Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Derek Bickerton:
Adam’s Tongue [2009]

      The question of the origin of human language is an area of science that has only recently become “respectable”. In past centuries there was so much off-the-wall speculation on the topic that some scientific societies entirely forbade discussion of the matter! There is, however, inherently a certainly amount of speculation and surmising involved about events that occurred long before recorded history. But at least we can demand that this speculation be backed up by plausible arguments and by some good evidence. Most of us in our book club thought that Derek Bickerton managed to do this with this very interesting book.

      Bickerton’s theory is that there were several key breakthroughs in the path toward the development of human language. One is what he calls the development of “displacement”, or the ability to reference things beyond the limitations of the “here and now”. Another big and necessary step was the development of a social niche by our ancestors that necessitated social cooperation and what he calls “recruitment” of others (beyond the immediate family group) in order to successfully obtain food and survive.

      Bickerton suggests these things originally came about in the hominid line through the development of the niche of scavenging on large dead animals on the vast open savanna. Individuals or small groups would spread out looking for these important but widespread food sources, but would then need to “recruit” or gather others to help control the carcass and ward off various ferocious predators (such as lions) who were also scavenging (or who may have killed the prey animal themselves). In order to convince others to join them they needed ways to communicate the nature and importance of the find, how far away it was, and other information. Thus this unusual sort of niche requiring recruitment of others provided the selection pressure to biologically change proto-humans so that they could develop and use language.

      Most of us were impressed with this overall argument, and found it both original and plausible. Most of us also enjoyed reading the book very much, and we had a good discussion about it at the meeting.

      Three of our regulars missed the meeting, but a couple of them sent around their short comments via email. Rosie liked the thesis and the information in the book. But she did not like READING the book because the writing style really annoyed her. While she enjoyed Bickerton’s earlier book which our group read (Bastard Tongues), she described the writing in this book as the “push-stack” style—talking about one thing for a bit, getting off into a sub-topic, then maybe another sub-topic, then back to the first topic, and so forth.

“I feel like I’m walking down a country road with him heading for a nice picnic.... and every 80 ft or so, we drop off a part of our lunch. He keeps telling me ‘Don’t worry....we’ll get back to it later,’ as we dump more and more food on the road.

“Many many pages later, my main reaction was ‘Duh!!! So, what’s your point?’”

Rosie said she did find a lot of the material—especially toward the end of the book—interesting and informative, and she did learn some interesting things, but she did not enjoy reading the book. She rated it only a 3 on a scale of 0 to 10.      Kirby, who also missed the discussion, commented:

“I remember when Rosie and I used to agree far more than we disagreed. I hated the last one (Bastard Tongues), so I was leery of reading this one. I actually like the very thing she criticizes. He led us down a lot of very interesting paths. To use her analogy, to me it was more like a picnic through a garden, where every time he would notice something else good to eat he would make a side trip to sample it.”

Kirby hadn’t quite finished the book yet, but gave it a tentative 8.

      Scott is a big fan of this book and rated it a 10. He compared it favorably to Christine Kenneally’s book The First Word, which he’s current reading and which is also on the origin of language, but which is sort of a general survey of recent theories. Bickerton’s book is more of a sustained argument for one particular theory about the origin of language, which seems to break some new ground and go well beyond all the traditional disputes about the supposed origins of language in animal communication systems.

      A major theme of the book is the importance of “niche construction theory”. Scott agrees that this way of looking at things is important and enlightening but does not find it all that new. As a Marxist he has always viewed biology not as an absolute given, but as something that is dialectically related to culture, with each affecting (“interpenetrating”) the other. He thus greatly appreciated seeing this same point of view expressed in the many fine remarks along these lines in the book, such as:

“Is language cultural or biological? It’s a truism to say ‘both,’ but while scholars have fought for generations over what biology contributes and what culture contributes, few have looked at how biology and culture might have interacted with each other over time to create the kind of language we have today.” (p. 107)

      Since Scott has a long-time interest in the origin of morality he was delighted with the book from that point of view as well. Among the many fine comments:

“The only sense in which australopithecine social life would have been richer than ape social life lies precisely in the muting of within-group competition (and, ultimately, the birth of cooperation) that follows inevitably when you have to compete with other species more than with other members of your own species.” (p. 115)

“But that’s not the best part of the story. The best part of the story is that [my theory] gives us cooperation for free.” (p. 167)

“In almost all other species, including primates and other human ancestors, subsistence could be obtained without non-kin cooperation. Foraging, gathering, even hunting could be carried on by individuals or small kin groups. Only a species that came to depend (not completely, of course, but substantially) on accessing giant carcasses would have been obliged to recruit non-kin—obliged, because if non-kin did not cooperate with one another, nobody got anything. And only a long period (probably hundreds of thousands of years) of such activity would have been sufficient for the drive to cooperate to become, in humans, almost as strong as the drive to compete.” (pp. 167-8)

      Kevin agreed with Rosie that the writing style in the book is somewhat disjointed. But he liked Bickerton’s theory. He was especially impressed by the niche construction theory and would like to learn a lot more about that. He gave the book an 8.

      John liked the book very much, and gave it a 9. He thought Bickerton stayed on point much better than he did in Bastard Tongues. He felt a little bit lost in the later, sort of appendix-like section, about Chomsky, But he liked the main section of the book, the central theory, and considers it an excellent book.

      Our guest, Forrest Bennett, while recognizing that the book does have some very secondary shortcomings, liked it so much that he gave it a 10. He agreed with Rosie about the “stack organization”, but still thought the flow of the book was good as you are reading it. Forrest said that it felt like you were with Bickerton as he was thinking it all out, and with no condescension toward the reader. He thought it was almost like two books, the main book on the central theme of Bickerton’s theory of the origin of language, and a smaller, second book against Chomsky and others.

      Forrest was especially impressed by a central piece of evidence that Bickerton adduced in support of his theory, the fact that the order of the butchering marks on the bones of carcasses changed at a certain point in proto-human history, from evidence of scavaging (and a special interest in bone marrow) to evidence of hunting and butchering for meat. Forrest said he totally enjoyed the book, and totally got “sucked into it”. He would love to see more on the theory and have it further “fleshed out” (pun no doubt intended!), with more detail about the life of our ancestors on the savanna.

      Ron, however, disagreed with Rosie about the writing style. He thought the criticism of other theories was brought up at the appropriate points, and that Bickerton did a great job in building up the theory. He also thought he did a pretty good job in criticizing Chomsky. He thought any guesses about what the very first words in human language might have been is rather silly, however.

      Ron gave the book a 9, as did Rich. Rich said he was very glad he read this book, and found it very interesting. He wondered how new everyone thought Bickerton’s theory is, and how original. Many of us felt that it was quite original and new. As to how accepted Bickerton’s theory is, that seems to remain to be seen. Rich didn’t have Rosie’s problems with the writing. He would recommend the book to everyone as good stuff by a good writer, and called it a “kick to read”!

      Our group gave this book a collective rating of 8.1 on a scale of 0 to 10. For us, that’s a very high rating.

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