The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain by Terence W. Deacon, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1997; notes, bibliography, index, 533 pages, ISBN 0-393-03838-6, cloth $29.95.
The Right Mind: Making Sense of the Hemispheres by Robert Ornstein, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997; index, notes, 214 pages, ISBN 0-15-100324-6, cloth $22.00.
Terence Deacon's astonishing new book refers to humanity as the "symbolic species." The author is a leading researcher in the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology, associate professor of biological anthropology at Boston University and McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School. His researches into the evolution of the brain and its continuing development make his book not only informative but fascinating. His analysis of the implications arising from his own and others' work lead us to his final paragraph:
If we conceive of human consciousness as an alien addition to an otherwise dead world filled with clockwork mechanisms, discovering that we ourselves are mechanisms appears to imply that we don't really exist, at least not as the intentional, self-determining persons we thought we were, and that there is no one else out there either. But discovering how such mechanisms work may be what is necessary to shatter this persistent belief. Unmasking the source of the subjective experience behind human consciousness is less likely to demonstrate how mental processes can be eliminated from material explanations than to demonstrate how they are implicit in them. And this may help us to recognize that the universe isn't, after all, the soulless, blindly spinning clockwork we fear we are a part of, but is, instead, nascent heart and mind. — p. 464 (italics added)
Deacon's thesis states that the "evolution of language did not involve a language organ or instinct," nor did it arise out of a "larger, or more complex brain." He is convinced that language emerged out of a new way of thinking which he terms "symbolic thinking." In his analysis of the concept of symbolic thinking he points out the various ways we symbolize and react to events of the far past, the ongoing present, and the future; we speculate on what might have been and what did not happen. "In a real sense, we live our lives in this shared virtual world. And slowly over the millennia, we have come to realize that no other species on earth seems able to follow us into this miraculous place."
The doorway into this virtual world was opened to us alone by the evolution of language, because language is not merely a mode of communication, it is also the outward expression of an unusual mode of thought — symbolic representation. Without symbolization the entire world that I have described is out of reach: inconceivable. My extravagant claim to know what other species cannot know rests on evidence that symbolic thought does not come innately built in, but develops by internalizing the symbolic process that underlies language. So species that have not acquired the ability to communicate symbolically cannot have acquired the ability to think this way either. — p. 22
Deacon ties this in with questions of human origins and asserts that the answers are not to be found in how early mankind came to walk upright, or when or how they discovered the use of stone tools: "It is not just the origins of our biological species that we seek to explain, but the origin of our novel form of mind" (p. 23).
How fundamental language is to human beings is confirmed in a study of ongoing research into the human brain at Montreal's McGill University in Canada. In it Robert Lee Hotz states that "The instinct for language — perhaps the most definitive human characteristic — is so ingrained that the brain responds to the spoken word and sign language in the same way." It also refers to experiments at Johns Hopkins University that indicated that infants eight months old "remember the sound of spoken words for as long as two weeks, suggesting that they are already beginning to memorize the building blocks of language." (Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1997.)
Considering another aspect of the mind, Robert Ornstein's new book, The Right Mind, deals with the nature and functions of the right hemisphere. It is reminiscent of Plato's discussion in which he distinguishes between logistikon, the rational or logical manifestations of the mind (corresponding to the processes of the left hemisphere of the brain); and nous, the intuitive aspect of the mind. Western research and cultural patterns have tended to rotate around the functions of the left hemisphere with its emphasis on logic, grammatical rules, and so forth. What, then, is left for the other hemisphere, obviously also a necessary part of the brain? Ornstein visualizes it as the agent enabling the bringing together of input into a whole. These two functions can be seen in the differences between the alphabetic form of language and the hieroglyphic texts which, as in the case of the old Egyptian and Chinese, represent concepts as a whole by symbols, glyphs, or diagrams.
Another book of interest by respected physicist Nick Herbert concludes his Introduction with a short paragraph that ties in with Professor Deacon's views:
I confess that I do think that consciousness will turn out to be something grand — grander than our most extravagant dreams. I propose here a kind of "quantum animism" in which mind permeates the world at every level. I propose that consciousness is a fundamental force that enters into necessary cooperation with matter to bring about the fine details of our everyday world. I propose, in fact, that mind is elemental, my dear Watson. — Elemental Mind: Human Consciousness and the New Physics, Dutton, New York, 1993, p. 5.
Theosophical contributions to understanding the nature of the mind throw light upon these various issues. These concepts include the stratification of human consciousness (or its processes) into seven manifestations, including those generally considered mental; and perceiving the brain to be the instrument used by the mind to relate to phenomena impinging upon it.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press)