The Symbolic Species

The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain
Terrence Deacon

Chapter 1

The first chapter seems devoted to discrediting a number of ideas that I never had and had never seriously considered. The author suggests that Chomsky proposes the Hopeful Monster model of human language organs. I can’t imagine that Chomsky ever thought that. I admit, however, that Chomsky does seem to avoid questions of how our innate language abilities evolved. I too was hopeful that Pinker would have speculated about evolutionary steps towards innate language ability in The Language Instinct.

Deacon prefigures his thesis that Language and intellect arose together. I recall some philosophers at Berkeley in the early 50s being sure that language was not necessary for intelligence. I don’t recall having an opinion then.

I have much to object to in a section that ends about page 30 where Deacon follows a good many modern evolutionists in trying to say that human evolution is merely another niche which is not so special in the greater scheme of things. I think that this is a most peculiar perspective. I cling to the old-fashioned perspective that humans are very different, and even (gasp) better! You might object that each species would feel special from their own perspective, but I think we are the only species with perspectives!! If we should come to communicate with other intelligent species from other worlds, I could easily imagine granting them a superior place from my perspective. We are presumably the only species that has toyed with the virtue of not wiping out all other species.

I suspect that this peculiar evolutionists perspective stems from biologists trying to abstract the human from his intellect, as intellect is seldom or never among those things biologists study. Intellect is something apart which doesn’t need to be considered in their perspective. But we humans have had something very different than other animals for long enough that our evolution has been considerably influenced by our intellect; it is not a biological epiphenomenon.

Perhaps the evolution of the mind is like the evolution of the eye. Most complex eyes evolved to about the same design. This may be due to the very short list of feasible engineering designs (1?). Language may be the same. When we meet up with intelligent aliens, I am guessing that they will have the same style eyes, as some earth species, and roughly the same Chomsky grammar as ours. The eye evolved many times but there was a first time, just as there is a first time for the language ability. It may be that the language ability may be so significant that it precludes all other such developments in other species, occupying, as it does, a super niche which permits just one member.

Chapter 2

Deacon goes on about the difficulty in understanding how signification works. I grant that there are substantial unknowns in how our brain deals with signification but I don’t grant that we don’t understand per se. We understand it much as we understand optics well enough to build a TV camera that has many analogies with the human eye. We build machines and programs that respond correctly to the command “Remove the blue cubes from the table”. This clearly involves signification but perhaps with little fidelity to how the brain does the same thing. I agree with Deacon that signification is unnecessary in the life styles of other animals, obviously, and that its advantages are not as incremental as those of the early eye. This is enough to explain why the complex brain structures of other species have not gone far on the path to signification. An obvious hurdle to evolving language is that speaking and comprehending must evolve together. One without the other is not adaptive. Indeed this is a sort of co-evolution even more basic than the co-evolution of language and intellect.