Symbolic Species

The Symbolic Species

The Symbolic Species (published 1997) is a book by the anthropologist Terrence Deacon. It tries to unravel the evolution of language and why human language is so unique, and unique to humans. It also tries to answer how the thing underlying language, symbolic thought, arose in humans.

The Symbolic Species is a multi-disclipinary book that at the time of publishing was groundbreaking to many readers. This is not so much due to the novelty of the ideas posited in the book — for instance the ideas of Michael Tomasello are similar and in many respects more detailed — but due to the connections made between various disciplines. Like the famous book Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett, it bound together a wide array of ideas that even made people working in the various disciplines take a step back and understand things just a little better.

Core ideas

Symbolic thought and language

Why is it we humans have the unique cognitive capacities that we have? Why are there no animals able to do some of the things we are able to? It is because humans are empowered with language. Language gives us


There seems to be a chicken-and-egg problem between symbolic thought and language. Language is the medium of symbolic thought, but how can one master language without being able to think symbolically first? The solution of this chicken-and-egg problem, according to Deacon, is the subtle evolutionary process of co-evolution.

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