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The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  484 ratings  ·  38 reviews
This revolutionary book provides fresh answers to long-standing questions of human origins and consciousness. Drawing on his breakthrough research in comparative neuroscience, Terrence Deacon offers a wealth of insights into the significance of symbolic thinking: from the co-evolutionary exchange between language and brains over two million years of hominid evolution to th ...more
Paperback, 528 pages
Published April 17th 1998 by W. W. Norton Company
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Apr 11, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: science
I couldn't understand this book at all, but was dutifully attempting to plough through it when a visiting friend noticed it on my shelf. "That's just the worst book ever written!" he said. "My mother-in-law knows him. He's an idiot." Possibly there was an adjective before "idiot".

At any rate, I decided I didn't need to read any more, though I'm afraid it's still on my shelf. I can't quite say why. Lack of decisiveness, I suppose.
Jan 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The subtitle is a huge hint here - language and the brain evolved together. Partly, humans have a weird brain that allows us to have symbolic language, which is largely unattainable by other species. But also partly, the language we have is suited to our peculiar brains. Deacon's understanding of evolution allows him to see through the hysteria of how we could have possibly evolved such a universal grammar module and perceive what seems, in retrospect, obvious: what human languages have in commo ...more
Sep 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
Well, this took me a long time to read. Partly it was due to the ideas themselves; a lot of passages need to be re-read to really understand the point Deacon is trying to make, as a lot of what he talks about is just fundamentally hard to grasp. I think it was also partly due to Deacon himself; his prose can get pretty wordy and, in some portions, he's detailed almost to a fault.

To really a review this book properly I feel like a person would need to write a lengthy essay, but I don't feel like
Feb 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
While Deacon often appears to take a self-aggrandizing attitude toward his own work and may use some questionable examples to support his theories (it is a pop science book, after all), The Symbolic Species is a great discussion starter regarding language evolution. I did walk away from this book thinking that very little of it actually offered evidence for HOW language and the brain co-evolved, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

While I am no disciple of Chomsky, Deacon does seem to gloss over the p
Jun 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
A brain-melter of a book. Fascinating and brilliant and dense. Written clearly but at great length and depth. Suggests language shaped the human brain as much as the brain shaped language, and shows just how that was accomplished, and why there's no such thing as 'simple' languages in other animals. It's all about the hurdle of symbolic thought and communication. My brain feels like it was re-shaped just to take it all in.
Oct 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing
In answer to central questions such as "What makes humans different?", "Is it brain size that gives humans speech?", "How did consciousness and language evolve in humans?", and "What is consciousness?", Deacon provides an elegant solution. We are a symbolic species. Language, and as a consequence consciousness, are made possible by the use of an ability to process symbols. I will try to explain how the symbolic process works, why it is important, how it evolved, and what effect it has on conscio ...more
Pratyush Rathore
Dec 26, 2015 rated it liked it
This is a very badly written book with excellent ideas - Nassim Nicholas Taleb's ideas with Ayn Rand's writing skills.

It can take almost infinite time to read, I haven't finished it yet, it is not even enjoyable most of the times. But then, every 50-80 pages or so, an idea would strike me hard and I would just close the book and think about what I have understood, perhaps reread the previous portions to make sense of what I understood.

In a sense, that the book is badly written is an advantage t
Jun 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Deacon's book is over a decade old but holds up well. His analysis of the forces that led to the characteristic brain structure of humans is not unique, although this was one of the first publications to pull the evidence together in a coherent account over time. His primary contribution is the careful argument for the *co*-evolution of brain structures with language, and for the way in which symbolic thinking and ritual preceeded and fostered language capability. Deacon's insights have found st ...more
Aug 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is a great book that can get a little dense and technical at times. The main premise of the text is that what really separates humans from animals and other forms of life is language. Humans use language symbolically as opposed to indexically. The explanation for what this means was one of the hardest parts of the book to get. What it boils down to is that animals, particularly smart animals like chimps and dogs, can map words to specific meanings but they cannot do things like string words ...more
Jonathan Tweet
Apr 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
Some really good bits about brain development, brain evolution in mammals and humans, language and symbol use among trained animals, and ritual as the incubator for speech. Unfortunately, it's hard going, and you have to really care (and maybe skim parts) to get through it. Also, when an anthropologists says that a capacity did not evolve and could not have evolved, you have to take those conclusions with a grain of salt.
Mar 06, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science, non-fiction
Fascinating topic. The text was hard to get through. It didn't read like a book written for a wider audience and the author had a tendency to wax philosophical and meander on tangents around the point. I thoroughly enjoyed the tangents, but I feel they could have been organized more thoughtfully. It felt like the written equivalent of listening to a professor who likes to hear himself talk.
Alexi Parizeau
Apr 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: re-read-annually
Brilliant!! Another incredibly useful paradigm shift! I just wish most of the technical research had been moved to the Notes section. But regardless, I think the quality of the ideas was worth the extra effort.
Aug 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating and challenging book about human uniqueness.

