Combines the energy and enthusiasm of a frisky, curious critter with the erudition and professional competitiveness of a...

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ADAM’S TONGUE

HOW HUMANS MADE LANGUAGE, HOW LANGUAGE MADE HUMANS

Linguist Bickerton (Bastard Tongues, 2008, etc.) argues that our remote ancestors’ cooperation in large-animal scavenging laid the groundwork for the capacities that evolved into language.

As he has in previous books, the author quarrels with colleagues, constructs a number of what he justifiably calls “just-so stories” to imagine what might have been in prehistory, employs a sometimes discordant mixture of just-plain-folks diction and fairly dense professional jargon and chronicles the evolution of his own thinking, freely—almost gleefully—admitting his errors. In a discussion of one procedure, he offers a sample of sentence production by the “Merge” process: “[[the [girl [you [met yesterday]]]] [speaks French]].” (Got it?) He declares that Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky and other notables have made grievous theoretical errors. He believes he has discovered the truth: Humans, like other animals, are active niche-builders, not just Nature’s playthings. We alter our environments to suit us even as they work to alter us. We evolve to survive, of course, but we also evolve in ways that we need. Chimps developed no language because they didn’t require one to thrive in their niche. Humans needed language. Out on the savannah, we were prey as well as predator; we needed to cooperate with one another to compete effectively. Bickerton argues that we would have lost the competition for scavenging large fauna if we had not developed sharp-edged tools that allowed us to cut away meat from the carcasses before other animals could beak open the tough hides. Accordingly, we would have needed ways to let one another know that a carcass had been found, where it lay and so on. As the need sharpened, nature selected for brains that could symbolize and picture something far away. Worlds of words eventually—slowly—followed.

Combines the energy and enthusiasm of a frisky, curious critter with the erudition and professional competitiveness of a longtime denizen of academe.

Pub Date: March 24, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-8090-2281-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2008

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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