September 09, 2004
The Symbolic Species by Terrence W. Deacon
This book might look like a popular science book describing all the wonderful research into neurolinguistics and what it has discovered about language acquisition. Unfortunately, the neuroscience described in this book, while fascinating, has little to do with language (apart from the parts mentioned later in this review). And the speculations about language acquisition in children and the evolution of language in the human species are poorly informed about linguistics.
Terrence Deacon only cites Chomsky's philosophy of language works and Pinker's popular book on the subject -- no mention anywhere of Principles and Parameters and any of the work on learning theory for natural language. As a result, at one point he equates Universal Grammar with `deep structure' which to anyone who has taken an introduction to linguistics course will make it clear what insights Deacon has about linguistics. This is not to say that he does not make some compelling points about the evolution of language: just that this book will not herald the revolution in thinking that Deacon clearly hopes it will accomplish. Particularly since Deacon's evolutionary `just-so stories' are also less than compelling.
The most interesting part of the book lies in Part Two: `Brain' which concentrates on the neuroscience of human and other species. The descriptions of the localization of language in the human brain and the motor control of vocalization are the most lucid passages in the book. After talking to some people who are more informed in this area, I also realized that the studies presented here about unconscious control that humans have over relaxation reaches and other aspects of planning in behaviour are quite important for the notion of composition in language syntax and semantics. Unfortunately, these links are barely touched upon and are not described in the detail that they deserve. Deacons spends most of his time instead talking about his co-evolution theory of language complexity in humans.
The co-evolution theory is fleshed out only in a fraction of this book and has many apparent problems which are left unresolved at the end of the book. However, Deacon presents some interesting examples of animal vocalization: Hoover the talking seal and language acquisition, without human intervention, by apes: the case of Kanzi. It is important to note that all the animal vocalization cases have been subject to some great skepticism in the psycholinguistics and linguistics literature. Deacons makes it clear that while humans share many communicative aspects with other primates and perhaps even seals, there is a clear jump in complexity in human language. Also interesting is the discussion on the communicative laughter in humans and other primates. It is a pity that the interesting parts alone were not strained out of this tome to make a shorter and more interesting book.
%T The Symbolic Species %T :the co-evolution of language and the brain %A Terrence W. Deacon %I W. W. Norton & Company %D 1997 %G ISBN: 0393038386 (hc) %P 527 %K science, neuroscience, linguistics
Review written: 2000/06/05Posted by anoop at September 9, 2004 08:04 AM