The Front Shelf

The Language of Life: How Communication Drives Human Evolution. By James Lull and Eduardo Neiva. New York: Prometheus Books, 2012 (272 pages).

This book deserves a wide exposure among the various semiotic communities at a time when an epistemological aggiornamento is long overdue and the research agenda of semiotics is in dire need of a credible program. Those who relish the comfort of dogmas will dislike this call to arms. But those who think that semiotics is still in the process of emerging as a powerful scientific and social force will find in its pages inspiration and motivation. It is not so much that the authors propose a new theory or new evidence but they have achieved a remarkable synthesis of recent advances and framed them in a creative and proactive way. By boldly laying the foundation of evolutionary communication, they challenge the boundaries of conventional approaches and their dependence on outdated models originating in nineteenth century biology and psychology. Their intellectual style is straightforward and they articulate their ideas with clarity and integrity.
After the introduction which squarely and effectively plants the aims of the book in the midst of the contemporary emergence of dense communication networks,  the seven chapters which form this volume focus on communicating. I. The Great Chain of Communication (19-36); II. Communicating to Survive (37-70); III. Communicating Sex (71-98); IV. Communicating Culture (99-121); V. Communicating Morality (123-146); VI. Communicating Religion (147-177); VII. Communicating Change (179-205). There are abundant notes which provide comments and references (207-235) and a glossary (237-251) followed by the bibliography (253-269). An index would have been welcomed at the end of this rich volume.
Insightful developments abound in these pages. Delusions are effectively deflated. There are plenty of provocative statements which will force the readers, as I did, to scribble counterarguments in the margins. But the book as a whole sets thinking in motion. Take the notion of culture for instance, an ideal object we tend to use as a resting ground for our identities. It evokes the image of a mosaic in multicultural societies. The semiotics of cultures has produced countless attempts at describing coherent, systematic, adaptive sets of rules contained within the boundaries of marked areas. But can this ideal (ideological) vision stand the scrutiny of honest experience and observation? What if cultures were equally dysfunctional and maladaptive, fragile and subject to uncontrollable changes? Lull and Neiva claim that their evolutionary nature accounts for these perverse features which undermine the capacity of cultures to provide stable grounds for the production of meaning and signification:

“Culture behaves ‘as if’ it exists. It appears to be organized, unified, restrained, and functional, but at the same time it is chaotic, disjointed, expansive, and dysfunctional. Amorphous too; culture is real in terms of lived experience and ideal in that people never conform perfectly to a cultural standard. Immutability and transformability, permanence and change are hard at work in every evolutionary process.” (p. 112)

The Evolution of the Human Head. By Daniel E. Lieberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011 (756 pages).

This book offers an impressive, exhaustive account of what is known about the architecture and functions of the semiotic power house which is the human head and what can be legitimately inferred from the fossil record regarding the way it has evolved over hundreds of millions of years to reach its temporary, present state. The head is where information is processed, meaning is generated, decisions are made, and language has its seat. But the brain and its neuronal extensions cannot be considered separately from the complex constraints which have contributed to the tinkering of this bony box. Brain and skull did not evolve as independent entities. This is why this book should be of prime interest to semioticians who look beyond the surface of doctrinal discourse and are engaged by the advances of the neurosciences and evolutionary biology.
Those who dismiss this contemporary knowledge as mere concern for the body at the expense of the philosophical discourse on the mind will find little comfort in this volume. Their deep-rooted dualistic ideology, expressed through the metaphorical notion of embodiment, is alien to evolutionary thinking and has never been able to provide any credible explanation for the enigmas which we encounter as soon as we stray away from the conventional doctrines of our cultures. Reflecting afresh on the human head leads to confront, literally head on, what it means to be a human and how it came to be this way.
The table of contents should suffice to give an enticing idea of the range of issues addressed in this hefty volume: 1. A tinkered ape? 2. The skeletal tissues of the head; 3. Setting the stage: embryonic development of the head; 4. Modular growth of the fetal and postnatal head; 5. Integration of the head during fetal and postnatal growth; 6. The brain and the skull; 7. You are how you eat: chewing and the head; 8. Pharynx, larynx, tongue, and lung; 9. Holding up and moving the head; 10. Sense and sensitivity: vision, hearing, olfaction, and taste; 11. Early hominin heads; 12. Ecce early Homo; 13. The evolution of the head in Homo sapiens; 14. Final thoughts and speculations. The remaining one hundred pages include a glossary, references and an index.
During the last decade there has been a large number of works discussing the evolution and emergence of the cognitive competencies of humans. By paying close attention to the structural complexity of the evolving hominin head, Daniel Lieberman shows how we can retrace, to the best of our current knowledge, the meandering paths natural selection and epigenetic developments have taken in the course of evolution.
Mindful that scientific knowledge is always on the brink, the author states in his concluding statement: “Although I have filled many hundreds of pages on how human heads develop, function, and evolved, it should be abundantly evident that the more we discover about how and why our heads are the way they are, the more we recognize how much we don’t know. As science progresses, we can look forward to many new discoveries – fossil, functional, genetic, and developmental – that will disprove or alter much of what I have written.” (p. 613)

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. By David Eagleman. London: Penguin Books, 2011 (289 pages).

This book’s aim is to communicate to a wide audience a detailed picture of the state of the art in the neurosciences in as much as they cast new light on the human brain and its role in behavior, including social behavior and the capacity to produce meaning. It is not written by a scientific journalist but by someone who contributes to the advancement of knowledge in this domain of inquiry. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist who is Director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. The metaphoric title of the book, in spite of its provocative tone which targets a popular readership (the book quickly became a New York Times bestseller), adequately describes the state of the art in the neurosciences in as much as we have practically no access to what happens in our brains when we think, act, and feel. Incognito allude to the fact that consciousness covers only a minute part of the constant, dense processes which determine our perceptions and actions. In brief, it addresses the issue of what happens inside the bony box of the skull when we make sense of our environment, our emotions, and our actions as well as when we don’t. Philosophical semiotics has always uncritically taken for granted a universal stand on the mind irrespective of individual variability in development stage, genetic make-up, natural or pathological degeneracy, and the fluctuating hormonal balances which all too often impair our capacity to make sense of things and communicate functionally. The normalcy assumed by this kind of semiotic thinking is indeed quite elusive. Eagleman amply shows how delusional phenomenological knowledge is.
The titles of the chapters tend to be metaphorical and provocative rather than informative. This is the price to pay for this genre of work which aims at a wide audience and seeks to trigger curiosity instead of appearing too forbidding. But the chapters are grounded on a sound meta-analysis of the results of research in a vast array of neurological and behavioral sub-disciplines. It is written clearly and offers enough anecdotes to keep the reader motivated. The seven chapters include: 1. There’s someone in my head, but it is not me; 2.The testimony of the senses: what is experience really like? 3. Mind: the gap; 4. The kinds of thoughts that are thinkable; 5. The brain is a team of rivals; 6. Why blameworthiness is the wrong question; 7. Life after the monarchy. The appendix is a very simplified map of the human brain. There are numerous notes which detail the sources, a bibliography, and an index.
As the author states in the conclusion: “We have seen in this book that everything contained in the biological bags of fluid we call us is already so far beyond our intuition, beyond our capacity to think about such vast scales of interaction, beyond our introspection that this fairly qualifies as ‘something beyond us.’ [….] We are now getting the first glimpses of the vastness of inner space. This internal, hidden, intimate cosmos commands its own goals, imperatives, and logic. The brain is an organ that feels alien and outlandish to us, and yet its detailed wiring patterns sculpt the landscape of our inner lives.” (p. 224)

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