Language and Human Behavior (Jessie and John Danz Lectures)

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9780295974583: Language and Human Behavior (Jessie and John Danz Lectures)

“What this book proposes to do,” writes Derek Bickerton, “is to stand the conventional wisdom of the behavioral sciences on its head: instead of the human species growing clever enough to invent language, it will view that species as blundering into language and, as a direct result of that, becoming clever.” According to Bickerton, the behavioral sciences have failed to give an adequate account of human nature at least partly because of the conjunction and mutual reinforcement of two widespread beliefs: that language is simply a means of communication and that human intelligence is the result of the rapid growth and unusual size of human brains.

Bickerton argues that each of the properties distinguishing human intelligence and consciousness from that of other animals can be shown to derive straightforwardly from properties of language. In essence, language arose as a representational system, not a means of communication or a skill, and not a product of culture but an evolutionary adaptation.

The author stresses the necessity of viewing intelligence in evolutionary terms, seeing it not as problem solving but as a way of maintaining homeostasis―the preservation of those conditions most favorable to an organism, the optimal achievable conditions for survival and well-being. Nonhumans practice what he calls “on-line thinking” to maintain homeostasis, but only humans can employ off-line thinking: “only humans can assemble fragments of information to form a pattern that they can later act upon without having to wait on that great but unpunctual teacher, experience.”

The term protolanguage is used to describe the stringing together of symbols that prehuman hominids employed. “It did not allow them to turn today’s imagination into tomorrow’s fact. But it is just this power to transform imagination into fact that distinguishes human behavior from that of our ancestral species, and indeed from that of all other species. It is exactly what enables us to change our behavior, or invent vast ranges of new behavior, practically overnight, with no concomitant genetic changes.”

Language and Human Behavior should be of interest to anyone in the behavioral and evolutionary sciences and to all those concerned with the role of language in human behavior.

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Review:

According to Derek Bickerton, language is not simply for communication, it is the syntax of human consciousness. In this intriguing look at the origins of consciousness, Bickerton offers a tantalizing alternative to the theories of sociobiologists such as E. O. Wilson and strong artificial intelligence theorists such as Daniel Dennett: Syntax, as hard-wired into the brain, is what distinguishes the consciousness of modern humans from that of animals and human ancestors. A remarkably accessible argument and sure to stir up debate for some time to come.

From the Back Cover:

According to Bickerton, the behavioral sciences have failed to give an adequate account of human nature at least partly because of the conjunction and mutual reinforcement of two widespread beliefs: that language is simply a means of communication and that human intelligence is the result of the rapid growth and unusual size of human brains. Bickerton argues that each of the properties distinguishing human intelligence and consciousness from that of other animals can be shown to derive straightforwardly from properties of language. In essence, language arose as a representational system, not a means of communication or a skill, and not a product of culture but an evolutionary adaptation. The author stresses the necessity of viewing intelligence in evolutionary terms, seeing it not as problem solving but as a way of maintaining homeostasis - the preservation of those conditions most favorable to an organism, the optimal achievable conditions for survival and well-being. The term protolanguage is used to describe the stringing together of symbols that prehuman hominids employed. "It did not allow them to turn today's imagination into tomorrow's fact. But it is just this power to transform imagination into fact that distinguishes human behavior from that of our ancestral species, and indeed from that of all other species. It is exactly what enables us to change our behavior, or invent vast ranges of new behavior, practically overnight, with no concomitant genetic changes". Language and Human Behavior should be of interest to anyone in the behavioral and evolutionary sciences and to all those concerned with the role of language in human behavior.

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