Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain
by Terrence W. Deacon
-This is an incredible book. I heard about it in that "This Explains Everything" book when someone mentioned it as having huge explanatory power. It really does -- I learned a lot, about Peirce and about the brain (I have only read a few books about the brain, and the anatomy and lobes can get p. boring, but I feel like I'm getting more of a sense for the territory, and now it's actually getting exciting to read about) and evolution and animals, and so much of what I've been learning this year felt like it came together in this book: brains, language, evolution, and even Buddhism (which is not in the book--that's my own spin on it). The writing is very dry, but I didn't have any problems because each chapter was fascinating, almost breathtaking. There's so much ground covered in this book that you feel sometimes like he's asking you to take his word for a lot of things that aren't really "proven" in the book, but I didn't have a lot of problems with that. It was enough to watch the whole argument come together, its scope and logic. I haven't followed up yet or read more about Deacon or the book (it came out in 1997) so we'll see what I find as I read more recent work by him or other people on these matters.

Some ideas in the book:
-Finally learned about Peirce and icon-index-symbol triads. (Can't believe it took me this long).
-Language undergoes its own evolution in order to better fit the environs of the human brain, and vice versa.
-Children learn language so easily, not because of a "grammar module" built into the brain, but because human brains and language has evolved to better take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of the human brains of children, as they develop, and vice versa.
-The proportionally large human cortex changes the statistics (the "votes") of neural connections in the brain such that the brain is more connected to itself, and this allows more dialectical patterns which give rise to thinking in symbols.
-Humans have more frontal cortical control over our breath, and thus our level of arousal and speech, than animals do, probably because of evolutionary pressures once spoken language came on the scene.  ("focus on the breath...") For the same reasons our larynx has changed to allow a wider range of tones.
-His theory is that the earliest symbol use arose out of the problem of how to arrange mating pairs in groups of proto-humans. This part seems pretty speculative. When the advantages of larger group sizes for hunting came into conflict with the problems of how to arrange mating pairs (avoiding cuckolding, sharing child-rearing, etc.) he thinks a kind of early marriage ritual, a kind of "social contract" emerged. This ritual behavior opened up the space for symbolic thinking. (Very fitting ideas for this blog!) "The near synchrony in human prehistory of the first increase in brain size, the first appearance of stone tools for hunting and butchery, and a considerable reduction in sexual dimorphism is not a coincidence. These changes are interdependent. All are symptoms of a fundamental restructuring of the hominid adaptation, which resulted in a significant change in feeding ecology, a radical change in social structure, and an unprecedented (indeed, revolutionary) change in representational abilities."
-Recognize that the distinctions between conscious/nonconsciousness, mind/body, intentional/mechanical, and human/animal do not all line up vertically with each other. Animals have minds and thoughts, and a kind of consciousness, but they are not able to use symbolic languages, though a few chimps have shown limited but real abilities to think symbolically.

This last idea--that some chimps, named Sherman and Austin, actually learned to think symbolically--is leaned on heavily in the argument of the book. I don't know anything about these experiments or how accepted they are.