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Customer Review

on February 21, 2003
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. The relationship between brain-size and cognitive ability is more complex than we thought, and Deacon shows us why and how.
Also quite good is Deacons explanation of why language evolved in the first place. It evolved as a means to deal witht he changing social and sexual organization of hominid groups, that started to form pair-bonding while being foragers. Language acted as the glue that kept these dynamics stable.
This is very good stuff, and it is bold and plausible. Deacon did not solve the mystery of intentionality or language, but his insights might show the way towards doing exactly this. There are few other books on language and the brain as thought provoking as this one.
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