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Neuropsychoanalysis: An Interdisciplinary Journal


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The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language


and the Brain
William Hans Miller

12304 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 210, Los Angeles, CA 90025, e-mail:
Published online: 09 Jan 2014.

To cite this article: William Hans Miller (1999) The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain,
Neuropsychoanalysis: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Psychoanalysis and the Neurosciences, 1:1, 130-135, DOI:
10.1080/15294145.1999.10773254
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130
Jeannerod, M., Mouret, J., & Jouvet, M. (1965), Etude de
Ia mortricite oculaire au cours de Ia phase paradoxale du
sommeil chez Ie chat. Electroenceph. Clin. Neurophysio1., 18:554-566.
Ramon Greenberg, M.D.
11 Waverly Street
Brookline, MA 02146
e-mail: ramon~reenberg @ hms. harvard. edu

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The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain by Terence Deacon. New York:
W. W. Norton, 1997, hardcover $29.95, paperback
$15.95
A few years ago the UCLA neuroanatomist and psychologist Harry Jerison asked, "What is so great about
being smart?" with the implication that in our species'
history, it is hard to conclude that our intelligence and
our capacity for complex symbol use has done us more
good than harm. What is ironic and prophetic, as Terence Deacon shows us in his extraordinary text, is that
symbol use itself may be the only means available for
shifting the balance toward a kind of positive outcome
for ourselves, if not for the planet. The more we understand about the nature and origin of our symbolic capacities, he claims, the better we can regulate our
enormous cognitive potential. He wrote his "mystery
novel," as he calls it, with this goal of increasing our
understanding about how symbol reference and language came about, and ultimately, of who we are.
For about a year several UCLA linguists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists and I met weekly, reading,
discussing, and debating The Symbolic Species:
The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. We all
concluded that this is a profound work, remarkable
for its scholarship and extreme detail, and deserving
dedicated study. Here, I will sketch out a broad and
oversimplified overview of Deacon's complex evolutionary scenario, and then discuss a few of his essential arguments.
Somewhere in our fuzzy past there were groups
of australophithescines who had already been bipedal
for some time and who could communicate with context-bound gestures and sounds. These foraging hominids lived in the savannas of eastern and southern
Africa. We can only marvel that they survived at all
in what must have been a continuously perilous environment. Except for their nascent evolutionary edge
of symbolic reference, we might very well not be here,
or might not know it. The time was about 2 million
years ago; it had taken several more million years to
get to that point from the great bifurcation that split

Book Reviews
man-to-be from the great apes. Then, something very
strange happened. A shift in cognition, specifically in
abstracting capacities and learning by logical and semantic categorization, began to dominate the experience of these individuals and groups, which hitherto
had been limited by mental representations of stimulus-response associations to the mostly local context
of rewards and punishments. Environmental events always had signal value about how to react for all animals, but if a new waterhole was associated with the
possibility of reduced thirst, the only condition that
guided the approach behavior of prehominids was the
appraisal of immediate safety. But with a doubling of
brain size in what was to be a shift from australopithescines to true hominids like Homo habilis (tool
man), a new condition and option became possible.
With improved cognitive hardware the hominid could
apply a system of divergent ideas and images based
on principled rules. Homo habilis felt the urge to approach water, but instead of drinking, might consciously wait for an animal to drink first, then follow
the animal to see if the water was deadly or safe to
drink. A logical theory had been conceptualized and
tested. Many of his or her vertebrate ancestors could
learn the stimulus-response associations that, together
with instinctual responses, made survival possible. But
this hominid and his kind also could learn "the system
of relationships of which these correlations were a
part." If this individual's logical experimentation allowed for survival and offspring later on, he or she
could then carry the gradually developing genetic predisposition for flexible rule-guided behavior into the
next generation. Remarkably, in the initial nonresponse, the stimulus to approach water was intentionally used against itself. He or she delayed gratification
conditional upon reasoning, thinking, planning, vicarious trial-and-error, long-term memory-all of these
nonautomatic capacities. This was possible because of
a simple but effective gestural and guttural system of
rule-based and communicated labels for objects and
actions developed within groups of individuals. The
neurobiological substrate for this advance in everyday
experience of early hominids was actually not new;
many primates can do a bit of this if given enough
training and exposure in a controlled setting. But for
more advanced hominids, it became a primary problem-solving tool and the natural thing to do. In its
fullest developments it would provide humans with
"an unprecedented sort of autonomy or freedom from
the constraints of concrete reference."
The neurobiological cause and consequence for
this symbolizing capacity, according to Deacon, is the
property of an expanded prefrontal cortex (PFC) in

