- 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: 4.1 out of 5 stars See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #439,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain
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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 the Hardcover edition.
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 the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Two puzzles in the evolution of language are explained by Terence Deacon in The Symbolic Species (1997). Why does symbolic communication seem easy for humans yet almost impossible for other animals? And how and why did language develop in its original milieu of small hunter-gatherer bands? Deacon believes the brain tripled in size because it co-evolved with language for the sake of symbolic communication.
Deacon’s section on language raises a puzzle: why do no animals use a simple language? Animals don’t have language because even a simple language requires the use of symbols, one word (or gesture) standing for another. Symbols seem easy for humans but are extremely difficult for other animals. Deacon then describes the enormous complexities of the human brain. But this leads to the other puzzle: how and why did this complex brain evolve in its original hunter-gatherer milieu?
Deacon’s answer is that language co-evolved with the human brain specifically to foster symbolic communication. And symbolic communication was caused by the unique challenges of a bipedal lifestyle, especially sexual selection. Bipedalism forced hominids to live in cooperative groups for scavenging, hunting and defense against predators. Meat from large prey had to be shared, but sharing food does not come easily to any animal. And life on the ground in a multi-male multi-female group was very different from life in the trees. This new lifestyle caused physical changes, such as the loss of estrus, loss of hair, face-to-face intercourse, and female orgasm. It also created other challenges. Who mates with whom? Who rears and protects children? What dominance hierarchies will exist, if any? Deacon points out three consistent facts about human reproduction today: 1) both males and females usually assist in child-rearing; 2) a great majority of adults are pair-bonded to a member of the opposite sex; 3) these exclusive sexual relationships are maintained within a multi-male and multi-female social group. However, this social structure was unprecedented. It required new behaviors and better methods of communication. For pair-bonded adults, the selection of the fittest partner for an extended relationship of child-raising became critical for genetic success and encouraged more sharing of information about potential partners. Meat-sharing required reciprocity and the remembering of the past behavior of individuals to detect and control cheaters. These new communication needs for information about individuals were created by bipedalism and led to a new mode of communication by symbols, i.e., language.
Deacon offers convincing explanations of these two puzzles in the evolution of language.
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