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deacon.gif (9796 bytes)The Symbolic Species : The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain
by Terrence W. Deacon


Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species begins with a question posed by a 7-year-old child: Why can't animals talk? Or, as Deacon puts it, if animals have simpler brains, why can't they develop a simpler form of language to go with them? Thus begins the basic line of inquiry for this breathtakingly ambitious work, which attempts to describe the origins of human language and consciousness.

What separates humans from animals, Deacon writes, is our capacity for symbolic representation. Animals can easily learn to link a sound with an object or an effect with a cause. But symbolic thinking assumes the ability to associate things that might only rarely have a physical correlation; think of the word "unicorn," for instance, or the idea of the future. Language is only the outward expression of this symbolic ability, which lays the foundation for everything from human laughter to our compulsive search for meaning.

The final section of The Symbolic Species posits that human brains and human language have coevolved over millions of years, leading Deacon to the remarkable conclusion that many modern human traits were actually caused by ideas. Deacon's background in biological anthropology and neuroscience makes him a reliable companion through this complicated multidisciplinary turf. Rigorously researched and argued in dense but lively prose, The Symbolic Species is that rare animal, a book of serious science that's accessible to layman and scientist alike. --This text refers to the hardcover edition of this title.

The New York Times Book Review, William H. Calvin
Deacon's grounding in biological ideas gives his well-focused book an entirely different flavor from many books on language origins, with a lot to chew on. Some will find this threatening, others refreshing. --This text refers to the hardcover edition of this title.

New Scientist, Derek Bickerton
Terrence Deacon brings formidable credentials to his task of explaining how human brains and language co-evolved. A renowned researcher in neuroscience, he joins a familiarity with the structure, functions and evolution of the brain to a thorough knowledge of biology and anthropology. Skillfully integrating content from these and numerous other fields, he makes complex ideas readily accessible to the general reader without either patronizing or pontificating.... One of the most frustrating things about this book is the frequency with which Deacon follows a fair, insightful and scholarly discussion of some issue with a wildly speculative proposal that lacks empirical support, even plausibility. --This text refers to the hardcover edition of this title.

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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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