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 coevolved 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.
From Library Journal
A neurologist and anthropologist with Harvard Medical School, Deacon considers why language is confined to humans and why no simple languages exist. He proposes that symbolic reference is both the defining feature of language and the principle cause for the expansion of the human profrontal cortex. This "evolutionary anomaly" has, in turn, given rise to a brain that is biased to use an associative learning process critical for language success. Deacon also suggests that human-reproduction demands may have been the driving selection factor that led to symbolic communication. In presenting his theory, Deacon challenges many of the ideas of Noam Chomsky and, more recently, Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, LJ 2/1/94), who argued for the existence of an innate "Universal Grammar." Directing his book at a scientific audience, Deacon blends a knowledge of a neurobiology, anthropology, linguistics, and philosophy into an original, well-argued, compelling theory of language development. Complex and extremely challenging, this book should receive considerable review attention. Highly recommended for academic and major public libraries.?Laurie Bartolini, Legislative Research, Springfield, Ill.
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