The Language Instinct

by Steven Pinker

Hardcover, 1994




New York : W. Morrow and Co., c1994.


The classic book on the development of human language by the world's leading expert on language and the mind. In this classic, the world's expert on language and mind lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, and how it evolved. With deft use of examples of humor and wordplay, Steven Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of language into a compelling story: language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution. The Language Instinct received the William James Book Prize from the American Psychological Association and the Public Interest Award from the Linguistics Society of America. This edition includes an update on advances in the science of language since The Language Instinct was first published.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ElectricRay
Steven Pinker lost me as a buyer of his thesis with the very second sentence of his book:

"For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in other's brains with exquisite precision".

It you take that for granted, Pinker's book will seem compelling and not especially controversial. Steven Pinker clearly takes it for granted, perhaps because he can't conceive of how we could possibly communicate effectively and coherently if it were not true.

Consider the following, which I think perfectly encapsulates the world view Pinker can't conceive of, by Ogden Nash:

Caught in a mesh of living veins,
In cell of padded bone,
He loneliest is when he pretends
That he is not alone.

We'd free the incarcerate race of man
That such a doom endures
Could only you unlock my skull,
Or I creep into yours.

To my way of thinking, it is the very fact that we *can't* "shape events in other's brains with exquisite precision" - or with any reliable certainty at all, that describes the human condition. The frisson created by precisely that ambiguity underpins all communication; it is the source of irony, tragedy, comedy, invention and imagination. Any theory of language which denies that fundamental contingency of human communication (as this one does) is going to have to prove it, and displacing that onus is a heavy task indeed.

Pinker's psycho-linguistics makes precisely that denial, by holding that all human communication - every language - shares an inate, evolutionary programmed Universal Grammar, precisely because Pinker can't conceive how else human communication could be possible.

I'm no academic, and certainly I have no background in linguistics. Given that this theory - which is from the same tradition as Noam Chomsky's - has been the ascendancy amongst academic linguistics for the best part of the last thirty years, Steven Pinker being one of the leading "normal scientists" within the paradigm (if I should be so bold as to use that word), and that The Language Instinct is considered fairly widely to be his magnum opus, I was expecting to have my naive relativistic assumptions carefully and systematically dissected, then annihilated, one by one.

So imagine my surprise to find that in the place of carefully drawn arguments and compelling statistical data, one finds a tissue of anecdotal arguments carefully selected to fit the theory, arguments from authority ("Chomsky is one of the ten most cited writers in all of the humanities"), dubious suppositions in place of statistical data (the "it is difficult to imagine the following grammatical construction being used" sort of thing), begged questions, non sequiturs, and Roger Penrose-style irrelevant scientific waffle - especially as regards evolution - and a decided absence of any consideration of competing theories of linguistics - and straw men versions of those which do rate a mentioned.

In short, Steven Pinker employs just about every illegitimate arguing technique in the book. His theory completely fails to account for metaphor (metaphor is barely mentioned in the book), nor the incremental development of language, the evolution of different languages with different grammars and vocabularies. At times Pinker is forced to argue that the grammar of our language is sometimes different from the words we actually speak and write, containing unspoken "inaudible symbols" representing a word or phrase which has been moved elsewhere in the sentence, so the sentence "The car was put in the garage", according to Pinker's Universal Grammar should technically be rendered as: "was put the car in the garage", and the construction we use can only be explained by movement of "The car" and the insertion in its place of an inaudible "trace":

"[The car] was put [trace] in the garage".

Now, again I am no technical linguist, but this has all the hallmarks of pure bull manure to me.

Finally, Pinker is at pains to point out that Universal Grammar is only ever applicable to oral language: written language didn't arise for centuries after oral grammar "evolved" as a phenotype.

But this hardly helps Pinker, since (as he himself points out, with reference to a transcript of the Watergate Tapes) when people talk in ordinary conversation they almost *never* use complete grammatical sentences: they interrupt themselves, they rely on physical gestures, they break off in mid stream and start a new thought, they don't punctuate (there's no unequivocal punctuation in spoken English), all the time.