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Book Reviews
higher primates and especially in man, which itself is
but a part of "the unbroken continuity between human
and nonhuman brains." But back to our hominid ancestors. When that semiotic boundary between local
(iconic and indexical) context control of behavior and
arbitrary (symbolic) conditional responding was surmounted on a regular basis, the hominid line, nearly
suddenly in geological time, applied symbol use to the
expansion of communication, complex speech, and
then full grammar-based language. These adaptations
further enhanced the existing primate dorsal-heavy
hominid cortex and its subtle perceptual biases that
could now generate the kinds of sounds and rules required for a social system of communicated meanings.
But language and the rules (grammar) were never intrinsic to the human brain; the only intrinsic factor
was the perceptual-learning bias. Language existed
then and now as a "social phenomenon" or as
"memes": " ... [T]he brain co-evolved with respect
to language, but language has done most of the adapting." So for this strange new way of communicating,
grammar was essential for later complex language, but
was its consequence, not its intrinsic cause.
On the way to developing full language, problems
of male provisioning, fidelity promises (marriage), and
group cohesion were solved, giving hominids like archaic Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis the
edge they needed to successfully compete and continue.
(And because we're here and they are not, we can probably assume some kind of brain-over-brawn superiority, although Deacon thinks Neanderthals were so equal
to us in intelligence that the difference was probably
that of sheer numbers or plague survival.)
The brain, language, and culture of today, so homogeneous in all the important ways, all developed
by coevolution. Natural selection did most of the work
to produce the australopithescines, up to 2-plus million
years ago. But then the new "trick" of symbolization
and abstraction produced an overpowering adaptation,
reasoning and planning ahead, that changed the selectional context itself within which natural selection was
operating. In the case of brain and behavior, this new
type of selection, called "Baldwinian," was no longer
,'natural" or simply Darwinian. Hominid selection
became directed by constrained actions. Thus greater
symbol use selected for greater PFC size, which expanded auditory-verbal capacities, which selected for
greater symbolization, and so on. For example, the
midbrain reticular areas, especially the limbic-periaqueductal gray circuits, allow only indirect cortical
motor control over the 30 to 40 primate calls that communicate indexical signals of danger, food, and other

