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Patricia Reviews Adam’s Tongue by Derek Bickerton, Part One

by Patricia | 10.22.12

As with most of the books I review that I like, this review runs on and runs wild. So I had to divide it in two. This is the first part.

This is a GREEN LANGUAGE post.

Adam's Tongue cover1

Title: Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans
Author: Derek Bickerton
Publisher: Hill and Wang
Genre: Non-fiction (mostly)
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 286
ISBN10: 978-0-8090-1647=1
Price: $16.00

Every once in a while I see a write-up about a book in a newspaper or on a news site, and I get a hunch. Sometimes, I can barely figure out a thing about the book from the review, the writer snarls everything up so nicely. Or else she hypes sensational aspects of the text–soundbites of bad taste. Or she might have a sense that there’s something to the book but spends most of the article head-scratching. Yet, despite her loose grip on coherency, something shines through her writing like light around the edges of a closed door, and I think, I must have that book! Lightning of this sort struck when I learned of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. That work proved an important addition to my admittedly stunted array of recent acquisitions. Likewise John D. Niles’ book Homo Narrans: The Poetry and Anthropology of Oral Literature. My hunches about these books proved spot on: Both contained rockin’ language that I didn’t know I’d been looking for ’til I found it.

This hunch-come-true happened when I stumbled on a review of Derek Bickerton’s Adam’s Tongue on a pop news site. From the article, I couldn’t make out a clear picture of the book’s inner workings, though the word “language” flashed up frequently during the discussion. The writer seemed preoccupied with Bickerton’s attitude, which he classified as “irreverent,” among other things. But shining around the edges of the writer’s opacity were shafts of light that struck my eye, which is always roving, rooting for new thinking on human language. I printed off the review and set it on the edge of my desk, where I looked at it again and again, studying, thinking, hungering. “I want this book,” I finally said to my husband. “Then you shall have it,” he replied and straightaway ordered it.

It didn’t disappoint. Like other recent classics exploring language evolution, Adam’s Tongue makes bold claims right off. Human language, Bickerton poses, is the greatest problem in science. “You don’t believe that?” he asks.

Well then, what would you say were the greatest problems in science? How life began? How the universe began? Whether there’s intelligent life anywhere else in the universe? None of these are questions we could even ask if we didn’t have language. How we got language is a question that logically precedes all other scientific questions. How can we know whether our answers to those questions have any validity, if we don’t even know how we came to be able to ask them? (Bickerton 4)

Well now, there’s a poser. Bickerton’s foray into the origins and nature of language is full of such “Oh yeah?” type questions that sweep all, long-standing playing pieces off the board. Then he sets up a totally new game.

Bickerton pooh-poohs the traditional party line that we acquired language because we developed big brains. He says–insists–it happened the other way around: We got big brains because we got language (34). Language, he says, became a driving evolutionary force for humans, freeing us from the “here and now” prison of animal communication systems (ACSs), which are able only to express a limited range of evolutionary wants and needs. ACSs, he says, are systems “that served all other species for at least half a billion years” (6), but for all that time, the communication systems of every other species were and still are wholly locked into the bounded sphere of the present. When it comes to referring to something that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or that is wholly a product of the imagination, Bickerton says animals are wordless and consequently clueless.

The writer of the review I read was correct: Bickerton’s writing is restive, fidgety with attitude. He’s often cocky, conversational rather than “scientific” in tone, he editorializes, and yes, he’s irreverent–especially when assailing what he calls various agendas and dogmas he thinks have “bedeviled the study of language evolution” (13). Such takes on human expression, he says, have made the field of language evolution “a chaos of conflicting theories, extravagant claims, and irreconcilable positions” (13). And so Bickerton’s writing crackles with energy and irony as he hammers out kinks in current language evolution theory. Such kinks include the popular belief that he calls, surprisingly, the “homocentric bias,” the idée fixe that humans are not significantly different from other species. Also fair game: the assumption that “language was originally a target for natural selection” (13). Predictably, he spends a lot of time in the last third of the book doing the obligatory Chomsky polka, dancing out his argument with language evolution godfather Noam Chomsky as both men wrestle to lead. Reading between the lines, one gets a glimpse of Bickerton’s fondness for Chomsky. But not even this towering icon of grammatical theory is sacred. The main difference between them, as Bickerton sees it: For Chomsky, thinking came first and triggered the development of language; for Bickerton, language had to have come first and “enabled human thinking” (191), hands down.

Bickerton’s drive to clear the table of wrong headedness where language and especially language evolution are concerned is not mere “I’m right and everyone else is wrong” self-aggrandizing. He is quite certain that a lot of the current scholarship obfuscates important and obvious qualities of language and misdirects attention from this key component of human being. But the centerpiece of Adam’s Tongue, and the part of the book that sent bolts of excitement rippling through me, is his importation of a biological concept into his thinking on language evolution: the theory of niche construction, “a theory that gives animals themselves a vital role to play in their own evolution (93).”

For Part Two click here.

1 Response to Patricia Reviews Adam’s Tongue by Derek Bickerton, Part One

  1. Patricia

    I removed a comment that didn’t adhere to WIZ’s comments policy. I realize that this review addresses a difficult subject, but please keep your comments on topic.

    Please make your statements in human language, or they’ll be put into the moderation zoo … I mean queue… like Lucy’s was.

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