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Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made…

Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans

by Derek Bickerton

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Wow, this book was fantastic. Explaining how man aquired language, has been deemed the hardest question in science, and I have often wondered how language evolved in mankind? How can we even think without words? Bickerton answers many of these questions, and the theory he puts forth is well thought out and presented. I can now, at least, ask intelligent questions about the evolution of language in the third chimpanzee. The construction of ecological niches as "the new grand truth" for the theory of language evolution was pure genius. It seems to fill the gap that had been missing. Derek Bickerton's expertise details why earlier attempts to solve the language problem have fallen short. If you have an interest in language developmen,t this is a MUST read, and if you can make the time, let me know what you thought.

Bob ( )
1 vote robrod1 | Nov 8, 2012 |
Bickerton the underdog

I really enjoyed reading this stimulating book. Bickerton provides an interesting and original view on language evolution, but in many ways it is also a revealing book about the author. His style is entertaining, erudite and aggressive.

He takes no prisoners – Pinker is wrong and Dawkins is dogmatic – but surprisingly he keeps most of his powder dry for Chomsky, of whom he is (or was) a known admirer. He not only believes that Chomsky’s view on the evolution of language is wrong, but also that Chomsky himself has proven without realizing it that the thing which he maintains is central to human language, recursion, does not exist.

There are times when some of these broadsides seem unnecessary. His criticism of the author of the Selfish Gene borders on caricature at times (“genes are everything”) and it is surprising, given that in his earlier book, Language and Species, Bickerton censured Dawkins for his “overly acerbic comments on rival views”. There is quite a lot of biting commentary to be found here.

Bickerton likes to portray himself as something of an outsider, the one who sees the truth that others cannot reach and this is a problem. Bickerton is a persuasive writer and he forcefully presents his take on language evolution. But this isn’t his first book on the subject and his 1990 effort, Language and Species, contained an equally persuasively argued theory – which was very different.

In that book, Bickerton’s argument was all about humans developing a secondary representation system which a handy mutation transformed into language. To support his theory, he drew on a work which he claimed had been unfairly ignored (The Nature of Explanation by Kenneth Craik). In this new book, he eschews that perspective, claiming that humans created their own niche (I won’t spoil Bickerton’s surprise by telling you what it is) in which linguistic skills were an advantage. He should be applauded for sticking his neck out and suggesting what the actual first words may have been. His new proposal draws on niche construction theory, which he claims has been unfairly maligned. Spot a pattern?

Despite the fact that Bickerton’s view seems plausible, original and provocative, it’s hard not to take his view with a large pinch of salt. He’s convinced he’s right now, but he was before, and now says he had it all wrong. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that if he were to live another 10-15 years (he’s in his eighties, but you would know it), he would have another very different theory. Maybe that’s unfair – too many scientists blindly stick to their guns on a particular viewpoint just to avoid having to say “I was wrong” – but there is a credibility issue.

Overall, if the subject matter interests you, you will enjoy this book, although it is a rather partisan view. For a more balanced, if less entertaining, read try Christine Kenneally’s The First Word.

As a postscript, it would be interesting to know if Bickerton would change anything about his book in the light of the recent doubts cast on Marc Hauser’s research. ( )
2 vote cabanyalblue | Jul 29, 2011 |
Bickerton debunks other theories about the origin of language, but does not make a totally convincing case for his own - Tim ( )
  aulsmith | Jun 13, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0809016478, Paperback)

How language evolved has been called “the hardest problem in science.” In Adam’s Tongue, Derek Bickerton—long a leading authority in this field—shows how and why previous attempts to solve that problem have fallen short. Taking cues from topics as diverse as the foraging strategies of ants, the distribution of large prehistoric herbivores, and the construction of ecological niches, Bickerton produces a dazzling new alternative to the conventional wisdom.
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.
Written in Bickerton’s lucid and irreverent style, this book is the first to thoroughly integrate the story of how language evolved with the story of how humans evolved. Sure to be controversial, it will make indispensable reading both for experts in the field and for every reader who has ever wondered how a species as remarkable as ours could have come into existence.’

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:09 -0400)

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Shows how and why previous attempts to solve that problen have fallen short. Taking cues from topics as diverse as the foraging strategies of ants, the distribution of large prehistoric herbivores and the construction of ecological niches, Bickerton produces a dazzling new alternative to the conventional wisdom.… (more)

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