131
social transactions. With increased motor and prefrontal cortex in hominids due to the sequential demands
of nonsymbolic gestures and speech, manual dexterity, and social interactions, adjacent cortical areas
gradually assumed direct control over the subcortical
arousal anatomy and behavioral sequences. This new
cortical displacement of neural connections became
both the cause and a consequence of the increasing use
of vocal symbolization. This advance in turn improved
communication, putting further adaptive pressure on
the development of an even greater variety of vocalization, resulting in the innervation of the tongue from
the hypoglossal nucleus and a descended larynx, faster
consonated speech, and more complex vocal social
interaction (such as the ability to employ subtle deceptive speech). At present we have sobbing, sudden
laughter, gasping, groans, and sighs as remnants of
subcortical control by midbrain structures; in other
cases after about age 3, we have the option to voluntarily (cortically) regulate our vocalizations. This dynamic circular neurobehavioral causality is
coevolution and "runaway symbolization." Every improvement altered the neurological and external environmental forces that then selected for a more
successful genetic host. This manner of reasoning is
how Deacon can claim this strange thought: "I suggest
that an idea changed the brain." But Baldwinian logic
sorts it out: "The remarkable expansion of the brain
that took place in human evolution and indirectly produced pre-frontal expansion was not the cause of symbolic language but the consequence of it."
Yet symbols themselves are not inherited and are
nowhere in the brain, even though "there is a threshold below which symbolic processes are not possible." Symbols evolve socially within the community
of symbol users and are then borrowed as needed by
all. What is inherited is the capacity for plasticity to
change the circumstances of evolution and within lifetime adaptations. The personal capacities for symbol
formation itself are also overbuilt for fail-safe learning
by natural and Baldwinian selection, to provide for
extreme cases of conceptual problem solving. Ergo
our ability to perform tasks like differential equations
which no H. habilis or H. erectus ever needed to solve.
Ergo our capacities for employing symbols to be conscious of a personal self (subjectivity), the experience
of others' consciousness (empathy and manipulation),
and fears of purposelessness and death. For symbolization is the means of justifying great acts of inhumanity and kindness, and of religious solutions for
fears, and for comprehending symbolizing itself, as in
self-reflective consciousness. Deacon says it best:

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132
"The best and worst of what it means to be human
arose with the dawn of symbolic abilities." Thus symbolic reference underlies everything we consider
human: "[T]he computational demands of symbolization not only was the major source of selection pressures that could have produced the peculiar
restructuring of our brains, they are likely also the
indirect source for the selection pressures that initiated
the prolonged evolution of an entire suite of capacities
and the propensities that now constitute our language
instinct." And, "selection for anything that benefited
this prerequisite function would have been constant
and intense throughout," including "severe reproductive costs in cases of failure to acquire symbols."
But this tidy narrative, like the journey of man
from there to here, gets quickly convoluted. The trail at
times is downright thready, as Deacon pursues lines of
logic, neo-Darwinism, molecular genetics, cell population dynamics, practically the whole history of neuroscience, comparative psychology, neural networks,
paleoanthropology, personal fancy, and more on the
way to building his massive case for the new phyla,
Homo symbolicus. Profound questions are raised in every chapter, and answers are suggested that quickly provoke even more difficult questions. But Deacon is
relentless. Happily, all the themes and subroutines in
this book revolve back on Deacon's three overarching
questions about man's unique cognitive style and language. These issues, which also constitute Deacon's
goals and which were anticipated by the opening narrative, are: What are the differences in the ways humans
and prehominids and animals reference information
and communicate in groups? Why do animals have so
much difficulty overcoming the barrier to symbolic experience and communication? How do humans function with symbols so easily and so early in life?
The first issue introduces the sine qua non for
understanding Deacon's book. He recounts the work
of the late nineteenth century logician-philosopher
Charles Peirce in defining symbols and describing
symbolic referencing as the apex of cognitive evolution so far. Peirce (1994) was concerned with the ways
we find meanings in a hierarchy of increasingly abstract references to objects, relations of objects to each
other, and to the family of concepts that are referentially based on these real-world foundations. In this
semiotic system, icons referred to the surface commonalities between objects and the real things to
which they refer. Thus a statue of the Buddha' 'really"
looks like him. Indexes, on the other hand, stand in
dynamic causal relationships to their point of reference and always refer to the associations, correlations,

