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Adam's Tongue Hardcover – Mar 17 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: FSG Adult; First Edition edition (March 23 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809022818
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809022816
  • Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 2.9 x 23.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 522 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,542,989 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


“An intensely felt, sometimes very funny and occasionally deeply impolite take on what are fast becoming the classic case studies for language evolution.” —Christine Kenneally, New Scientist
“Derek Bickerton has long been a leading thinker concerning the evolution of language. In his latest book, Adam’s Tongue, Bickerton relishes his role as agent provocateur, offering witty demolitions of rival theories, admitting past errors, and providing an invigorating defense of the construction of ecological niches as the new grand truth for the theory of language evolution.” —Michael A. Arbib, Director, USC Brain Project, University of Southern California
“Bickerton skewers linguists, paleontologists, and animal behaviorists alike, reviews some of the currently popular neurobiological theories on language evolution, provides some mea culpa moments, and openly throws in a few just-so stories—and from this somewhat improbable mix comes a well-thought-out book, one that takes the reader logically through his arguments with wit and verve. Whether the reader eventually agrees with Bickerton’s thesis in its entirety or not, he or she will find the hours devoted to this book time well spent.” —Irene Pepp erberg, Professor of Psychology, Brandeis University, and author of Alex and Me
“The great puzzle of how human language evolved, and how it relates to animal communication, is tackled here with enthusiasm and directness by the always interesting Derek Bickerton. Being neither a complete gradualist nor a believer in Divine sparks, the author touches on all the issues and positions that are hotly debated today.” —Frans de Waal, Professor of Psychology, Emory University, and author of Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are
“Why is it that humans—and only humans—acquired language? Nobody knows for sure, but nobody has thought longer or harder about such questions than Derek Bickerton. A tour de force!” —Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology, New York University, and author of Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind
“An accessible and engaging book on a very complex topic: the evolution of language.” —Rebecca Bollen Manalac, Library Journal
“Reading Adam’s Tongue is like stepping back into the classroom of a quirky, vibrant, impassioned thinker engaged in a most perplexing problem: How did language arise, and which came first: language or complex thought?” —Christine Thomas, The Honolulu Advertiser

About the Author

Derek Bickerton is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii. His most recent book, Bastard Tongues, was published by Hill and Wang in 2008.

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Format: Hardcover
Derek Bickerton argues that language can be best explained through "niche theory." At some stage in our evolution, our ancestors moved from the forest to the savanna, where we survived as scavengers. We pre-humans were smaller than other scavengers and, in order to compete for the bodies of dead pre-elephants, we had to recruit lots of our friends in order to chase off our competition. That forced us to learn to communicate to each other, much as ants and bees tell each other were to find food.

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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Bickerton gets a little bit carried away with his discovery of "ecological niche theory", which, after all, is anything but new (though formerly called by slightly different names), and his sudden political correctness was annoying. In fact, I almost gave this book four stars because he insists, first, that protolanguage began when cooperation was needed to scavenge dead meat, a situation that could just as easily be applied to hunting, and, second, he suggests that women were likely equal participants on such dangerous scavenging forays based on nothing at all but today's "common sense". But this is still a top-notch, truly adventurous survey of the field in which Bickerton uses both erudition and wit to take on those who hold to the notion of most scientists and evolutionary psychologists that all that's human can be traced to deterministic biological or genetic sources. This includes Noam Chomsky with whom Bickerton had been formerly closely associated, at least in the minds of the academic public. And this is one of Bickerton's strongest suits: In the face of new evidence he has changed his mind about several of his cherished ideas - the most prominent being that an evolutionary mutation in the brain must have led to higher intelligence and hence to the development of language.

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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0xa36400cc) out of 5 stars 31 reviews
47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa63bad38) out of 5 stars Does not live up to its promise Sept. 11 2009
By algo41 - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Bickerton does a nice job skewering many of his colleagues, but I am not convinced by his own theory, and certainly it is something of a letdown after the buildup. Still, if you enjoy reading about evolution, I can recommend "Adam's Tongue".

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.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa63bad8c) out of 5 stars Interesting development in language theory April 26 2009
By Steven C. Porter - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My interest is philosophy, and philosophy is about what we can know about anything (condensed definition). So when I read the subtitle "How humans made language, How language made humans" my interest was peaked. Most how-did-language-begin books delve into genes (this one does a bit), how the human brain is so much bigger (so does this one), how our hands are different (yes, here too a bit), but most seem to take the approach that a being either has language or it doesn't. The fact that all the known languages (living and dead) are fully developed and capable of expressing everything needed - emotionally, spiritually, how to live, provide food and shelter, socially, etc. - for that society (sometimes lack of vocabulary in a society may make it difficult to express something about another society) and that there aren't any "primitive" languages (grunts and groans) would seem to back that thesis, but Adam's Tongue develops - quite powerfully for me - the thesis that language and humanity develop together, and indeed cannot develop apart. There's a "niche" into which humanity goes and in that niche both grow into what exists today - a species that is self-aware, able to reflect on the past and plan for the future, able to contemplate what may exist outside of its immediate area of existence because of language, and because of language that species is human. The end of the book is I think IMHO a little abrupt; a very interesting thought experiment projecting to the future is briefly introduced and then left hanging - a pity! I have taken that thought experiment myself to its conclusion but I would have appreciated Derek Bicketon's own conclusion.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa6c51084) out of 5 stars Thorough, thought-provoking, suspenseful April 18 2009
By Brett Sutton - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Adam's Tongue is Bickerton's theory on how language developed- kind of a big question. Bickerton sets out a handful of factors that he believes must be considered to create a theory on how language developed, analyzes them to see if they hold water, and then uses them as a guide for fleshing out what happened. These factors include utility (it must have actually been beneficial), uniqueness (specific to humans, since we're the only ones who can talk), ecology (in accord with what we know about human history, ie language couldn't have developed from a need to avoid flying sharks), credibility (people had to believe what you were saying), and selfishness (it must benefit both the speaker and the listener to have language). He discusses each of these factors in great detail as the image of early language comes into focus. It was suspenseful, almost like reading a mystery novel. I liked that he makes some real claims- he doesn't just set up the guidelines and cop out with "But who knows what happened because it was a long time ago." I don't want to ruin the ending, but it involves throwing rocks at lions and hacking up dead elephants. Pretty cool stuff.

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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa6c515a0) out of 5 stars Derek Bickerton rocks! Feb. 5 2011
By Marion Khonin - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Adam's Tongue is an extraordinary book. It tackles one of the most fascinating questions in human evolution, challenging many widely-held assumptions along the way. Its author's enthusiasm is contagious, and his irreverent humor makes it one of the funniest science books ever. And it is also a detective story, in which an eighty-year-old linguist attempts to solve the mystery of how we became human.

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!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa63bae4c) out of 5 stars Bickerton vs. Bickerton Sept. 24 2012
By Brian M. Wood - Published on
Format: Hardcover
A glaring omission in this book, Adam's Tongue, is its complete omission of any reference to the work of Merlin Donald on mimicry and language origins. Literally, Mr. Donald's name does not appear in the index, nor is his work ever cited. This is astonishing because in 1990, Donald put forth the core thesis about symbolic origins that appears in "Adam's Tongue" -- that imitation and mimicry by H. erectus was the key predecessor to language*. Why is this never mentioned in Adam's Tongue? Perhaps because Bickerton, in 1993, wrote an exceedingly harsh review of this idea in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Vol 16, issue 4). In his review, Bickerton (1993:749) wrote:

"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."