As is fashionable amongst the "reductivist" and "evolutionary" set these days (a set I would otherwise, in general terms, consider myself in agreement with), relativist arguments are scorned. But Pinker's paradigm implies that, provided we are competent in constructing our own sentences, we should all understand each other perfectly, all the time: there should be no ambiguity; no room for miscontrual; no possibility for evolution in ideas or language. It is difficult to see how anyone could believe such a thing. But neither the structure of language and grammar nor its practical use needs to be perfect for effective communication *at some level* to be possible, and surely that is all that is needed. The beauty of the contingent view of language, which Pinker seems unable to appreciate, is how it can account for the missed margin of communication which might explain the everyday cultural and interpretative problems we all face, and the figurative and metaphorical power we all find at our disposal. Ogden Nash's dilemma is our dilemma, however much Steven Pinker might wish it were otherwise.

An earlier reviewer has mentioned Geoffrey Sampson's "the Language Instinct Debate" as a compelling antidote to Pinker's world view. Having recently read it (on the strength of that recommendation), I would firmly agree. In perhaps an ill-advisedly grumpy tone, Sampson - whose position at the University of Sussex inevitably means his academic profile is lower than Pinker's or Chomsky's - systematically and convincingly annihilates many of the arguments (such as they are) in Pinker's work.
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LibraryThing member bragan
As the title of this book might suggest, Steven Pinker, following in the footsteps of Noam Chomsky, contends that humans are born with an innate instinct for language. Not with language itself, obviously, but with mechanisms in our brains that make it easy for us to learn language and that account for commonalities of structure that exist across all languages, despite their obvious variability. Some of Pinker's arguments and conclusions are stronger than others, but the general idea seems pretty sound to me, although I know there's still some controversy over it, two decades later.

Pinker goes into a lot of detail about how languages are structured and how our brains process that structure. I found this detail quite interesting, but rather slow going, despite the fact that Pinker's prose is very accessible to the layman and is broken up here and there with moments of humor or the occasional whimsical quotation. Those who are just looking for a general overview of the subject might find those chapters, which make up about half the book, to be a bit much, but if you're at all interested in the nitty-gritty details of how the human brain constructs sentences, it's well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member tkhanson
Pinker is a wonderful writer, and I enjoyed this book almost as much for the writing as the content (which was extremely stimulating). He makes a very convincing case, especially so if you don't know much about linguistics (I didn't). After reading this I went on to read other books on "mentalese" (aka "the language of thought"), and found that Pinker's position is pretty controversial and probably on the decline. I don't know how much of the rest of the book is like this, but it's worth reading, regardless.… (more)
LibraryThing member Razinha
This is listed as one of the New Scientist Top 25 Most Influential Popular Science books. The thesis is solid...the execution burdensome. Here's a thought: make a point; reinforce a point; if at that point you feel the need to keep talking, show the reader where in the footnotes or appendix all the repetitious extras can be found.

Pinker spends an enormous amount of time talking about language grammar and the English language in particular, none of which have anything to do with why language is instinctual. It would have been a lot more tedious if I hadn't just listened to John McWhorter's lectures on The Story of Human language. The parallels could not have been coincidental...both relating elements of language development, grammar structure, proto-languages...but McWhorter wasn't talking about instinct. He was talking about language. Pinker undermines his case with all the side trips down linguist lane. Focus on instinct, not on the idiosyncrasies of a hodgepodge tongue.

Pinker could have made his point very well in 100 pages. I admire succinct conveyance of knowledge. Pinker sure has a way of complicating concepts with extraneous details. I didn't admire this book.
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LibraryThing member PrintAvenger
I enjoyed the way that Pinker is able to make difficult and often dry subject matter appealing to a wider audience, but I think at times he went a bit far with the pop-culture references and it started to annoy me.
LibraryThing member dmsteyn
A highly readable account on how language is an inherent characteristic of the human species, which I found a bit unpleasant to read at times. Pinker is such a good writer that I feel a little inadequate in responding to his book, but that aside, I thought it was an erudite book on a complex topic, like all Pinker’s books. It is also a bit controversial, as Pinker skewers many a layman’s misguided ideas about language, its origins, and its uniqueness to humanity. And not only a layman’s ideas; Pinker takes everyone from the social scientists to what he calls the ‘language mavens’ (editors and other arbiters of prescriptive grammar) to task for promulgating false ideas about language. I found Pinker’s more polemical chapters a bit uncongenial, mostly because they attack some of my own subconscious ideas about language. I didn’t realise that I felt as strongly about prescriptive grammar until Pinker attacked it and its proponents. I don’t mind Pinker’s attacks on some of the more archaic rules of grammar (such as split infinitives and ending sentences on prepositions, and so forth) but I did find his fulminating a bit tiresome at times, especially when he sets up some straw men that he can easily knockdown. A quibble, really, but still.

