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Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior Paperback – January 31, 1993

ISBN-13: 978-0674921832 ISBN-10: 0674921836 Edition: Reprint

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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: 0.6 x 5.9 x 8.8 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: #1,732,144 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By xaosdog on March 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
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 By M. Hilberman on February 28, 2001
Format: Paperback
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 By Steven H. Propp TOP 100 REVIEWER on July 14, 2010
Format: Paperback
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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