Reviewed 2/03/2012

Adam's Tongue by Derek Bickerton

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans
Derek Bickerton
New York: Hill and Wang, 2009




ISBN-13 978-0-8090-2281-6
ISBN-10 0-8090-2281-8 286pp. HC $27.50

Ask yourself, "How did human language get started?" You might think that it arose from animal sounds, gradually becoming more complex as brains got larger and more capable. In fact, this is how language is commonly thought to have arisen: by a smooth progression from the far simpler systems animals use to warn each other of danger, tell rivals to stay off their territory, and accomplish the other tasks required for survival.

Derek Bickerton, a linguist and expert on pidgins and creoles, disputes the point. He considers its origin the greatest problem in science.

"You don't agree with that? 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, because without language there wouldn't be any 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?" 1

– Page 4

Now, right here in this provocative book, he undertakes to unravel the mystery and to tell us how language came to be.

" this book, for the first time ever, I'm going to show you not just how language evolved, but how language caused the human mind to evolve."

– Page 9

That's a tall order, but Doctor Bickerton is equal to the challenge he sets himself. He has, after all, been considering the problem throughout a long, active career. He's fully conversant with the relevant sciences, from paleontology to archaeology to genetics to, of course, philology. He walks us through the process of reasoning he has followed, providing plenty of citations of other scientists' work to support him. His writing style is both breezy and brusque, and he throws in plenty of pop-culture references to enliven the text. Among them are Johnny Cochran, The Matrix, Madonna and several Monty Python skits. The result is that this formidably multidisciplinary exercise becomes quite understandable to the interested layman.

But you may be wondering if his conclusions hold water. Certainly he is not one much afflicted by self-doubt; he himself describes his style as confrontational. But it is also scientific: that is, he abandons ideas when the facts no longer support them. You'll see him admit having done this several times as you follow along. So scientific integrity is not a problem. As for the meat of his answer (pun intended), I judge that it passes muster.

As I say, this is not a simple matter to discuss or to reason about; it is heavy with nuance and buttressed by reams of supporting evidence. But I will try to give you the gist of it. There are two parts to the argument.

The first part is that no animals can be shown to have anything like a language. What they have, the author calls ACSs — animal communication systems. Some have a surprising variety of cries, including warnings for different predators. What no ACS has is displacements, or cries that relate to something that is not happening then and there. This is a crucial feature of human language. If that were merely a progressive development from some ACS, there should be some animals that exhibit use of at least a rudimentary protolanguage. Yet there are none.

Books by Derek Bickerton

  1. Roots of Language
    1981ISBN 0897200446
  2. Language & Species
    1990ISBN 0226046109
  3. Language and Human Behavior
    1995ISBN 0295974575
  4. Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (with William Calvin)
    February 2000ISBN 0262032732
  5. Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues To
    our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages
    2008ISBN 9780809028177
  6. Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans
    March 2009ISBN 9780809022816
  7. Biological Foundations and Origin of Syntax
    (Editor, with Eörs Szathmáry)
    2009ISBN 9780262013567
  8. The Emergence of Protolanguage: Holophrasis vs Compositionality (Editor, with Michael A. Arbib)
    2010ISBN 9789027222541

Click for full list

Part two of the answer is determining what sort of pressure might have driven our ancestors across the divide from ACS to protolanguage. The author reasons plausibly that it must have been something involving survival. He concluded that it was the change from catchment scavenging to territorial scavenging that did the trick (and a host of evidence supports this.) Modern primates do not scavenge; but they live in dense forests where food is abundant. Our ancestors faced African savannas: grassy plains where suitable food was scarce (unlike baboons, they never learned to eat grass) and predators plentiful. Marrow from bones of herbivore carcasses was available, because few other scavengers could break open the bones. Marrow was a rich source of protein, but it was low in volume. Groups that depended on it had to stay close to spots where carcasses tended to accumulate — catchments. Out across the plains were fresh carcasses, potential bonanzas. But other scavengers got to those first, and stripped them. There was one way our ancestors could supplant those other, fiercer scavengers and get at the meat: bringing in overwhelming numbers. That meant cooperation. It meant recruiting large groups. And the only way to do that was to somehow communicate where and what the prize was. No ACS could do that; it required a true language, however primitive. Once our ancestors jumped that hurdle, Bickerton proposes, they would have continually expanded the capabilities of language. Much as more capable software demanded better and faster processors in personal computers, that expansion would have driven the growth in brain size and complexity: it would have made us into modern humans.

"On the face of it, recruitment for carcass-exploitation could, initially, have done little more than crack the prison walls of the here and now between wich all other primates, for all their intelligence, were confined. But a small crack can have huge consequences. One of the basic tenets of chaos theory is that "small variations of the initial conditions of a nonlinear dynamical system may produce large variations in the long-term behavior of the system." The behavior of our power-scavenging ancestors was surely a nonlinear dynamical system. And, as the closing chapters of this book will show, the creation of protowords may have been enough, alone, in and of itself, to trigger the "large variations in the long-term behavior" of that system that would eventually give us full language, human cognition, and [almost] unlimited power over earth {sic} and all its other species."

– Page 168

This conclusion remains controversial. But — two or three minor quibbles aside — I think Dr. Bickerton has assembled a convincing case, and he makes following the assembly process enjoyable. The text is well organized and logical; and, scientifically, his knowledge covers palaeontology and extends from Chomsky's linguistics to B. F. Skinner's behaviorism (now debunked by Chomsky) to Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA computer program that, back in the 1960s, tried to mimic a therapeutic session with a psychiatrist and thus pass the Turing Test. (Bickerton compares one of its typical answers to a 1975 quote from Chomsky.) Frequent, drily humorous quips and the references to pop culture lighten what could have been a very arcane exposition. Top marks for Doctor B.

The Bibliography is extensive, listing 295 entries and running to 13 closely spaced pages. Chapter notes and an Index are also present. The index is very good but not perfect; It omits Johnny Cochran and Monty Python, although it includes The Matrix and the names of two songwriters from whose song the author quotes a line.

1 For the record, I don't agree with the premise of his last question. If something is demonstrably true, how the demonstrator became able to communicate its truth has no bearing on the validity of the demonstration. Reality exists independently of the language used to describe it. Any other attitude makes scientific knowledge a social construct.
2 Also you might read the book of that title, by Thomas Frank — and his 2008 follow-up The Wrecking Crew.
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