Book Reviews
and implications for action that link them back to their
icons; the statue is thus also an indexical sign or signal
for certain kinds of behaviors and attitudes. And finally, symbols refer to indexes and other symbols that
exist by arbitrary, conceptual and stable rules of interpretation within a group of individuals. Here the Buddha statue evokes the same rule-based meanings for
all those who share its conceptual relevance.
Peirce himself went to great lengths to establish
a 10-level hierarchy of transitions from the most iconic
reference (like the feeling of "redness") all the way
to the highest symbolic level of logical syllogistic arguments. For simplicity Deacon chose to discuss only
the icon, index, and symbol. But given that one of the
most difficult problems in the book is the attempt to
explain the transition from indexical to symbolic functioning in early humans, it might have helped his case
if Deacon could have included more of the transitional
steps that Peirce defined.
Deacon's second and third goals are an understanding of just this transitional puzzle: to comprehend
why nonhuman primates have so much trouble "getting it," getting beyond immediately context-bound
stimulus-response cognition, and grasping the rules
that make possible generalization based on logic
(which grammar-based language requires). Many
pages are spent on this question, largely referring to
the work of Savage-Rumbaugh (1986) and the Yerkes
Primate group. We learn that a few well-trained and
human-family raised chimps have shown some symbol
use, as in limited learning of American Sign Language. At least two Bonobo (pigmy) chimps have
learned signed language implicitly by observing their
parents trained. Oddly, these young Bonobos use their
language more naturally and better than others who
have had much more explicit training. (Available videotapes of the brightest and best animals show skills
more dramatic than even Deacon describes, as in one
chimp signing to another, totally using symbol-based
lexicon, that she would like different food or nonfood
objects to be given or used in specific ways.) Here,
the animal's behavior is based on the communication
of shared rule-governed arbitrary logical categories
and their specific labels similar to humans between 2
and 3 years of age. Of course, there is a lot more to
a 3-year-old human's cognition--ehimps don't ask a
lot of "why" questions-but the most symbol-minded
chimps are still very impressive.
The point is that with the right setup and enough
preparation, some nonhuman primates can operate at
the symbolic, not just indexical conditioned-association level. Deacon believes that if he can find out just

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Book Reviews
how chimps do it, he may have a clue to how humans
achieved symbolic functioning, which is our crucial
antecedent to rule-based grammatical language. This
discovery would obviate the need for positing an intrinsic, built-in universal grammar module, ala Chomsky, to explain the origin of human language. It is in
this discussion that Deacon reveals his antipathy for
a saltationist position, and his preference for a model
of gradualism and continuity in species evolution.
So what made the difference for humans? The
key to the discovery of symbol reference seems to be
a counterintuitive cognitive leap or trick. The very
same cognitive style, categorization by associative (indexical) learning, that defined successful adaptation
for many species for millions of years, had to be situationally negated in order for higher logical categorization to occur at all. It works something like this: To
discover an abstract rule, you must apprehend that the
surface associations that define your reality must be
ignored, and then apprehend that a more abstract unifying principle exists that can categorize many objects
and events within an overarching system of logic. Labels for indexical, practical living must always relate
back to the iconic "real world." But symbolic labels
can be anything you want, as long as they are members
of a family of commonly accepted concepts that give
meaning to each of the member labels or lexicon. So
an abstract, flexible rule must be grasped. It is very,
very hard for chimps to "get" a rule if an immediate
reward compels attention and action. Consider two
piles of candy, one large and one small. The pile you
piGk will be given to your competitor, the remaining
one is yours. It sounds easy: Pick the small one. But
small children and nonhuman primates, and patients
with certain PFC damage, repeatedly pick the large
pile, even though the "rule" has been demonstrated
many times. Now try this with an older child with a
healthy PFC or a chimp, both of whom have learned
to respond to symbolic labels of pile size to help selectively suppress attention to the immediate token-object
associations. Voila! We have logical rule-guided behavior and delay of gratification, the step from which
the leap is taken to symbolic functioning. As Deacon
notes, "[L]ike the chimps, hominids were forced to
learn a set of associations between signs and objects,
repeat them over and over, and eventually unlearn the
concrete association in favor of a more abstract one."
What does this have to do with grammar-based language? Apply the new arbitrary rule-making capacity
to the subject and verb elements of your pragmatic,
holistic vocabulary, get everybody doing it, and you
have a symbolic language, even if rudimentary.

