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Symbolic Species Paperback – Apr 1 1998


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: WW Norton (April 1 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393317544
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393317541
  • Product Dimensions: 1.6 x 0.3 x 2.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 762 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #387,632 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

From Amazon

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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As our species designation-sapiens-suggests, the defining attribute of human beings is an unparalleled cognitive ability. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most helpful customer reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Geoff Puterbaugh on Jan. 24 2003
Format: Paperback
I first reviewed this book when it appeared back in
1998. I found it to be a genuinely thrilling read,
full of original insights. I gamely read it twice,
recommended it widely, and then looked around for other
authors who had written anything at all interesting
on the evolution of the human brain, and the
evolution of language.
After several years, I found only one other book which
covers the same essential territory, Derek Bickerton's
"Language and Species," which was published in 1990,
fully eight years before Deacon's book. Deacon includes
Bickerton's book in his bibliography, and even refers
to it in his discussion of creole and pidgin languages.
But there is apparently something deeply strange going
on here. We have two books on the evolution of language,
one written by Deacon (who is basically a biologist,
an evolutionary anthropologist, and a polymath) and the
other by Bickerton, who is a linguist and a polymath.
Since the subject is the evolution of language, in
theory the linguist might have an advantage, especially
since Deacon apparently has no linguistic training at
all.
Yet Deacon manages to ignore all of Bickerton's most
important points! I'll single out the one I find most
important here.
Describing the evolution of language as a
System Of Communication is fraught with problems. As
Deacon points out, there are apparently no "simple
languages" -- there are only animal calls and the hugely
different phenomenon of human speech. This indeed was
the key problem which caused Deacon to begin researching
his book -- a child asked him why animals do not have
simple languages.
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2 of 2 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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Eva-Lise Carlstrom on Feb. 22 2003
Format: Paperback
Most of what I choose to read is non-fiction on cognition, education, memetics, and language. That said, I found this book hard to read. It has some interesting content, but it's broken up by so much detail it's hard to see the big picture. I finally got through it by skimming most of the chapters and doing a close read on bits that were interesting to me.
His premise is that physical evolution of human brains and cultural evolution of language have proceeded together, shaping one another, so that languages evolved to be more learnable by humans at the same time humans evolved to be better at language. This kind of interaction is categorized as "Baldwinian selection", which is an elaboration of Darwinian selection (not a conflicting view).
Deacon draws evidence from a wide range of sources including paleontology, live brain scans, electrode experiments, and animal behavior.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Carlos Camara on Feb. 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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