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Symbolic Species [Paperback]

Terrence W Deacon
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 1 1998 0393317544 978-0393317541
This revolutionary book provides fresh answers to long-standing questions of human origins and consciousness. Drawing on his breakthrough research in comparative neuroscience, Terrence Deacon offers a wealth of insights into the significance of symbolic thinking: from the co-evolutionary exchange between language and brains over two million years of hominid evolution to the ethical repercussions that followed man's newfound access to other people's thoughts and emotions. Informing these insights is a new understanding of how Darwinian processes underlie the brain's development and function as well as its evolution. In contrast to much contemporary neuroscience that treats the brain as no more or less than a computer, Deacon provides a new clarity of vision into the mechanism of mind. It injects a renewed sense of adventure into the experience of being human.

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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An ambitious, fascinating and frustrating book Jan. 24 2003
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
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Explore the brain/language relation July 28 2000
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
3.0 out of 5 stars some interesting content, slow going Feb. 22 2003
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
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Feb. 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.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars How special are symbols?
The following is based mostly on others' discussions of The Symbolic Species, so I may have missed arguments/explanations from the book itself. Read more
Published on Jan. 8 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars Provocative but for the wrong reasons.
This one is a peculiar mix of populist polemic and third rate scientific argument. Deacon's approach to argument is endless repetition and obfuscation with detail. Read more
Published on Sept. 29 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars An exciting book
OK, there are frequent fuzzy patches, and the author doesn't
know what the phrase "beg the question" means (p. Read more
Published on July 14 2002
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
I was looking forward to learning Deacon's ideas on the symbolic basis for language-a notion that hasn't been given enough thought by linguists in my estimation. Read more
Published on July 11 2002 by Laura L Millevolte
5.0 out of 5 stars The Symbolic Species
As a former linguistic anthropologist and language teacher, I found Deacon's explanations of the relationship between the evolution of the brain and the origins of language to be... Read more
Published on April 20 2002 by Isa Kocher
4.0 out of 5 stars Neural Nets from Cultural Experience!
Terrence Deacon has constructed a tome in which he unleashes his considerable learning in quest of several answers to the question, 'What are we? Read more
Published on Sept. 22 2001 by Gregory Nixon
5.0 out of 5 stars A definitive guide to human brain evolution: Outstanding.
Professor Deacon's analysis and discussion of the the evolution of the human brain is a wonderful achievement. Read more
Published on June 9 2001 by Richard Bribiescas
2.0 out of 5 stars Another useless hypothesis...
This book is a perfect example of the modern tendency to make public shows of (erroneus) thesis before testing them into the scientific comunity. Read more
Published on July 5 2000 by Ema
5.0 out of 5 stars Finally
Finally, Someone has provided the end to the argument of the computatitional theories of the emergence of the mind from the complexity of neural processes. Read more
Published on June 19 2000 by Michael A Bosi
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