "organ" often serves a demonstrably useful role. Burling paints a highly plausible picture of progressive, incrementally more sophisticated stages of vocal communication appearing amongst our ancestors. He also rejects Klein's concept of the cognitive "big-bang" taking place around 50,000 years ago: evidence now strongly supports an earlier still impressive degree of cultural sophistication. This volume is a very important addition to the literature on this topic, and I think one of the most careful and convincing in its approach. Anyone interested in the field will be virtually compelled to read it because of Burling has grasped the nettle and laid out a fairly detailed trajectory for the evolution of this most human of skills, but besides the compulsion on the grounds of keeping abreast with the field, this book is a pleasant and relaxed exposition. Certainly a more detailed level of mechanistic explanation is warranted than what he has provided here, but he's shone a light onto "a" path of evolution: its now down to others to challenge his model or assist with substantiating it.
I came to this book as someone with an interest in philosophy of mind and the associated issues of consciousness and artificial intelligence. My particular motivation was to see to what extent current thinking in evolution of language takes account of other aspects of human cognition. As a reading experience in its own right the book was a very clear exposition of the ideas it set out to present, insofar as they went. It must be said that the book erred on the side of labouring some points well beyond necessity, particularly in the earlier chapters. I deduct a star for this. However, despite familiarity with much of the material, I did find a few useful ideas in the book, in particular helping me to see the significance of some aspects of our communication skills in new and interesting ways. As a popular science account, I'm sure anyone coming to it with no background in these matters, but a sincere curiosity, will find it an engaging read.
However, the book lacks any significant depth. Apart from marshalling a bit of evidence that leads us to favour a gradualist evolutionary model over a big bang, and that comprehension drives production, (all of us, from babies onwards, understand more speech that we actually generate ourselves), the evolutionary trajectory presented is sketchy to say the least. I suppose the other significant point made is that speech as an aid to survival in the wild would not need to have become anything like as elaborate as the speech we humans now enjoy. The conclusion must be therefore that, beyond a certain point, sociobiological pressures took over, and the speech apparatus we have now is an evolutionary luxury, akin to the peacock's tail. But all this could have been presented in something less than half the size. Another star deducted.
With regards to my original expectations I, was surprised and rather disappointed to see how little the linguistic perspective appeared to take into account other aspects of our cognitive economy. Burling takes great pains to demonstrate just how superior we are to other animals, even our close phylogenetic cousins, with respect to communicative skills, identifying several such capacities that are unique to humans. But humans are just as distinguished from other animals by their capacities for the analysis and organisation of data accumulated from the environment into conceptual categories. The evolution of these conceptual capabilities was occurring in the same timeframe as that for speech, and that the two narratives would have been intimately connected, with the potential for rich feedback relations emerging between them. In particular, linguistic syntax and morphology has to mirror the conceptual machinery that underlies our representations of temporal tenses, cause and effect (a point obliquely hinted at in the final chapter), parts and wholes, and similar categorical relations. Given that some of these capacities can only emerge when more primitive ones are in place, these semantic considerations have much to tell us about the probable evolutionary trajectory of language, that would have had to develop to some extent in tandem with them.
I have since begun another somewhat more demanding but rewarding book by James Hurford, The Origins of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution, that seems to be tackling the evolution of language from the direction of just these kind of semantic considerations. I would recommend Hurford's book far more to the seriously interested reader.
Easily readable book which adds a new (for me, at least) angle on the difficult question of the original development of human language.The idea that human language is NOT a development of animal grunts, growls and snarls (we still have these in our laughs, yawns, and other 'gesture calls') but is rather something quite separate, is interesting and really illuminating for the subject.
I'd start by saying that this is a topic that fascinates me. I bought this book, as I've a fair knowledge of evolution and modern linguistics and thought this would be a good read. How wrong can one be!
The author seems overly concerned with being right ; not a problem in itself, but it does lead to much of the writing being a rebuttal of other opinion. Second, it is overly repetitive (in much the manner of a person trying to hard to convince an audience), with a point being hammered home long after I've either agreed with it or set it aside.
I found myself skipping the ends of paragraphs and then the ends of chapters. At the last, I skipped the end of the book - I decided it was not really worth the effort of ploughing through the stylistically poor penmanship, only to discover that the author was telling me the same thing for the third time, pointing out that another scholar was wrong or just stating the obvious.