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Language and Human Behavior (Jessie and John Danz Lecture Series) [Paperback]

Derek Bickerton
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 1, 1996 0295974583 978-0295974583
"What this book proposes to do," writes Derek Bickerton, "is to stand the conventional wisdom of the behavioral sciences on its head: instead of the human species growing clever enough to invent language, it will view that species as blundering into language and, as a direct result of that, becoming clever." According to Bickerton, the behavioral sciences have failed to give an adequate account of human nature at least partly because of the conjunction and mutual reinforcement of two widespread beliefs: that language is simply a means of communication and that human intelligence is the result of the rapid growth and unusual size of human brains.

Bickerton argues that each of the properties distinguishing human intelligence and consciousness from that of other animals can be shown to derive straightforwardly from properties of language. In essence, language arose as a representational system, not a means of communication or a skill, and not a product of culture but an evolutionary adaptation.

The author stresses the necessity of viewing intelligence in evolutionary terms, seeing it not as problem solving but as a way of maintaining homeostasis--the preservation of those conditions most favorable to an organism, the optimal achievable conditions for survival and well-being. Nonhumans practice what he calls "on-line thinking" to maintain homeostasis, but only humans can employ off-line thinking: "only humans can assemble fragments of information to form a pattern that they can later act upon without having to wait on that great but unpunctual teacher, experience."

The term protolanguage is used to describe the stringing together of symbols that prehuman hominids employed. "It did not allow them to turn today's imagination into tomorrow's fact. But it is just this power to transform imagination into fact that distinguishes human behavior from that of our ancestral species, and indeed from that of all other species. It is exactly what enables us to change our behavior, or invent vast ranges of new behavior, practically overnight, with no concomitant genetic changes."

Language and Human Behavior should be of interest to anyone in the behavioral and evolutionary sciences and to all those concerned with the role of language in human behavior.

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Editorial Reviews Review

According to Derek Bickerton, language is not simply for communication, it is the syntax of human consciousness. In this intriguing look at the origins of consciousness, Bickerton offers a tantalizing alternative to the theories of sociobiologists such as E. O. Wilson and strong artificial intelligence theorists such as Daniel Dennett: Syntax, as hard-wired into the brain, is what distinguishes the consciousness of modern humans from that of animals and human ancestors. A remarkably accessible argument and sure to stir up debate for some time to come.

Product Details

  • Series: Jessie and John Danz Lecture Series
  • Paperback: 190 pages
  • Publisher: University of Washington Press (January 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0295974583
  • ISBN-13: 978-0295974583
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #697,916 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligence came from language, not vice versa June 11, 2000
It is easy to suspect that we humans can talk because we have smart brains. Bickerton instead argues that as our brains developed the capacity for speech we thereby became smart. Like other animals we have "on-line" thinking to help us survive. This consists of sensory('objective') knowledge of the world and ('subjective') inner states of consciousness. These latter are sometimes automatic responses to sensory knowledge --when you see a lion slinking, run! Sometimes they are awareness of inner states such as pain or body position. On-line thinking is automatic, either instinctual or a kind of learned stimulus-response process. But humans also have "off-line" consciousness. This consists of mental representations of the world and of ourselves, but even of events that are not really occuring. We can think about things not present to us, far away or in the past or in possible futures. So we can evaluate possibilities and make choices in our head; we can plan ahead. Bickerton uses his expertise in pidgin and creole languages to compare different kinds of thought. By this he shows that full "online" thinking is much more than koko, washoe, and kanzi, the sign-using primates (and two-year old children for that matter) are able to do. How he gets from pidgin and creoles to his conclusions is a major aspect of the book. He does it clearly and elegantly. Overall, he argues that as the mind developed capacity for full language, it was also developing the capacity to formulate, hold on to, and manipulate concepts and the relations among them. This language skill is also skill at thinking. So as the human brain developed the structures and connections to make language possible, this created the possibility of offline thought--the power to manipulate ideas well beyond the limits of ordinary "online" sensory experience and flash responses to those experiences.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Human Cognition Came Out of Syntax April 17, 2004
If you like Dennett's books, I urge you to read this one, "Language and Human Bahavior", by Bickerton. The whole book, which is not long, developes a single argument clearly and cogently. It is Vytgotsky's argument (see "Thought and Language" written in 1934), but updated and expanded. In Bickerton's own words: "human cognition came out of language" (page 160), though the title of this review is more exact. So Vygotsky from psychology and Bickerton from linguistics reach the same heretical conclusion. I believe very deeply that they are right.
Summary: The book is very interesting and very well written; it was easy reading for me. It deserves the best score and I strongly recommend it.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Talking Apes June 11, 2007
By any measure, humans are pretty amazing animals. Only humans build cities, drive cars, fly airplanes, surf the Internet and write book reviews to post on Amazon. Clearly intelligence is what underlies all these abilities, but where does our intellectual endowment come from? The standard explanation has to do with brain-to-body ratio, which is far greater in humans than in any other species. On this view, our big brains make us more intelligent, giving us the ability to solve problems, make plans and communicate with each other effectively. Because it seems obvious that intelligence is advantageous to survival, it is assumed that it would be selected for and that evolution would push hominids towards larger and larger brains.

However, linguist Derek Bickerton takes issue with the standard model. In particular with regard to the relationship between intelligence and language, he believes the evolutionary scientists have the process backwards. Instead of viewing language as a product of intelligence, Bickerton argues instead that intelligence is a product of language. In "Language and Human Behavior," Bickerton presents the case that humans stumbled upon language, which then drove brain expansion and intelligence.

Bickerton argues that language evolved in two stages, and that "fossils" of the first stage still exist today. The distinction he makes here is between proto-language and full language. Proto-language has a limited vocabulary and no syntax; it is spoken in a halting fashion and has limited range of expression compared to full language. Full language, other the other hand, is represented by English, Chinese, or any other language spoken in the world. It also includes most signed languages, as well as the languages of so-called "primitive" peoples.
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