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Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior [Paperback]

by Philip Lieberman
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 31, 1993 0674921836 978-0674921832 Reprint

In a stimulating synthesis of cognitive science, anthropology, and linguistics, Philip Lieberman tackles the fundamental questions of human nature: How and why are human beings so different from other species? Can the Darwinian theory of evolution explain human linguistic and cognitive ability? How do our processes of language and thought differ from those of Homo erectus 500,000 years ago, or of the Neanderthals 35,000 years ago? What accounts for human moral sense?

Lieberman believes that evolution for rapid, efficient vocal communication forged modern human beings by creating the modern human brain. Earlier hominids lacked fully human speech and syntax, which together allow us to convey complex thoughts rapidly. The author discusses how natural selection acted on older brain mechanisms to produce a structure that can regulate the motor activity necessary for speech and command the complex syntax that enhances the creativity of human language. The unique brain mechanisms underlying human language also enhance human cognitive ability, allowing us to derive abstract concepts and to plan complex activities. These factors are necessary for the development of true altruism and moral behavior.

Lieberman supports his argument about the evolution of speech and the human brain by combining the comparative method of Charles Darwin, insights from archaeology and child development, and the results of high-tech research with computerized brain scanning and computer models that can recreate speech sounds made by our ancestors over 100,000 years ago.

Uniquely Human will stimulate fresh thought and controversy on the basic question of how we came to be.

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Editorial Reviews


Lieberman has distilled the best of his twenty-five years of accumulated wisdom about man's unique gift of speech and has presented it here in much too readable a form to be limited to experts. I hope it reaches the broad audience it deserves. (George Miller, Princeton University)

About the Author

Philip Lieberman is Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences and Professor of Anthropology at Brown University.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (January 31, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674921836
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674921832
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,824,542 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
By xaosdog
Lieberman was my unofficial mentor when I was an undergraduate at Brown University, and this is the one of his books that made the greatest impression on me. It describes in clear and convincing detail why, how -- and at what cost -- humans evolved not merely the cognitive but also the physiological capacity to use language and speech.
Briefly, Lieberman argues first that language and speech must have co-evolved (as opposed to the capacity for language coming first, perhaps being used in gestural modalities before the capacity for speech came about). The reasons for this are complex, but the gist of it is that a supra-laryngeal vocal tract that permits formation of the sounds of human speech is such a non-survival characteristic (adult humans are the only mammals incapable of breathing and drinking simultaneously (thus also rendering infants subject to SIDS in the period when the larynx drops), small mouth and small teeth make us work harder to ingest food, etc.) that it would never have evolved at all if the capacity to use language had co-evolved with some other adequate modality of language use. In addition, general principles of natural selection tell us that the cognitive capacity for language (probably) did not evolve independent of an ability to use language.
Next, Lieberman argues that the cognitive capacities that make language possible are the very same ones that make possible all of the cognitive "feats" that we consider to be particular to humankind: creativity and innovative thought, as well as our highly-developed hand-eye coordination and digital manipulation abilities.
In my view -- but not Lieberman's -- the third part of his argument is something of an afterthought, not a necessary part of his theory and more speculative than data-driven.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars language and the ability to cooperate make us human February 28, 2001
Lieberman, Professor of Linquistics at Brown University, argues that the unique ability of humans to speak and to rapidly process language information gives us our evolutionary edge over other species. (One on one, tigers win.) His account is a rich revisiting of an idea put forth by Darwin as he places at the center of our unique capacity as a species our ability to work together and transmit information through a rich linquistic tradition. Moreover, he supports his argument with an abundance of data on human speech and language ability and traces the evolution of these abilities. A worthwhile antidote to simplistic "selfish gene" thinking which has become too popular.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Philip Lieberman is a Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences at Brown University, who has written other books such as The Biology and Evolution of Language and Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution.

He states in the Introduction to this 1991 book, "apes cannot form grammatical sentences. Although they can acquire a limited vocabulary by using sign language, they are incapable of grasping the rules of syntax that even three-year old children master. Nor do chimpanzees or other animals ever create works of art or complex devices, or convey 'creative' thoughts. Nor do they, in their natural state, adhere to the most basic aspects of higher human moral sense. In the chapters that follow, I shall try to demonstrate that human language is a comparatively recent evolutionary innovation that added two powerful devices, speech and syntax, to older communication systems."

He later writes, "Syntax is clearly species-specific. No other living animals, including language-trained apes, have been able to master anything but the very simplest syntactic rules. The syntactic abilities of the most proficient ASL-using chimpanzees are surpassed by human three-year olds; by age four or five humans can produce an infinite number of new sentences."

He also observes, "(P)resent data on chimpanzees living in the wild do not show any evidence that clearly indicates that they use words. What chimpanzees clearly do not seem to be able to acquire is the complex syntax of ASL. Careful observations of chimpanzee lanaguage using ASL and other modalities ... show that syntactically significant word order is usually not preserved. A chimpanzee who by all appearances intends to sign 'tickle me' is just as likely to sign 'me tickle.'"
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