133
Later, Deacon shows how humans created various rituals that served to consolidate the symbol-symbol, symbol-real world links that made full language
possible. That in turn made group cohesion possible,
which made for social complexity pressures and resulting brain expansion. But Deacon's unique contribution to this literature, which he sprinkled throughout
the technical and philosophical chapters, in his discovery of the mechanisms of symbol discovery itself. His
theory answers, in a real way, all of his goals. It shows
how humans are special in our use of, and enslavement
by symbols, and why no other species came to do this
naturally. It also explains the adaptive problems that
were solved (and caused) by symbol use, putting humans at the top of the food and technology chain.
Many important problems remain, however, and
Deacon is especially thorough in his explanation of
the brain-structure issue. Many primates have complex social group standards and the neurobiology to
support this. Why didn't other species evolve the
structures for natural symbol discovery? Convergent
data generally have pointed to the PFC. And here is
one problematic area of the book: Deacon leans very
hard on the premise of an oversized human PFC to
account for human symbolization. But other careful
studies, by H. Jerison (1997) and H. Damasio's (Semendeferi, Damasio~ Frank, and Van Huesen, 1996)
group, seem convincing that the human PFC is about
the right volume for a primate with our bodies and
total brain size. Yet, the functions of the PFC, and
neuropathological studies, make it very tempting to
put the structural basis of symbolic function in the
PFC. In fact, shortly after Deacon's book was released, a study by Stephen Wise, E. A. Murray, and
C. R. Gerfon (1996) clearly demonstrated a PFC ascending axis for abstract conditional responding,
which is present in many primates but most delineated
in humans. So Deacon's general emphasis on the PFC
is supported, but more work is needed to sort out the
functional specialization and connectivity versus excessive volume controversy.
The study of the particulars of human cognitive
evolution will always be l~cking in physical evidence,
and will thus always be best understood as a choice
of narratives. Who has the best story? It is common
to hear that we are the product of an interwoven causal
chain: extra-arboreal bipedalism, left hands freed for
tool making, gesturing, and accurate throwing, requiring a bigger brain. The bigger brain required an immature birth, with greater sensitivity to postnatal
environment. This created pressures for social cohesion and problem solving, requiring complex language

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134
and culture and still larger brains. Deacon's narrative,
which denies none of the above, includes the notion
that bigger brains needed a meat diet and therefore
needed male provisioning and fidelity contracts (requiring rituals and delay of gratification symbols that
overcame immediate needs for philandering). This is
surely part of the story. I prefer a narrative that addresses the early hominid's short, fear-dominated life.
Such a story would have early presymbols like safety
and danger signs becoming ritualized into anxiolytic
vehicles like superstition and special tokens and then
an animistic belief system with its own lexicon. I like
this because it seems earlier than the marriage contract. But who knows? No one can solve this puzzle,
so we look for cogent logic and the available physical
evidence for the best narrative. Deacon's emphasis is
strongest in its logic after some symbol capacity was
already present, because he can explain how symbolmediated behavioral flexibility enabled hominids to
occupy niches that other animals could not. Our ancestors therefore out competed and out survived and out
reproduced our competitors because of our behavioral
flexibility; symbolic reference is with us now because
it worked better than the extinct alternatives.
Having done the hard work ofmaking and building
an extremely compelling case for the how and when of
symbolic reference, Deacon is now free to speculate
about what all this means. For example, he sees no reason why symbolizing creatures could not build symbolizing conscious artifacts, since reflective
consciousness is synonymous with the process of sharing symbols with oneself and others (empathy). Also,
Deacon believes that an algorithm for constructing such
an artifact is close at hand. Others are less optimistic.
For example, Andy Clark (Being There: Putting Brain,
Body, and the World Together Again, 1998) suggests
that human cognition, including symbols, is hopelessly
dependent on bodily states (including affect) and
"wideware" influences from an orchestrating environment. This would mean that an artifact with disembodied cognition, no matter how "smart," would be
forever handicapped in its consciousness of self and
others' experience. But this remains to be seen.
Deacon also explores the extreme sensitivity ofthe
newly expanded brain region, the PFC, that contributes
so much to symbolic reference. He notes that the very
PFC connections that make possible symbolic reference do so because of recently evolved extraprojections
to this area, but without the reciprocal matching of
down flow regulation of limbic activation connections
from the PFC. This conflict between relative symbolization and overempowered emotionality makes us

