The Symbolic Species

The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain

by Terrence W. Deacon

2005 J. I. Staley Prize

The Symbolic Species by Terrence W. Deacon1997. London and New York: W. W. Norton1997. London and New York: W. W. Norton

A neurologist and anthropologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, Terrence Deacon was stumped by a question from an eight-year-old in his son’s elementary school class: “If animals can’t learn languages like ours because they’re too complex, why don’t they have simple languages?” He sought the answer by investigating the evolution of human cognition, and the result of his quest, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (London and New York: W.W. Norton, 1997) is the recipient of the 2005 J. I. Staley Prize, presented annually by the School for Advanced Research for outstanding scholarship and writing in anthropology.

Deacon’s book blends anthropology with neurobiology, linguistics, and philosophy as it examines the evolution of language. A professor of biological anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, Deacon argues that language changed the environment in which brains evolved and that many modern human traits were actually caused by ideas. As reviewer Desmond Fearnley-Sander observed in The Human Nature Review, “It is not the ability to communicate that distinguishes us…It is communication of a particular kind: no other species makes promises or poems.”

In “Language,” the author looks at why symbols are distinctive; in “Brain,” he asks how human brains handle symbols and why animal brains can’t do the same. Finally, in “Co-evolution,” Deacon discusses how brains co-evolved with language. His occasionally iconoclastic approach cites Noam Chomsky’s theory of innate universal grammar and theorizes that language evolved in the first place as a way to deal with changing social and sexual organization of hominid groups—language, he suggests, acted as the glue that kept these dynamics stable.

The Staley review panelists found the book “groundbreaking,” “original,” “liberating,” and a “tour de force.” This compelling and highly regarded theory of language development stands as a noteworthy addition to SAR’s Staley Prize recipients. 

Terrence W. Deacon, Professor of Biological Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

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