book reviews

Tom Givon tgivon at
Mon May 26 03:38:09 UTC 2008

Dear Funk folks,

Sometime last fall there was an  interesting  exchange  on  Funknet,  
about  book  reviewing. It was initiated, I think, by Esa Itkonen, with 
Suzanne Kemmer and Martin Haspelmath pitching in. I think Werner Abraham 
was on it  too, tho this may have been in private. What transpired, 
leastwise for me, was Martin's suggestion that Internet reviewing was 
the was of the future, and was sooner or later going to supplant  
traditional  journal  book reviews.

I had long before come to the sad conclusion  that journal  book 
reviewing was a negative, destructive genre. As I kept reading reviews, 
it seemed clear that reviewers were seldom writing about the book they 
were commissioned to review. Rather, their reviews were mostly about 
themselves. What they seemed  to be doing  was  use  the occasion of 
reviewing  someone else's work as a platform  from which to display 
their own work, erudition, smarts or sarcasm.  My own sad experience 
with  book reviewing, discontinued in utter self-disgust thirty years 
ago, was alas no exception. Perhaps I was young and didn't know better. 
But the last one, in 1978, almost cost me one of my dearest friends.

Ever since then, I have steadfastly turned down  requests  to  review  
books  for  journals. On one of  the last occasions, ca. 1990, an editor 
asked me to review a 1989 book about pragmatics, written by a notorious 
blunt-axe  reviewer. I smelled a rat, and asked him point blank: Did you 
by any chance ask her to review my 1989 book for the same issue?  He 
hemmed an hawed, I  could  hear him fairly fidgeting over the phone. I 
declined the offer. Then I found out that many reviews are handled this 
way by journal editors.  Or worse:  people with an axe to grind ask 
editors  to review books by  authors  they bear a grudge  toward. What a 
way to settle scores,  with the connivance (or worse, innocence) of 
journal editors.

One idea stuck, though: If I were ever to review a book again, I'd only 
review one I really, really, liked. For  what is the point of doing 
otherwise? If we don't like a book, shouldn't we perhaps just let it be? 
In  this spirit, I am sharing with you five short and somewhat 
non-traditional reviews, of five books I have read this last year. They 
all bear, directly or indirectly, on one topic dear to my heart--the 
evolution of language. What is more, I can say without the slightest 
reservation that I recommend  these books  most  highly. In one way or 
another, they each combine three  features that make a book, any book, 
most enjoyable: They deal with exciting, relevant  subject  matter; they 
churn out terrific ideas; and they are exceptionally well written. In order:

*Frans deWaal (2001) "The Ape and the Sushi Master",  NY: Basic Books*
For anyone who knows deWaal's previous work ("Chimpanzee  Politics", 
1982; "Peacemaking Among the Apes", 1989; inter alia), this book is not 
a surprise. What you get, in addition to the lively story telling, is a 
tour de force of the apparently-still-controversial topic of the 
evolution of culture, rolled together with an astute introduction to 
Darwinian evolutionary thinking, Cosmides/Tooby's  Evolutionary 
Psychology, E.O. Wilson and Sociobiology, and more. In the dualist 
Cartesian  tradition  that  still infests  much of the humanities and 
social sciences, evolution has been conceded only grudgingly--as long as 
it stops at the neck. The body may be subject to its deterministic base 
'laws', but not the mind, culture  or language. This has tended to 
short-change  both biology and the humanities. In biology, the evidence 
of pre-human  cultural evolution had tended to be ignored. In the social 
sciences and the humanities, the manifest evolutionary foundations of 
culture were dismissed as crude determinism, biological reductionism, 
Freudian "science envy", Social Darwinism, or just plain insult to the 
unconstrained  freedom  of the human spirit. What Frans DeWaal does in 
this wonderful book is take you  through the history, the controversies, 
the recalcitrant issues, and above all, the evidence of pre-human 
culture. What you come out with is a sense of the fine-grained 
interpenetrability of biology and culture, and the profound unity of  
all living things. You also come out with the bracing  feeling that we 
are not alone, and that being a biological species does not in any way 
slight out vertiginous  uniqueness.

*David Geary (2005) "The Origin of Mind", Washington, DC: American 
Psychological Association*
This book does not have the story-telling  spice of deWaal's work, so 
that  its excitement is considerably  more  subtle. It is a decidedly 
scholarly romp through the several interlocking traditions that feed 
into the study of the evolution of mind. It is, first, a superb 
introduction to Darwinian bio-evolution. It is an accessible primer to 
Cognitive   Neuroscience. It is also a sober elucidation of Evolutionary 
Psychology, of which Geary himself is a respected practitioner. In the 
bargain, you get a strong whiff of deWaal's sense of culture as a 
biological phenomenon, and of biology as the deepest, thus often  most  
subtle,  undergirding of culture. You also get an evolutionary  
perspective on the brain, a perspective that takes for granted the 
reciprocal mapping of  structural and functional organization.  A 
particularly strong feature is the initial division of mental  
representation into folk physics, folk biology and folk psychology, 
three categories of adaptive  experience  that are familiar to both 
anthropologists and  linguists. Within  this enlightened framework,  the 
adaptively-selected evolution of mental representation ceases to be 
arbitrary; it makes a terrific amount of sense. And the table on p. 129 
is a most helpful, if schematic, division of adaptive-functional 
domains  that have acquired neuro-structural expression. Geary's  
treatment of language is not all that comprehensive, and  is scattered 
all over the map, something one has gotten used to in books written by 
psychologists.  But for the discerning  reader, the language-relevant 
stuff  is there, hiding in  plain  sight. And the discussion of  
Theories  of  Mind  (mind  reading), in part a crucial pre-condition to, 
in part a consequence of the evolution of language, is reviewed 
extensively and integrated well into the evolutionary narrative. It you 
have the stomach  for uncompromising scholarship and an exhaustive 
bibliography, this book will keep you going.

