“Adam’s Tongue” book review / notes

I recently re-read (and re-loved) Derek Bickerton’s book on language + human evolution, Adam’s Tongue. I previously read the book in 2010, and I remember enjoying it, but feeling like a lot of it was over my head, so I’ve decided to re-read it with fresh eyes in 2016, and wanted to write a little review of it.

On its surface, the book is about how language evolved in humans, and how language was crucial to our evolution as a species, but what I love about this book is it’s about so much more.

One thing the book covers really well is how evolution works. It talks about Darwin and Richard Dawkins (natural selection and selfish genes, respectively), but it also talks about how those viewpoints are often limited. Bickerton really gushes about a relatively new view on evolution, that of “niche construction theory” which explains, essentially, how species are changed by their environment, but crucially, how species also change their environments, too.

Bickerton spends a lot of time not only talking about evolution, but also continuously emphasizes fallacies we hold about evolution. The big one is how we view evolution with homo-centrism: we see evolution only in terms of ourselves, and often put ourselves at the centre of it. When we look at evolution with this fallacy, we’re essentially looking at all animals / life forms in terms of how they compare to us, when in fact, evolution does not care at all about us. There’s really no centre to evolution, Bickerton says.

A specific example of that fallacy is how we often look on Animal Communication Systems as “failed attempts at language,” but really they’re just successful attempts for those animals to communicate. They’re not bad versions of language, they’re good versions of ACSs.

I’m really grateful he’s gone to such lengths to repeatedly point these sorts of things out, because I’ve found it eye-opening when considering what little I know about evolution. And, I think these viewpoints apply to non-evolution topics as well.

Another nice thing the book does is that it doesn’t hide the fact of other viewpoints on language evolution. Although he argues his disagreement with these other viewpoints, the author at least acknowledges and explains the other perspectives. He’s not running anybody’s name through the mud, but he does explain their arguments, and crucially why they don’t hold up to the scrutiny of his researcher + perspective.

In fact, an entire chapter is devoted to dismantling a theory put forward by Noam Chomsky et al about language’s supposed spontaneous evolution (I’m not sure if I’ve parsed the argument well enough to distill it here, but suffice it to say it was a thorough deconstruction). It’s refreshing to read opposing viewpoints, not so they may be shamed or humiliated, but so they can be contrasted and explored from different vantage points.

This book was an eye-opening read about language, evolution, and the history of the human species. It’s about what makes us us, and about how that very us-ness enables us to reflect on us. You should definitely read this book.

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