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
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
Yet Bickerton has the answer to these puzzles!! The
smooth and orderly evolutionary process is clearly
visible if we understand first that language is a
System Of Representation before it is a System Of
Communication. All animals with nervous systems and
senses have systems for representing the external world,
with a clearly visible evolutionary path from Venus
Flytraps through cockroaches, fish, frogs, dogs, chimps
and humans. As this Primary Representational System (PRS)
becomes richer and more informative, the animals so
endowed become progressively more ready to develop
"protolanguage" -- the earliest form of language,
clearly visible in pidgins, two-year-old humans, and
the "speech" of chimpanzees. The step from protolanguage
to language has only been taken by us, and it involved
_syntax_ as the defining characteristic.
How could Deacon possibly have ignored all of these
extremely intuitive insights? One is forced to conclude
that (a) Deacon didn't actually read Bickerton
(b) Deacon holds these ideas in utter contempt, or
(c) Deacon is behaving like a territorial academic,
ignoring anything which is "Not Invented Here."
Unfortunately, alternative (b) seems unlikely, since
Deacon did put Bickerton in his bibliography. Thus
we are apparently left with (a) and (c) as our
Academic power politics may well be involved, too.
Deacon comes from the Harvard axis of academic power,
and he has loads of highly prestigious backers.
Bickerton is only a guy from the University of
Hawaii, and therefore a "lightweight."
But there is, to my mind, no question at all (!) of
which book is more helpful -- indeed revolutionary.
Anyone interested in the subject will want both books,
but Bickerton is clearly the man who bears the palm