Monday, June 15, 2009

Adam's Tongue pt 1

(pic of hardback cover of Adam's Tongue)

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.

(opening page 3 of my copy of Adam's Tongue)

Since this book coheres closely with this blog’s topic of linguistics, I’m going to be posting my notes and thoughts as I read and prep for the discussion. I won’t guarantee that I’ll revise and clean up my notes into entirely coherent prose (see pics above for my typically messy method of “reading” a book on linguistics...the left page was originally blank), but if you’re reading the book too, I hope this encourages your thoughtfulness and stimulates your critical reading.

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!'


Anonymous said...

I read a largish number of linguistics blogs, among them yours and also Babel's Dawn by Edmund Blair Bolles. The latter contains a number of posts critiquing Bickerton's book, and might be valuable to you as a second opinion. See especially recent posts filed under Books.

Chris said...

excellent recommendation. I'll definitely read Bolles' blog carefully. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

With respect to the update under "thought experiment", I'll forgive you for the horde/hoard confusion. :-) A blog is a collection of treasure, not an army of goblins.

When you've had time to read more of Bolles, you'll discover that he covers some of your other points as well.

Anonymous said...

1. Thought experiment (p 3) – Cut Bickerton some slack. You'll get an overview of his thoughts in this introductory chapter only if you'll listen first and go critical afterward.

2. Language makes thought meaningful by putting thoughts together into meaningful wholes (pp 3-4). - No, but any logic _is_ a language.

4. FOXP2 – As I state elsewhere, if FOXP2 is the key to language then where is my talking gorilla, finch or ferret? If FOXP2 were the key, we'd be living in the world of Dr. Dolittle.

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. - No, he's looking for the "magic moment" when our distant ancestors broke in the smallest possible way from the constraints of Animal Communications Systems which are:
a) situation-specific,
b) occurrence-specific,
c) tied only to fitness.

Chris said...

Anonymous, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I appreciate your points.

I certainly do want to cut DB some slack because this is a tough topic, but nonetheless I rarely "listen first"; rather, I have a tendency to ask questions first. That's why I take so long to read a chapter.

Your FOXP2 point is well taken, but my point was NOT that I believe it's THE language gene (I said as much), but rather that it's an interesting gene that we're starting to know a lot about and it probably deserves more than a passing mention in a full book on language evolution. I stand by that.

Thanks for the clarification on the "magic moment" hypothesis, it helps.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading that book and am not done. I am in chapter 8. I think the book is interesting however I have some kind of conflict with his philosophy.

I believe that all languages have iconic and arbitrary symbols. ASL (American Sign Language)is a true/real language. In ASL, arbitrary is not represented through picture.It is not sign same thing. Also Iconic in ASL have symbols that is easliy to understand such as drink, telephone, drive by using mimic.

Chris said...

Anonymous(2), thanks for the comment.

DB makes a similar point about iconicicity and arbitrariness at several points. That's part of his claim that displacement is the more important feature. You'll get to that part soon.

I finished the book over a month ago and I've been thinking about writing up a single book review, but I'm ambivalent. The whole Chomsky chapter was remarkably vapid (his gotcha moment at the end was simply confusing and shallow). But I loved the animal communication chapter. We'll see how I feel this weekend, hehe.


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