Terrence Deacon:

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(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

The American anthropologist Terrence Deacon believes that language and the brain coevolved, evolved together influencing each other step by step. In his opinion, language did not require the emergence of a language organ. Language originated from symbolic thinking, an innovation which occurred when humans became hunters because of the need to overcome the sexual bonding in favor of group cooperation.

Both the brain and language evolved at the same time through a series of exchanges. Languages are easy to learn for infants not because infants can use innate knowledge but because language evolved to accomodate the limits of immature brains. At the same time, brains evolved under the influence of language through the Baldwin effect. Language caused a reorganization of the brain, whose effects were vocal control, laughter and sobbing, schizophrenia, autism.

As a consequence, Deacon rejects the idea of a universal grammar a` la Chomsky, of innate linguistic knowledge. There is an innate human predisposition to language, but it is due to the coevolution of brain and language and it is altogether different from the universal grammar envisioned by Chomsky. What is innate is a set of mental skills (ultimately, brain organs) which translate into natural tendencies, which translate into some universal structures of language.

Another way to describe this is to view language as a "meme". Language is simply one of the many "memes" that invade our mind, and, because of the way the brain is, the meme of language can only assume such and such a structure, not because the brain is pre-wired to such a structure but because that structure is the most natural for the organs of the brain (such as short-term memory and attention) that are affected by it.

Chomsky's universal grammar is an outcome of the evolution of language in our mind during our childhood. There is no universal grammar in our genes, or, better, there are no language genes in our genome.

The secret of language is not in the grammar, but in the semantics. Language is meaningful. Deacon envisions a hierarchy of levels of reference (of meaning), that reflects the evolution of language. At the top is the level of symbolic reference, a stable network of interconnected concepts. A symbol does not only refer to the world, but also to other symbols. The individual symbol is meaningless: what has meaning is the symbol within the vast and ever changing semantic space of all other symbols. At lower levels, Deacon envisions less and less symbolic forms of representation, which are also less and less stable. At the lowest, most fluctuating level of the hierarchy there lie references that are purely iconic and indexicals, created by a form of learning that is not unique to language (in fact it is widespread to all cognitive tasks). The lower levels are constrained by what humans can experience and learn, which is constrained by innate abilities. The higher level, on the other hand, is an emergent system due to the interaction among linguistic agents.

(The first form of symbolic communication is marriage agreements, which sanction exclusive sexual bonds).

Deacon also deals with consciousness, as an emergent property of the virtual world created by symbols. He distinguishes three types of consciousness, based on the three types of signs: iconic, indexical and symbolic. The first two types of reference are supported by all nervous systems, therefore they may well be ubiquitous among animals. But symbolic reference is different because, in his view, it involves others, it is a shared reference. This reference includes the self: the self is a symbolic self. The symbolic self is not reducible to the iconic and indexical references. The self is not bounded within a body.

Deacon believes that Artificial Intelligence (thinking machines) is possible, and not too far from happening, easier than commonly believed.

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