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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: 23.1 x 15.5 x 3.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 762 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #228,402 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents


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First Sentence
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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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Benjamin Rossen on March 7 2000
Format: Hardcover
Reading only one or two pages into this book already makes it clear that this is a work by an exceptionally well informed and disciplined writer; and reading to the end does not disappoint at any time. This is a tightly argued serious scientific thesis by a professor of biological anthropology with an encyclopedic knowledge of linguistics, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy and human evolution. It is an original work in which Deacon sets out his arguments and marshals the evidence for a comprehensive theory in a methodical and structured way. It is not for the faint hearted, and reading it demands careful attention to the tightly written dense structured prose; it is not repetitive and the logical structure of the arguments is architectural, so that careful reading and a good memory are essential. Useful diagrammatic illustrations help to make some of the concepts easier to grasp. The effort is worth every moment. Deacon's conclusions have consequences for philosophy and theory of mind no less than for the central area of linguistics and the evolution of human intelligence. This book has done more to shape and to consolidate my knowledge of who we as a "symbolic species" are than any other I have read in this decade. Strongly recommended.
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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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