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le 27 avril 2012
This is an essential book on an essential subject. What is the managing device of both language and music in the brain. And yet you are going to be very disappointed by some essential absences, lacks and wants in the book and by some dubious arguments.

The immense positive side of this book is that it understands language and music are two mental activities that are managed by the brain, though I would prefer the mind, and that the two managing devices, if we can reduce the very complex coordination of the necessary mental abilities for both language and music, or for either language or music, are situated somewhere in the brain though not in one specific area.

But at once the shortcomings arrive. It would have been very interesting to really work on brain-imaging when some linguistic and musical activities are performed by the human subject. This absence of clinical observation and experimentation is very critical since then the references to medical research is only scholastic or third had n at least.

The second enormous drawback is the fact that the author does not study in detail the complete apparatus to produce language, to hear language, to read language, or on the other side to hear music, produce music to read music. Same want and absence with the complete apparatus to compose music, to perform music, to produce oral or written language, and at that level the author absolutely excludes any non common everyday language use, which is absurd because there is nothing that is everyday common language use, except maybe the conversation you may have on a subway train, or a public bus that is altogether reduced to something like 200 or 300 words and the simplest syntactic structures like "the weather is nice today, isn't it", whereas music is always an elaborate complex creative activity, even when it is only humming a tune in your head.

In other words he compares a doughnut, maybe without a hole in the middle, on the linguistic side and a fancy wedding cake on the musical side. Obviously the comparison is uneven and then he misses a point. And what's worse this is syncretic thinking, but that is a basic remark because his basic way of thinking is syncretic and through comparisons.

In fact he misses the creative use of language in two different ways. For one he misses the creative use of language in everyday life: slang, cockney creativity and all other dialects in that urban line, poetry, drama, television, debates, cinema, opera and so many other everyday activities, universal for some of them like TV news. The second way he misses it is that he never even envisages the fact that language did not come like a coconut on a tree. It was produced, invented by Homo Sapiens. The phylogeny of language is absolutely absent from his mind and we all know that the psychogenesis of language - that he considers - is in a way or another a reflection of the phylogeny of the same language. Hence he cannot understand that the development of language also induced a development not so much of the brain but of the mind.

He absolutely misses the invention of language as being nothing but a collateral consequence of a basically physical and mental survival strategy of the human species with Homo Sapiens. He would have discovered that the very physiologically dangerous lowering of the larynx was genetically and naturally selected for the breathing of a bipedal long distance running species (the first and only one on earth). In the same way he would have discovered that the breathing requirements for this activity implied the development of the diaphragm, the lungs and the heart and that his funny little protein known as FOXP2 is not only present in the brain, in highly coordinating areas, but also in the guts massaged by the diaphragm used in long distance bipedal running, in the lungs used for the same activity and in the heart used for the same activity too. He would have also understood that the articulation needed for human language depends on the depth of the larynx but also on the breathing and its regulation and on the articulatory power of the mouth, the tongue and the sinuses. All that is also needed for long distance running and breathing. The hypoglossal nerve and canal with its unique size in Homo Sapiens control the articulatory apparatus needed for long distance breathing and running as well as linguistic articulation.

Then he would have understood that his hypothesis of some kind of genetic natural selection for language, targeting language was a mistake. Language is the side effect, some would say the collateral side effect, of long distance running and breathing, including a mutation, the lowering of the larynx (and the best part is he actually mentions the choking hazard of this mutation), that is dangerous for the survival of the human subject and that only develops in the human, subject after six months and within three years, hence when the child learns how to sit and then walk, which is entirely physical though complex and hence dominated, controlled and managed by the zones and proteins specialized for this coordination of complex activities in the brain, the locali in the brain where you find FOXP2. Language like music is a complex mental activity founded more than music on a physical array of capabilities that are there for a totally other reason than language.

Then his ten plus supplementary, arguments for the genetically selected capability to speak are just superficial, especially the FOXP2 that I would consider as definitely unacceptable since Sally McBrearty has convincingly rejected the thesis about the Neolithic Human Revolution. Maybe Oxford should listen to or simply read Cambridge a little bit more.

The second (but is it only the second?) shortcoming of the book is that he mixes up mind and brain (though he never uses the term central nervous system). Maybe he should have used the term central nervous system. That would have led him to a consideration that Bertrand Russell defended some 90 years ago. All stimuli from the outside world only create some nervous influx impact on the five senses of the human subject. These sensations are nothing and most of our sensations go unidentified, unnoticed and of course unprocessed. For a sensation to be processed the sixth sense of the Buddhists has to come into the picture, and that is the mind. In other words, Russell's words, the mind only knows the constructs that it builds in the brain from the sensations it receives via the central nervous system. This is the crux of the problem. The mind receives nervous influx and the mind, with its central nervous system and its education, and its experience, constructs representations that are what it works with. In other words notes (pitches), intervals, beats, rhythm and words, phonemes, lexemes, semantemes, and all syntactic elements are nothing but constructs. The mind, and the brain, only have developed the capability to manage complex activities and to analyze complex objects, sensations and perceptions.

Then we come to a methodological mistake and this one is not even debatable. The author compares as if comparing were proving. This is basic syncretic thinking which is unacceptable in any scientific reasoning. Metaphorical thinking can be poetically very rich but it is nothing but a metaphor. Comparing language and music is such a metaphor and has no value whatsoever. Music does not have words endowed with a signifying phonetic dress and a signified semantic content. What's more syntax is purely linguistic since it implies some abstract functional values that have nothing to do with subject and object (the function the author uses) and certainly not with the architecture of music. The architecture of a bird and a plane could be compared since both do the same thing, they fly, but that would in many ways be absurd since the bird has a physiological architecture and the plane has a man-made technical architecture. Can we compare the architecture of Mount Everest and the Empire State Building since both of them are scraping the sky? Asking the question is answering it at the same time.

That leads to two conclusions the author misses. A child today in his/her physiology and learning procedure recreates the invention of language by Homo Sapiens. A child in the dire trauma of birth and hunger learns in the hard way the need to communicate to simply survive. A child at birth has a nine month heritage of in utero experience and empathetic sharing with his mother and a twenty week hearing period when he could assimilate phonetic clusters, music, rhythm among others those of his heart (from the fourth week onward) and his mother's heart. All that is neglected and in a way rejected by the author. And of course he has not heard of mirror neurons that make children imitate everything in the adults around him/her including the sounds, as soon as he physiologically can produce them. By the way the babble he likes so much is nothing but the association of the flow of air that produces the vowel /a/ when the larynx starts lowering and the lip movements of sucking the mother's breast or the feeding bottle and that produces /m/ but if some "dental" movement of the tongue comes into the articulation it produces /d/ and if it is the movement of the lips ending the sucking movement, then it is the sound /b/. The author considers babbling as some kind of genetic miracle, when it is nothing but the result of the basic activities, and feelings, of an empathetic child that learned that in his mother, is endowed with mirror neurons, is learning lip movements by feeding and is using the air flow the starting of the lowering of the larynx is endowing him with.

In other words this book is good if you have a lot of knowledge in the field that you can review, revise and air freely. Otherwise it is fully misleading.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
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