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BOOK REVIEW : Animal Sounds, Human Talk and Beyond : LANGUAGE AND SPECIES, by Derek Bickerton . University of Chicago Press, $24.95, 297 pages

December 11, 1990|JOHN WILKES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Can animals use true language? "No," author Derek Bickerton emphatically says in "Language and Species."

As evidence he presents the stubbornly small vocabularies of those animals that have been taught to communicate with humans--chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins, sea lions and African gray parrots. Even the most communicative animals generally use fewer than 500 words, mostly nouns ("candy," "ball") and a few verbs ("eat," "run").

More significant than the seemingly low ceiling of animals' vocabulary, though, is their failure to master sentence syntax, says Bickerton, author of a controversial 1981 book called "Roots of Language."

For example, the difference in meaning between "Koko hugged Washoe" and "Koko was hugged by Washoe" would be lost on a talking animal, according to Bickerton's argument, because the order of nouns and verbs is unchanged.

The consequence of this gulf between animal communication and human language, for Bickerton, is enormous. In the history of human evolution, he argues, mastery of syntax led to consciousness. Consciousness in turn led to the power, unique to humans, to imagine a better life. From there it was but a short step to trying, with increasing success, to master nature.

To explain how humans managed to leap from the crude protolanguage of animals to true language is Bickerton's aim in "Language and Species."

A linguist by training, and apparently acquainted with the literature of the sciences, the author approaches the question from disciplines ranging from molecular biology to computer science. He painstakingly reconstructs the historical moment when ancestral humans left off using "ape talk" and began employing the almost mystical power of syntax to construct new, even wholly imaginary worlds.

Bickerton's investigation leads him to a startling conclusion--and one that will please some creationists. For Bickerton (and contrary to Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould and some other distinguished contemporary interpreters of Darwin), evolution has a goal. Life develops inexorably in the direction of ever-higher intelligence, he says, reaching its apotheosis in creatures who can use language.

Bickerton further asserts (echoing Carl Sagan) that life will evolve toward intelligence and true speech wherever life can exist at all.

Bickerton admits he is venturing into foreign, if not intellectually dangerous, territory. He even concedes, with bravado born of supreme confidence, that fellow linguist Noam Chomsky ("the Newton of our field") dismisses the question of the origin of language as "an issue of no more scientific interest than the origin of the heart."

But brushing Chomsky aside and baring his breast to the drawn daggers of his university colleagues, the author dares to go where no linguist has gone before.

After a tortuous and overlong journey, Bickerton arrives at the following account of how humans got language.

All creatures see the world, he says, by means of a relatively simple "map" of reality, which he calls the "primary system of representation." Each creature makes its map according to its unique array of senses. A bat and a frog see different worlds, he says, and thus make different maps of the same physical space.

The more complex the "hard-wiring" of the brain, the more detailed the map, Bickerton says. As the earliest humans developed mental capacity, their maps grew ever more sophisticated. The overload point arrived, the author speculates, when the creatures descended from the trees onto the savannah. In the open grasslands, after a relatively easy life aloft, they had to work harder to find lunch and defend themselves.

To survive, Bickerton says, the early humans had to develop a kind of itinerary to guide them around their now hyper-complex map of reality. This itinerary, which the author calls the "secondary system of representation (SSR)" is none other than language itself.

"It is hard to imagine fire," he writes portentously, "which all other species flee from, being tamed and handled by a species with no kind of secondary representational system."

Despite the author's intellectual daring, as the foregoing pomposity suggests, "Language and Species" can be as unrewarding as it is demanding. Snow jobs are a favorite ploy some professors use to disarm students (and colleagues) in order to stifle potentially embarrassing questions. "Language and Species" cries out for another academic standby, the criticism that "what is original here is not very good, and what is good is not very original."

Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews "Dirty Little Secrets: Military Information You're Not Supposed to Know" by James F. Dunnigan and Albert A. Nofi (William Morrow).

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