Pinker is on much firmer, and to me more interesting, ground when he explains the psychological and evolutionary origins of language. This is simply brilliant and lucid exposition, and I enjoyed it immeasurably. Pinker’s explanation of how language evolves in children, and how this seems to argue for a ‘language instinct’ in humans (Chomsky’s Universal Grammar) is masterful. I also enjoyed his withering refutations of the assertions of those primatologists who claim to have taught chimpanzees sign language, and the more absurd claims of some anthropologists (such as the infamous ‘100 different words for snow’ claimed for the Eskimos).

My one problem with the book is that it came out in 1994, so how up to date it is, in an ever-changing field, is problematic. I wish Pinker would update the book, but maybe he’s too busy writing books about the decline in violence (The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I intend to read next year), and whatnot.

Highly recommended, but not one to swallow hook, line, and sinker.
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LibraryThing member co_coyote
This is a book I gave to my oldest son one Christmas when he was in love
with language and it looked like he was heading down the path to becoming a
linguist. He went back to school before I could steal the book off his bookshelf
to read it, so when I found it on his bookshelf in Seattle I was overjoyed. I've
wanted to read this book for a long time. It was worth the wait. Pinker is an
excellent science writer and he makes the (often difficult) material as easy to
understand as anyone could. An excellent book.
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LibraryThing member ElOsoBlanco
I read this for my first and second language acquisition class, and while I didn't love it, I definitely didn't hate it either. I liked Pinker's use of examples when trying to describe complex language issues, however, I wished sometimes that he would have stopped at two or three examples per topic. Once or twice he would use an entire chapter simply to expound upon different examples that helped him make his point. I get it Mr. Pinker.

If you're into books on language, then go ahead and give this a read.
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LibraryThing member EowynA
I greatly enjoyed this book, and read all but the last quarter of the last chapter about 5 years ago, maybe more. I set it down, and never finished it. I came across it again in the book case, started at the bookmark, and finished it. I know I never counted it in any of my yearly book lists, though it has influenced my thought since I started reading it.

His thesis is that the mind has an instinct for language - that we are Not a blank slate when we are born. The mind makes certain assumptions about patterns, and what patterns are meaningful. He does this by looking at commonalities across languages, experiments in (and humor created to show) how people use words, and studies of how children acquire their native language. Pinker is a Darwinist, so he examines how this instinct could have been selected for, evolutionarily.

His writing style is readable and clear, but on the dry side. He leavens it with humor, but still it takes some effort to get through. Here is one example, from the book opened at random: "To become speakers, children cannot just memorize; they must leap into the linguistic unknown and generalize to an infinite world of as-yet-unspoken sentences. But there are untold numbers of seductive false leaps: Mind -> minded, but not Find -> finded," and he goes on with more examples (found on page 281). Another example from p. 85: "The way language works, then, is that each person's brain contains a lexicon of words and the concepts they stand for (a mental dictionary) and a set of rules that combine the words to convey relationships among concepts (a mental grammar)." Then he goes on to discuss the examples that support this thesis.

But for anyone interested in language, linguistics, and how the mind works, Steven Pinker's books are all essential reading. Just give yourself the time. They are not a quick read. There is much to chew on here.
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LibraryThing member joyharmon
Helped me to understand how language is learned and in this sense has been very helpful in my teaching of ESL students. A bit complex, but worth the time spent to read and understand it. The benefit is in understanding. You have to find your own way to apply it. But unlike many book on educational pedogogy, it's real and it's useful.… (more)
LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
This guy is very clever. He is even cleverer at explaining the clever things he thinks about in such a clever way that you don't need to be nearly as clever as him to get to drips with them.

