Adam's Tongue Hardcover – Mar 17 2009
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Top Customer Reviews
It is easier to knock down a scientific theory than to support one. And that is as it should be. There are an infinite number of incorrect explanations for any phenomenon, and language is certainly no exception. But Bickerton seems to get just a bit too much joy in sticking it to everyone else. He spends the first half or more of the book telling us why all the other theories must be wrong, and seems to have a bit too much confidence in his own theory, at least for my taste.
In any event, Bickerton is both bright and knowledgeable, and putting aside his unnecessarily confrontational style, this book is well worth a read if you have an interest in the topic.
This time Bickerton takes his stand with the environmentally-specific necessity for cultural invention that, over many millennnia, led to changes, first, in brain function, and then in cerebral structure itself. He makes a strong case. In doing so, he produces a bracing read with ascerbic wit, self-mockery and genial arrogance. Not only does this make for zesty reading, but he reveals hard-earned insights in layman's terms.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Bickerton proposes that in the evolution of homo sapiens, they developed a new way of living, by "power scavenging". This meant chasing off the other scavengers, which in Bickerton's theory they could only accomplish by weight of numbers, since their weaponry consisted only of stones, some sharpened. Since humans needed to move in small bands to locate food, this meant they needed to "recruit" other bands when a large dead animal was spotted. Language grew up as a recruitment tool, although once developed, it found many other uses. Bickerton believes language must precede more complex thought, rather than the other way around, although no real evidence is given. In particular, he emphasizes displacement, which means referring to things which are not present, and makes a big distinction between humans and other primates in this regard. Kind of strange, since it is known that chimpanzees will on occasion go on raids against neighboring chimps to cite one example of displacement type thinking. Bickerton also believes ACS(animal communication systems) are genetic rather than learned, but no evidence is given, and since even Bickerton acknowledges that there is such a thing as animal culture, evidence is surely needed. In fact, monkeys are not naturally afraid of snakes, it is learned behavior, so why would the particular scream reserved for snakes not also be learned [...]
Bickerton makes a big point of the great divide between ACS and language, with one not naturally evolving into the other - yet that is exactly what he describes toward the end of the book (p.218), to the reader's great surprise.
The subtitle references something called "Niche Construction Theory", which is crucial for his theory to work well. He gave enough of an overview to understand it, but really sparked my interest to look into it more. The book was great at pulling from all sorts of sources across many fields, though I prefer footnotes on every page to the endnotes here. The end of the book was kinda funny, as, sort of out of nowhere, Bickerton dismally suggests humans are becoming more and more antlike and that its only a matter of time before we replicate their one queen/thousands of foot soldiers model. One can only hope.
Unless you are an expert in the field, prepare to be surprised by many of his ideas. Bickerton is an original thinker, and he makes a number of counterintuitive but well-supported arguments that will make you reconsider things you used to take for granted. But his most controversial claim is the book's thesis: selective pressures which caused our ancestors to invent language had to come from their external environment.
That view is radically different from other theories of language origins, which focus on intra-species pressures. It is also at odds with every popular account of human evolution, in that it implies that our pre-linguistic ancestors discovered an ecological niche that was more special than their big brains. Moreover, that niche had to be so unique that no other animal ever stumbled into it. It may sound absurd, but so does the idea of animals inventing language, yet we are a living proof that it happened. Drastic phenomena call for drastic explanations.
If you are curious as to what that ecological niche might have been, Bickerton offers an ingenious hypothesis which can be backed up by the fossil record. Even if it fails to convince you - and he is the first to admit that it won't be the last word on the subject - you have to appreciate its beauty and the power of imagination behind it. But this review is not the place to reveal it (and those that do should include spoiler alerts). Read the book and find out for yourself, it is absolutely worth it!
"There is no evidence, even of an indirect nature, that erectus possessed mimetic skills, and no evidence for selective pressures towards such skills ... It seems more probable that, like representational drawing ... mimesis is a spin-off from language rather than a precursor of it".
Got that? Bickerton in 1993 disparaging the idea that a prelingual H. erectus could have had or developed mimetic skills. "Its seems more probable" to Bickerton (1993) that language came before mimicry. Now let's fast forward to 2009.
On page 160 of Adam's Tongue, Bickerton is asking us to imagine that we are a prelingual Homo erectus, roaming the plains of east Africa, and that we face a critical need to recruit our conspecifics to help us defend an animal carcass some distance over the horizon. What are we prelingual primates to do? Bickerton instructs: "All you can do is imitate whatever species the dead animal belongs to, imitate the sound it makes or the way it moves, or mime some prominent feature of its anatomy". Oh.
I dearly wish it were possible to help resolve such a debate between Bickerton 1993 and Bickerton 2009. Sadly, though, solid empirical evidence for or against different theories of language evolution is depressingly thin. This state of affairs has led many empirically-grounded scientists to avoid the issue, no matter its acknowledged importance. However, it is worth remembering that Bickerton's critiques of Dunbar, Dennet, and Deacon (and others) that appear in Adam's Tongue are mostly based on his perception of their internal consistency and / or completeness and / or whether they are "probable". He would have done his readers a service if he had referenced Donald's work, and let his readers know the basis for his changed outlook on mimicry by H. erectus and its role in language origins.
* In 1990, Merlin Donald proposed in his book, "Origins of the Modern Mind", that the first notable transition in the human mind that transformed us from something Ape-like to something more human-like was the development of "mimetic skill". In a precis of this book published in 1993 in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (with Bickerton's critique) Donald (1993) spelled out the significance of mimicry as follows: "The first truly human cognitive breakthrough was a revolution in motor skill - mimetic skill - which enabled hominids to use the whole body as a representational device; (b) this mimetic adaptation had two critical features: it was a multimodal modeling system and it had a self-triggered rehearsal loop (that is, it could voluntarily access and retrieve its own outputs); (c) the sociocultural implications of mimetic skill are considerable and could explain the documented achievements of Homo erectus; (d) in modern humans, mimetic skill in its broadest definition is dissociable from language-based skills and retains its own realm of cultural usefulness; and (e) the mimetic motor adaptation set the stage for the later evolution of language."
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