The Truth about Language: What It Is and Where It Came From

University of Chicago Press
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Evolutionary science has long viewed language as, basically, a fortunate accident—a crossing of wires that happened to be extraordinarily useful, setting humans apart from other animals and onto a trajectory that would see their brains (and the products of those brains) become increasingly complex.

But as Michael C. Corballis shows in The Truth about Language, it’s time to reconsider those assumptions. Language, he argues, is not the product of some “big bang” 60,000 years ago, but rather the result of a typically slow process of evolution with roots in elements of grammatical language found much farther back in our evolutionary history. Language, Corballis explains, evolved as a way to share thoughts—and, crucially for human development, to connect our own “mental time travel,” our imagining of events and people that are not right in front of us, to that of other people. We share that ability with other animals, but it was the development of language that made it powerful: it led to our ability to imagine other perspectives, to imagine ourselves in the minds of others, a development that, by easing social interaction, proved to be an extraordinary evolutionary advantage.


Even as his thesis challenges such giants as Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould, Corballis writes accessibly and wittily, filling his account with unforgettable anecdotes and fascinating historical examples. The result is a book that’s perfect both for deep engagement and as brilliant fodder for that lightest of all forms of language, cocktail party chatter.
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The Recursive Mind challenges the commonly held notion that language is what makes us uniquely human. In this compelling book, Michael Corballis argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion: the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. "I think, therefore I am," is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental "time travel"--the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness.

Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, animal behavior, anthropology, and archaeology, Corballis demonstrates how these recursive structures led to the emergence of language and speech, which ultimately enabled us to share our thoughts, plan with others, and reshape our environment to better reflect our creative imaginations. He shows how the recursive mind was critical to survival in the harsh conditions of the Pleistocene epoch, and how it evolved to foster social cohesion. He traces how language itself adapted to recursive thinking, first through manual gestures, then later, with the emergence of Homo sapiens, vocally. Toolmaking and manufacture arose, and the application of recursive principles to these activities in turn led to the complexities of human civilization, the extinction of fellow large-brained hominins like the Neandertals, and our species' supremacy over the physical world.

Some images inside the book are unavailable due to digital copyright restrictions.

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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Mar 29, 2017
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Pages
288
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ISBN
9780226287225
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Language
English
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Genres
Language Arts & Disciplines / General
Language Arts & Disciplines / Linguistics / General
Psychology / Cognitive Psychology & Cognition
Science / Cognitive Science
Science / Life Sciences / Evolution
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Read Aloud
Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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The Recursive Mind challenges the commonly held notion that language is what makes us uniquely human. In this compelling book, Michael Corballis argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion: the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. "I think, therefore I am," is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental "time travel"--the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness.

Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, animal behavior, anthropology, and archaeology, Corballis demonstrates how these recursive structures led to the emergence of language and speech, which ultimately enabled us to share our thoughts, plan with others, and reshape our environment to better reflect our creative imaginations. He shows how the recursive mind was critical to survival in the harsh conditions of the Pleistocene epoch, and how it evolved to foster social cohesion. He traces how language itself adapted to recursive thinking, first through manual gestures, then later, with the emergence of Homo sapiens, vocally. Toolmaking and manufacture arose, and the application of recursive principles to these activities in turn led to the complexities of human civilization, the extinction of fellow large-brained hominins like the Neandertals, and our species' supremacy over the physical world.

Some images inside the book are unavailable due to digital copyright restrictions.

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