Skip to main content

The Talking Ape – Robbins Burling ****

Language – surely one of the key factors to making us human – and Robbins Burling does a superb job of explaining just what language is and how it might have originated.
This one of those popular science books that just reads itself – although Burling does use a little jargon, he employs it sparingly, and with careful explanation. The text along the way is easy to follow and the arguments are absolutely fascinating.
Though Burling has clear ideas of just how language developed (including the remarkable thought that it may have originated as a form of proto-music), he is careful to put across the opposing views that crop up throughout the field. This is a book that can be read easily by anyone with an interest, but it doesn’t fall into the trap of oversimplifying. Equally fascinating for the non-linguist is discovering some of the complexities of our communications channels – how, for example, gestures form part of our language, or how the genetically programmed “calls” like laughter and sobbing are analogue, while language is digital.
There are a couple of quibbles. It’s a real shame Burling seems to have overlooked the highly impressive content of Clive Bramhall’s The Eternal Child, which powerfully argues that much that makes us human is a side effect of the need to cooperate when our ancestors moved onto the savannah, pushing us into a more cooperative infantile development. For example, Burling wonders why language always seems to have developed in spoken, rather than gestured form – could it be because the most infantile communication is vocal; crying comes before hand signals? Any book on human origins that ignores Bramhall’s thesis these days is one sandwich short of a picnic.
The only other mild irritation is Burling’s tendency to repeat himself. This is a very readable book, but some of the points he makes come up over and over in different chapters. It’s true they say “tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, then tell them what you told them,” but it’s overdone here.
These quibbles apart, though, this is a delightful book for anyone interested in language or the development of the human mind. Unlike so many attempts at popular science by academics, this is more like a witty, accessible chat from an enthusiast than yet another lecture, boring droned out by someone who teaches because he has to. Recommended.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…