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.
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.
The following is based mostly on others' discussions of The Symbolic Species, so I may have missed arguments/explanations from the book itself. Read morePublished on Jan. 8 2004
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 morePublished on Sept. 29 2003
OK, there are frequent fuzzy patches, and the author doesn't
know what the phrase "beg the question" means (p. Read more
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 morePublished on July 11 2002 by Laura L Millevolte
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 morePublished on April 20 2002 by Isa Kocher
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 morePublished on Sept. 22 2001 by Gregory Nixon
Professor Deacon's analysis and discussion of the the evolution of the human brain is a wonderful achievement. Read morePublished on June 9 2001 by Richard Bribiescas
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 morePublished on July 5 2000 by Ema