*Dorothy Cheyney and Robert Seyfarth (2007) "Baboon Metaphysics", 
Chicago: University of Chicago Press*
In their "How Monkeys See the World" (1990), this pair of long-time  
collaborators--a biologist and a psychologist, respectively and field 
primatologists  as a team--gave us the social and communicative world of 
the vervet monkeys of the East African Veld and their inimitable vocal 
predator calls. In their latest book they have taken on the baboons of 
the inland Okavango delta in Botswana. Their  research  methodology 
remains the same--painstaking, long-term on-site field observations  
combined with sophisticated, ingeniously designed field experiments. 
They are after what underlies the social structure of the baboon 
society--the social-communicative mind. With a title that could have 
more aptly been given as  Baboon Epistemology, Cheyney, Seyfarth and 
their team  probe  the  intricate social  structure of  the large Baboon 
social group (up to 150, largest among primates), contrasting  the tight 
stability of  female-headed  matrilinial  families with the 
ever-shifting,  harsh  milieu of the adjunct itinerant  males. Having 
established who is whose kin, who talks to who, who outranks who and 
who-all are friends and allies, their real quest is  the social mind:  
What do these  baboons  know about each other's beliefs (epistemics) and 
intentions (deontics). The agenda  is  thus well embedded in  the  
burgeoning literature of Theories of Mind, and the method is 
unimpeachably experimental. In the process, you get an extensive, 
scintillating  review  of  Darwin's evolutionary agenda and Evolutionary 
Psychology, of cultural anthropology, social  primatology  and more. 
Above  all, you get to know the monkeys in their natural ecology, with 
their insecurities, ingenuity, joy and grief. It is a rude  world  they 
inhabit, among  feline, canine, reptilian--and  on occasion  
human--predators. Both  the  monkeys  and the research team acquit  
themselves admirably. Between them, they teach us not only  what it  
feels like being an Okavango baboon, but also what it might mean to be 

*Bernd Heine and Tania Kuteva (2007) "The Genesis  of  Grammar", Oxford: 
Oxford  University Press*
I  have saved for last two books by old friends, hoping to have 
convinced you  that my admiration for a book is not contingent on 
personal bonds. Heine and Kuteva's book is unabashedly  about language  
evolution, damn  the torpedoes--but  not full speed ahead. For before 
expounding on the central  theme, the authors run you through the 
mill--an impeccable  review of the LangEvol  lit, a grand tour  of  
diachrony and grammaticalization, of pidginization and  animal 
communication.  Two whole chapters are given to the genesis of  
complexity  and  recursion, courtesy of Chomsky's latest, regrettable  
foray into  the field of language evolution (Hauser et al. 2002). They 
don't argue that the comparative data base is  compellingly  
relevant--they simply lay  the data  out, side by side, with meticulous 
care  and with only one regrettable omission,  ontogeny (child  language 
acquisition). When the evolutionary hypotheses come  at the end (ch. 7, 
"Early Language"), they are handled with the due care and modesty that 
befits  true  scholarship. This is a  source-book in the best sense, it 
guides you through the complexity of the topic, and the diversity of 
approaches. It is a pleasure to read and a privilege to recommend.

*Derek Bickerton (2008) "Bastard Tongues", NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux*
This book, a gem by a linguist's linguist,  is two books  rolled  into 
one. It is first a personal memoir of a  restless, swashbuckling,  
globe-trotting linguist in the grand ol' tradition of the great 19th 
Century  explorers--Richard Burton, Henry Stanley, John Wesley Powell. 
This Bickerton  shows  you that there are still wild places to roam and 
great watering holes to splash in; all you need is an ounce of passion, 
a spark of the  imagination. It is, second, the story of Pidgin and 
Creole  languages and what they might mean to our understanding of human 
language and its genesis. One of the few unabashed evolutionist in 
linguistics, ever  since  his "Roots of  Language (1981) and "Language 
and Species" (1990), Bickerton  landed upon the staid, smug, 
self-satisfied Creolist scene in 1975 like a  ton  of bricks, shaking 
the  parapets  but, as one could imagine,  making few converts. It was 
then and still is now a field rife--perhaps ripe--with the celebration 
of local peculiarity and  minutely-documented diversity, an empiricist  
mistrust  for  theory and a monumental disdain for universals; thanks 
but no thanks, old  boy;  not in my back-yard. On this conservative , 
self-conserving  backdrop, Bickerton had the audacity, indeed the 
temerity, to suggest that  there was an exciting theoretical  story 
lurking  behind  the mind-numbing diversity of Pidgins and Creoles. All 
you needed was a modicum of imagination. Some pizzaz. He pointed to the 
obvious but got nowhere. The rest is a story of academic warfare, of  
intellectual victories  snatched  from the jaws of bureaucratic defeats. 
The centerpiece is a rare  jewel--a front-seat  account  of  the 
infamous Island Project. It is colorful, convoluted and sad;  a morality 
tale of an audacious  research proposal  that was yanked off the gravy 
train just in the nick of time; and of how lively ideas that beg to be 
explored  can bog down in the timidity and small-mindedness of the 
academic review process. Above all, it is a tale of grand-scale science, 
of a hypothesis still begging to be tested. A lesser man would have been 
deflated. Bickerton just keeps forging on.

Best,  TG

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