Book Reviews

constantly vulnerable to minor chemical variations and


pathological dysregulation, and accounts for currently
popular compounds like SSRls that facilitate PFC regulatory functions. In other words, our symbolization is
clearly adaptive, but is unstable and very vulnerable to
runaway (obsessive), and blocking (alexythymia, antisociality) conditions that compromise effective symbol
use in a complex lifestyle.
Symbol use also makes us all extraordinary possessors of virtual reality. Many animals have a kind
of contextual vicarious trial and error, but only humans spin scenarios far from the field of action, planning glorious, destructive and mostly mundane deeds.
Deacon understands that we are hopelessly enslaved
by this compulsion to find meaning in everything, for
better or worse. Of course we think of ourselves as
far more than John McCrone's The Ape that Spoke
(1991), but there is no guarantee that symbolization
will keep us special for very long. S. J. Gould (1993),
for example, reminds us that in geological time the
symbolic species is potentially just the fragile tip of a
twig on the evolutionary tree of life.
Deacon has clearly moved the scientific study of
symbolic reference and human intelligence several
steps forward. Has he done the same for understanding
language origins? Here is where the debate will continue-happily because Deacon has added a fresh coevolutionary approach-and because so many linguists
and psychologists are already committed to a position
as to whether language is innately modular in the human brain or not. Our group found Deacon's position
that language is nonmodular and nonintrinsic convincing overall. We also liked his admitted personal' 'attraction to heresy" and "naturally rebellious nature"
in investigating such an overheated subject. The reviewer Robert Berwick gave Deacon a batting average
of .400, based on Deacon's great explanation of the
brain but his failure to convince Berwick, a saltationist, that language developed continuously in the
environment and brain together. I guess we would give
Deacon a much higher batting average based on the
achievement of his original goals.
When we finally ended our formal study of Deacon's book (there will be no end to its influence on our
thinking about the evolution of brain and language) we
ran out of words to describe Deacon's remarkable
achievement. It was like facing an important problem
you never thought you would be able to solve and then
somehow thinking it through, close to transparency. Our
applied linguists thought Deacon's perspective on language is an important bridge in the debate, and our psychoanalysts (who care more about how the mind works

Book Reviews
or doesn't work) talked about neuroscience and their patient care with a fresh and deeper awareness of brain-behavior relations. None of us, however, will ever think
the same way about what makes our species special.

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References
Clark, A. (1998), Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and
World Together Again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gould, S. J. (1993), Full House. New York: Random House.
Jerison, H. J. (1997), Evolution of prefrontal cortex. In:
Development of Prefrontal Cortex Evolution, Neurobiology and Behavior. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
McCrone, J. (1991), The Ape That Spoke: Language and
the Evolution of the Human Mind. New York: William
Morris.

135
Pierce, C. (1994), In: Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic
Anthropology, ed. R. J. Parmentier. Bloomington, IN:
Indiana University Press.
Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S. (1986), Ape Language: From
Conditioned Response to Symbol. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Semendeferi, K., Damasio, H., Frank, R., & Van Huesen,
G. w. (1996), The evolution of the frontal lobes: A volumetric analysis based on three-dimensional reconstructions of magnetic resonance scans of human and ape
brains. J. Human Evolution, 32:375-388.
Wise, S. P., Murray, E. A., & Gerfon, C. R. (1996), Critical
Rev. Neurobiology, 10:317-356.
William Hans Miller
12304 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 210
Los Angeles, CA 90025
e-mail: nmiller@ ucla.edu