On July 6th, I will be leading my DC area book club, Books and Banter, in our meeting on the new book Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans by Derek Bickerton (Hardcover - Mar 17, 2009).
Amazon’s Product Description:
Language is unique to humans, but it isn’t the only thing that sets us apart from other species—our cognitive powers are qualitatively different. So could there be two separate discontinuities between humans and the rest of nature? No, says Bickerton; he shows how the mere possession of symbolic units—words—automatically opened a new and different cognitive universe, one that yielded novel innovations ranging from barbed arrowheads to the Apollo spacecraft.
UPDATE: My second post on this is here and my third is here.
This first post will cover only the Introduction, pages 3-15. On general note: as I am no longer affiliated with a university, it is remarkably difficult for me to follow leads involving academic papers; therefore, many of the references Bicketon makes to published works (such as Derek Penn’s intriguing list of things humans can do that non-humans cannot, p8) are, for the time being, locked behind an impenetrable vault for the lowly lay Lousy Linguist and as such must go un-reviewed. Apologies. I shall review all that time and Google together permit.
Shall we begin?
My first reaction is that that the intro is written as a teaser (like most pop writing intros) and as such it leaves lots of questions to be answered. This begs the question: will the rest of the book live up to the tease? I’m a skeptic by nature, so I’m guarded in my expectations. We shall see.
1. Thought experiment (p 3) – “imagine for a moment that you don’t have language and nobody else has either.” Okay…hmmm…uh…wait, what? First, as a linguist, I HAVE to ask: what is your definition of language? This is a non-trivial question. If you want me to understand how X originated, then you should help me understand exactly what X is. Note: the book index contains no entry for “language” per se.
UPDATE (June 17): the excellent blog Babel's Dawn (on the origins of speech), responds to Bickerton by asking a similar question: how is language to be defined, and then offering definitions here (HT The Outer Horde):
2. Language makes thought meaningful by putting thoughts together into meaningful wholes (pp 3-4). Okay, so language is combinatorial syntax? Can’t we say the same thing about logic? Language is logic?
3. Darwin: having the tool of language caused us to develop greater cognitive capacity (p 5).
Is this similar to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel argument that the coincidental cooccurrence of geography, people, ecosystems was the “ultimate cause” of Western dominance? I fear Bickerton may have an “ultimate cause” nightmare on his hand.
4. FOXP2 – Only one indexed reference to FOXP2 (p110). He disparages the “brouhaha” around FOXP2 and I agree with his point here (there’s no such thing as a “gene for language”); nonetheless, FOXP2 is an interesting gene worth discussing at length, I think. Yet, I wonder if this brevity isn’t an editorial function. I recall the physicist Stephen Hawking retelling a caveat his publisher gave him when writing A Brief History of Time that every mathematical equation he chose to include in the book would cut his readership in half. Perhaps the same could be said for each gene referenced.
5. Magic Moment (p 6) – Apparently he’s looking to explain the “magic moment” when our distant ancestors broke from other communication methods and started using language (uh...cough...hmm...please see 1).
6. Discontinuity (p 9) – evolutionary leaps = differences between species not attributable to gradual change.
7. Niche construction (p 11) – we “guide” our own evolution. I don’t like the use of the word “guide” here. Sounds too intentional. Better if it’s just “affect”.
8. Learning vs. instinct (p11) – he writes “we adapt our environment to suit ourselves, in the same way ants and termites adapt the environment to suit them. We do it by learning, they do it by instinct; big deal." Whoa! Whoa! Yes, this IS a big deal. Let us not trivialize the distinction between learning and instinct. I’ve had just enough exposure to computational neuroscience to recognize that this is no small distinction.
P 4 – “without language there wouldn’t be scientific questions” – here’s my interpretation of what he means: 1) the things we ask questions about exist apart from us but 2) the fact that we ask questions about them (and not others) is a function of our cognitive apparatus (this is a variation on Lakoff’s embodied consciousness, right?). The fact that our embodied consciousness leads us to ask certain questions (and not others) does NOT mean that those questions are a priori more important than other questions; it only means that we consider them more important. We could be wrong.
P 5 – Quoting Darwin does not impress me any more than quoting Aristotle or Buddha or Chomsky: it’s all argument from authority and I have little patience for it.
P 9 – “in this book, for the first time ever, I’m going to show...” This reminds me of a point Foucault made in, I believe, History of Sexuality vol 1, that there is a tempting addiction to being the one who sees and reports the “truth” that others do not. As I recall, his point was that this temptation leads people to report “truths” that are, in fact, not true. Rather narcissistic, really, don’t you think? Is Bickerton a wise man or a narcissist? We shall see.
P 10 – I like this idea of niche construction and “constant feedback loop”. Sounds entirely commonsensical. Of course we affect our environment (despite the claims of global warming skeptics).
P 13 – I like this point that any given communication system is suited only to take care of that species needs (not some lego block building up of features and functions).
P 15 – the big question: what did our ancestors do (that other species did not do) that caused language to explode?
I am a skeptic by nature but I am intrigued, yet doubtful. The difficult part lay before me. 12 chapters of challenging linguistic exploration. Okay, Professor Bickeron. I accept the challenge. Lay on, Macduff, And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'