I confess to getting completely lost in the grammar discussions and skipping forwards a little. But even then I found the rest of the book very rewarding indeed.

The main reason I like this chaps books is because they are all about me.

They are about you as well, so go and read them now.

Beautifully written with a naughty sense of humour and one hell of a profound message.
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LibraryThing member annbury
Absolutely key book for those interested in how language evolved. Some of its central points are the subject of impassioned debate: Pinker is a Chomskyite, and argues that humans are born with an instinctual ability to learn the language spoken around them. Many others are less deterministic. Pinker's evidence -- the extraordinary speed with which children of two to four learn language -- is powerful, but underlying assumption of an innate "grammatical gene" is not accepted by many in the field. Despite the debate, those with an interest in how language developed and what it is should read this book. Not only is it thought provoking, it is very, very well written.… (more)
LibraryThing member cmbohn
I had a hard time with this book. When I started it, I was excited because the introduction was really good and it looked like the rest of the book would be also. But it soon got very technical and dull. Then it would get more interesting again. Then it would be very hard to read and understand. Then we'd have several pages of diagrams and obscure notation.

I don't really know how to rate this book. The basic idea is that language is a human instinct, and that language is acquired naturally. I understood a lot of his examples and some of what he said made sense. But I was frankly lost a lot of the time. I did study linguistics at least a little back in college, but that was not much help here.

I would say if you are interested in the subject, it might be worth a try, but it's certainly not for everyone.
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LibraryThing member nocto
Took me a terribly long time to get through this book, but I did enjoy it a lot.
LibraryThing member thierry
In this highly praised book, the author covers a lot of ground on how language was created and constructed, how it is learnt and how it evolves. The author argues that language is a human instinct hard-wired in our brains. Frankly, I found this book tough to read for very scientific and sometimes dry. It is an interesting technical subject but I miss the sociolinguistic aspect of it – communities speaking languages over time, imagining a human context. The book is still on my shelf, perhaps I should read it again.… (more)
LibraryThing member _Greg
This is the most delightful book written by the amazing and brilliant Steven Pinker. It covers the nature of human language from the most modern perspective. It is also a thoroughly delightful read for anyone with any interest in this area.
LibraryThing member john257hopper
It took me 7 weeks to get through this - very interesting in parts, esp. the last quarter which I got through in two or three days, but very dry and technical in others, where I would just be reading a few pages a couple of times a week. I mostly accept the author's theory of the language instinct and a universal grammar underlying all languages, though perhaps he overstates it in parts. He is good at debunking linguistic pedants (mavens) and those who romanticise "talking" chimpanzees.… (more)
LibraryThing member miketroll
If you only ever read one book about the science of language, make it this one. Drawing on the imagery of the computer age, Steven Pinker makes a powerful case for the idea that we are born with language skills etched in the hard drive of our brains.
LibraryThing member Demiguise
This book was my introduction to Steven Pinker. It was a textbook for an introductory class on linguistics. I hadn't had any previous experience, so parts of the book were a bit slow-going, I enjoyed Pinker's style and ideas enough to purchase several more of his books.
LibraryThing member RajivC
This is indeed quite an amazing book. The writing style is simple, and Stevenmanages to handle this considerably complex subject with a great deal of dexterity.
Each chapter is complete in itself, and I would recommend that each chapter be read on a separate day. This allows you to think about what has been written, before proceeding further.
It is not a book for the casual reader, nor for the dilettante.
It is a book that you must return to after a while.
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LibraryThing member nocto
Took me a terribly long time to get through this book, but I did enjoy it a lot.
LibraryThing member gakgakg
Very interesting and easy to read!
LibraryThing member Clueless
If your not sure about this book. Just pick it up in the bookstore and turn to page 355. If find the chart there terribly amusing then go ahead and buy it. If not you might want to move on.

Pinker has obviously thought about this, a lot.

