In this stimulating, if difficult book, Campbell sees information theory as the new science that can inform linguistics,...


GRAMMATICAL MAN: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life

In this stimulating, if difficult book, Campbell sees information theory as the new science that can inform linguistics, social science, genetics, and neuroscience, while it also continues in its association with computer science. He begins by contrasting information--order, complexity, novelty--with entropy: disorder, simplicity, randomness. He reviews 19th-century formulations of the second law of thermodynamics: the idea of the loss of the ""quality"" of energy--its dissipation into heat. He then cleverly contrasts the useless energy idea to the 20th-century concept of noise: useless information that is inherent in the transmission of any message. The shy, retiring Claude Shannon is celebrated as the brilliant innovator in information theory who demonstrated, most notably, that there exists an ideal code permitting transmission of a message with as much accuracy as desired--within the constraints of the information channel: i.e., you can provide the right amount of redundancy to assure accuracy. Here, Campbell fleshes out his narrative with interesting sketches of the personalities and contributions of early probability theorists (and Shannon's contemporaries) von Neumann and Wiener. In later sections, the abstract concepts are applied to natural processes as Campbell discusses evolution and genetics. Only now are geneticists coming to grips with the meaning of the redundancies coded in the DNA, some surmising that mutations affecting supernumerary regulatory genes might account for those changes in timing or in development (e.g., neoteny) that may account, in turn, for rapid changes in species. Elaborating on psychological applications, Campbell discussing current controversies re perception (Gibson vs. Gregory), memory (Ebbinghaus et al.), and dreams (Freud vs. lung). Language, too, comes in for extensive treatment--with a general championing of Chomsky. Concluding chapters discuss information transmission in the nervous system and right-brain/left-brain differences. In so large a field, it is easy to quibble about occasional misstatements or exaggerations, as well as to take issue with any given theoretician; this is, after all, an area of high speculation and low evidence. Plaudits are more in order. Campbell has seen how leading scholars in diverse fields are moving away from cause-effect/action-reaction thinking toward an interactionist approach in which behavior is context-sensitive, involving uncertainty of information in a field of choices and constraints. Well done.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1982