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The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain

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ISBN-13: 978-0393317541
ISBN-10: 0393317544
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Editorial Reviews 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 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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (April 17, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393317544
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393317541
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #101,425 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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56 of 59 people found the following review helpful By John W. Schmidt on July 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Three reasons to read "The Symbolic Species". 1) Deacon describes how neuroscience is finally producing results that deal with the issue of how brains make human language possible. 2) Deacon presents a theory of brain/language co-evolution that stresses the importance of behavioral innovations that alter the human environment leading to subsequent genetic adaptation. 3) Deacon explores ways by which Philosophy of Language can be refined by incorporation of results from the scientific study of human language.
This three-fold enterprise depends on the neuroscience results discussed in Part Two of "The Symbolic Species". For example, Figure 7.8 draws our attention to the idea that prefrontal cortex is disproportionately large in the human brain. Deacon suggests that changes in the relative sizes of brain regions during human evolution is a mechanism for adaptations that allow humans to better perform language tasks. Figure 8.3 pictorially illustrates an evolutionary trend in anatomical connections towards more direct cerebral cortex control over the motor neurons that are involved in vocalizations. These examples illustrate the fact that Deacon's theory of brain/language co-evolution is heavily dependent on comparative studies of brain anatomy. Deacon tries to convince us that the major anatomical changes during human brain evolution are the precise types of changes in an ape brain that would facilitate human language behavior. According to Deacon's theory, early humans started using language as a social innovation and then the human brain changed so as to make it easier to use human language.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Carlos Camara on February 21, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is ambitious stuff. Deacon wants to explain the origins of language, underlying neural dynamics, explain symbolic reference and to show why Chomsky is wrong on his ideas on language. The result is a highly readable and complex text that somehow Deacon manages to maintain coherent. Many interesting ideas and insights can be found in the pages of this book. However it is not at all clear to me to what extent all of this is groundbreaking stuff. For example, darwinian processes in neural dynamics and development are not new ideas, as Deacon admits. Edelman, Calvin, Changeaux all got there first. The role Deacon gives to the prefrontal cortex is not new either. His explanation of symbolic reference as a collection of indexical and iconical relationships, and further symbo-symbolical higher orther relationships, is philosophically questionable to say the least. Why would symbolic abilities arise out of adding levels of non-symbolic relationships, in the way Deacon proposes?. Surely, symbolic abilities must depend on non symbolic mechanisms at some level, but it is not clear at which.
But Deacon also has moments of genius. His attack on Chomskian innate universal grammar frameworks is brilliant. Language evolved to adapt to the cognitive abilities of humans and therefore it seems it is learned too easilly. It is not that children have a grammar module, but that their general modules are enough when most of the adaptive work was done by language itself by evolving. Deacon also shows why grammars are not things that can become innate in the first place too. They cannot be invariant enough for selection to work on the brain to aquire them. Deacon also shows what did happen in the brain for there to be language.
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45 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Benjamin Rossen on March 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading only one or two pages into this book already makes it clear that this is a work by an exceptionally well informed and disciplined writer; and reading to the end does not disappoint at any time. This is a tightly argued serious scientific thesis by a professor of biological anthropology with an encyclopedic knowledge of linguistics, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy and human evolution. It is an original work in which Deacon sets out his arguments and marshals the evidence for a comprehensive theory in a methodical and structured way. It is not for the faint hearted, and reading it demands careful attention to the tightly written dense structured prose; it is not repetitive and the logical structure of the arguments is architectural, so that careful reading and a good memory are essential. Useful diagrammatic illustrations help to make some of the concepts easier to grasp. The effort is worth every moment. Deacon's conclusions have consequences for philosophy and theory of mind no less than for the central area of linguistics and the evolution of human intelligence. This book has done more to shape and to consolidate my knowledge of who we as a "symbolic species" are than any other I have read in this decade. Strongly recommended.
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35 of 40 people found the following review helpful By from Hilary Hinzmann on October 1, 1997
Format: Hardcover
I edited THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES when I was employed atW. W. Norton, and no book I worked on in my fourteen years at Nortonever received so many enthusiastic comments and reviews from leading scholars in related fields. Prospective readers may like to know that cutting edge thinkers and researchers such as Merlin Donald, author of ORIGINS OF THE MODERN MIND, consider Terry Deacon's revolutionary exploration of human origins and consciousness to be "the best book yet written on the evolution of language" and "theoretical dynamamite planted deep under the walls of the neo-Chomskian fortress." Edward Manier, professor of philosophy at University of Notre Dame, says the book "should transform the foundations of the human sciences" and calls Deacon the "best neurophilosopher on the planet." Here are these and other leading scholars' advance reviews of THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES, along with excerpts from Booklist and the starred review in Library Journal.
"An extremely sophisticated analysis of the relationship between language and the brain. Deacon provides a compelling picture of how language evolved to fit the ape brain. He also explains why and how different languages may utilize different parts of the brain to carry out the same linguistic function." -- Patricia Greenfield, professor of psychology, UCLA
"A masterpiece. This superb and innovative look at the evolution of language could only have been written by the one person with the range, depth, and sheer competence to incorporate linguistics, ethology, developmental biology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology: Terry Deacon. An extraordinary achievement!" -- David Pilbeam, professor of anthropology, Harvard University
"This is an accessible yet erudite volume, witty and uncompromising.
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