The Language Puzzle by Steven Mithen

Stephen Palmer

author of books
Dec 22, 2009
It's been a while since Steven Mithen published a new book, but here at last is his contribution to the language debate, specifically how it might have evolved. Mithen has previously written on this topic, in his outstanding work of 2005, The Singing Neanderthals.
The new book is both a summary of where we are at the moment regarding this area, a synthesis of modern understanding, and a best shot (to use the author's own modest phrase) of what he believes happened over two million years and more of hominid evolution. I think it is superb, deserving its place alongside the above mentioned work and his two others, the groundbreaking A Prehistory Of The Mind and After The Ice.
Some commentators have described Mithen’s style as somewhat dry. I think this lacks nuance. In this new book, Mithen deliberately uses the metaphor of a puzzle to assemble the components of the tale he wishes to tell. Fourteen chapters of sixteen describe those components, which by the end of chapter fifteen await assembly. It's only in the final chapter that he tells the summarised version of his completed tale. This was a little surprising, even for me, a fan, but on reflection I think it does work well. Mithen is not dry, he is methodical, painstaking, careful and reasonable. Moreover, he is fair.
The elements of the puzzle include linguistics, genetics, brain biology, evolution, anthropology, psychology and archaeology. This is a vast range, even for a scholar like Mithen, but he relies not only on his own insight, wisdom and experience but also on scientists whose work he believes support his thesis. I think this is very well handled.
The final tale is one of a gradual change in communicative needs, fuelled in part by environment and evolution by natural selection, but also by "bootstrap" and bottleneck effects that naturally come into play when certain cognitive thresholds are passed. There is a clear reliance on recognising the importance of humanity's social circumstances - the same circumstances that led to the arrival of consciousness, in fact.
All in all, this is a terrific work. It's not only a superb overview of the evolution of language, it doesn't require much specialised knowledge to enjoy, and it's clearly written. The reader only needs to be interested in how we evolved to enjoy it. It's also groundbreaking in itself, in that it suggests a much earlier date for the opening rounds of language's development. What's especially satisfying to see is how Mithen’s earlier concepts, presented in his first two books (1996 and 2003), have been supported by modern advances, particularly the modular hypothesis of conceptual development.
Highly recommended.


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