I can't believe I read the whole thing. Proper review to follow.
Aug 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Its been a while since I read this book, but of the host of books at the time on the evolution of mind and brain I thought this was pretty clearly the top of the heap.
Behrooz Parhami
Jul 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This impressive book by an imminently qualified brain specialist, who also displays a firm grasp of language acquisition mechanisms and associated disorders, is structured in three parts, each having 4-6 chapters (see the table of contents at the end of this review). At 525 pages, each packed with information, it isn’t an easy read but persevering pays out handsomely at the end. One appealing feature of the book is its many helpful diagrams and charts.

Deacon begins Chapter 1 with this wonderful
Ruby Cooper-Karl
Oct 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Okay, so I read it for a class, it was interesting, but confusing, and really hard to get into at some points. Like you know when you just fly through a book and you almost forget you're reading, that didn't happen. If I wasn't reading it for a stressful paper while being overwhelmed I would have enjoyed it much more. I think, it isn't my normal genre, but I'm trying to broaden my horizons. Fascinating and really makes you introspect, also changed my mind on some things that I thought were fact ...more
Stephie Williams
Dec 24, 2015 rated it liked it
Terrence W. Deacon presents a reasonable, but not conclusive case for the co-evolution of the brain and language. The way he describes it, they kind of feedback on each other. He is against the Chomskian theory of there being a dedicated innate brain structure for a universal grammer wich all languages are thought to share in this theory. Having agrued against Chomsky and others, he does not deny that children have a special ability to learn language. He believes that languages use children to e ...more
Jan 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
Fascinating exploration about the unique nature of symbolic thought and the distinction between cognition in humans and other primates. Ultimately, the hypothesis is that language evolved late as a result of the unique social forms developed by humans (including pair-bonding within a larger social grouping) rather than being the cause of symbolic thought development.
Samuel Brown
Feb 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Great book. Pretty technical in places, not always correct or necessarily compelling, but this is a great book that helps to frame important questions around language and the brain. Stretches a bit, unsuccessfully I think, in the last chapter or two, but overall fascinating and important. I'm excited to start his sequel, which I bought as well.
Traci Mitchell
Writer's Block? This book offers solutions and practical exercises to open up your mind in order to recall, reflect upon and create images and characters and to transfer them to your computer or notebook. Great book for authors.
Steve Puma
Jun 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a great book, which explains how complexity arises from simple structures, in addition to the co-evolution of language and the brain. It is extremely interesting to learn how we are uniquely adapted to learn language from an early age. I highly recommend it!
Feb 02, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Tremendous insight into language and how it not only made humans what we are, but also what makes us so different from conceivably every other living thing.
Apr 18, 2009 is currently reading it
Language evolves with the brain... maybe?
Nov 04, 2009 rated it really liked it
Really interesting take on the evolution of the human mind. Not sure I entirely agree but definitely really compelling!
Jan 12, 2010 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Human Brain (Penguin Press Science) by Terrence Deacon (1998)
Feb 21, 2010 rated it really liked it

Working my way through: this is not a fast read but needs to be digested a chapter at a time.
Jun 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Maybe the best book on the subject so far.
Oct 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: honors-project
Great Book! Lots of interesting and useful information
Sally Bailey
Jul 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book has good information, but is VERY wordy and could have used a good editor.
Philip Chaston
Jun 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
Good polemic on how humanity is unique: distinguishing language from communication; a common confusion with Dr Doolittle academics
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Terrence W. Deacon is a professor of biological anthropology and neuroscience and the chair of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of The Symbolic Species, he lives near Berkeley, California.

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“Children's minds need not innately embody language structures, if languages embody the predispositions of children's minds!” 0 likes
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