...people simply assume that words determine thoughts...Sometimes it is not easy to find any words that properly convey a thought. When we hear or read, we usually remember the gist, not the exact words, so there has to be such a thing as a gist this is not the same as a bunch of words.

...if there can be two thoughts corresponding to one word, thoughts can't be words.

Our sixth sense may perceive speech as a language, not as sound, but it is a sense, something that connects us to the world, and not just a form of suggestibility.

When a series of facts comes in succession, as in a dialogue or text, the language must be structured so that the listener can place each face into an existing framework.

This mirrors my thoughts exactly- not only for words but for knowledge in general.

...there is a specific syndrome called Pure Word Deafness that is exactly what it sounds like: the patients can read and speak, and can recognize environmental sounds ... but cannot recognize spoken words; words are meaningless...

Oh boy! This is sooo me! Often I have to visualize the written words before I can understand what was said.

Great advice Pinker received from one of his editors-

Think of your readers as your college roommates: people who are as smart and intellectually curious as you...

I agreed with most of his conclusions but he lost me at;

"The linguistic clumsiness of [age] might be the price we pay for the linguistic genius we displayed as babies"

I just don't see why it has to be a zero-sum game.

It's funny that the next book I read was Paul Allen's biography. At the end he talks about how incredibly difficult it is to catalog and index vast amounts of information. Pinker was even mentioned by name! Certainly those two geniuses could pool their knowledge and come up with an algorithm based on Pinker's understanding of language to file and organize all that is known on a subject.
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LibraryThing member Move_and_Merge
I don't much care for Pinker and find it daunting that he's somehow attained "celebrity" status in cognitive science. Was it with books like this that he did so? This basically reads like an extended defense of Chomsky's universal grammar (UG) and Fodor's language of thought (LOT) hypothesis (perhaps not surprising--Pinker's name often comes up when a discussion of "mentalese" is at hand). A great deal of it is vacuous and it affords criticisms of UG and LOT barely a nod. Overall, lazy and predictable.

Oh, and the jokes aren't funny.
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
It's a hard one to treat fairly, this. Pinker is trying to do three things: 1) provide a general introduction to how language and the science of language work; 2) debunk some common myths, from the really dumb ones about splitting infinitives and suchlike; and 3) give a polemical screed against linguists and psychologists, and there are many, who argue that language in general is not necessarily a dedicated human capacity and that Chomskyan generative grammar in particular is not necessarily what actually generates linguistic productions.

The first two tasks are relatively uncontroversial, and he completes them with reasonable aplomb. There are different choices a non-Chomskyan would have made about how to talk about certain things, of course, notably grammar (although I pity the poor general readin' fool that tries to slog through that chapter for reasons that have nothing to do with my opinions about the content--or Pinker's writing, which is fine--but merely that modelling syntax is a mess and a half and seemingly always will be). And I'm not quite sure his ridicule of the "language mavens" is always proportional to their sins (big difference between hamless logophily stuff like silly fake etymologies and shopping actual class shibboleths like split infinitives).

But it's in what amounts to the same old nature–nurture debate that Pinker makes me turn a little green. Pretty much every linguist and cognitive scientist out there these days, as far as I know, thinks nature–nurture is at most 70–30 one way or the other. That debate is dead, or has at least advanced far, far beyond the stage it's presented at here, and with clearer vision Pinker might have realized that what he was actually doing was engaging in a bit of linguistic historiography on what was a powerful and perennial clash for a long long time. Instead, like a good Chomskyan, he constructs straw men as opponents, reducing the "language is learned" position's scope so that it only covers people who think language is 100% learned and leave 0% room for an innate linguistic module (which is nobody at all, not since, I dunno, Skinner in the fifties?) and then treats all his opponents like they fall into that tiny box.

It's a way to sell copies, I suppose. But it makes you like th Bill Bryson of actual linguists, Steven Pinker, with your reducing Whorfian linguistic relativity to George Orwell's Newspeak, your reduction of learning to vulgar induction (pretty sure everyone in that camp thinks kids learn language mostly by pattern-finding and hypothesizing and trying things out), your trading of tired myths like the poverty of the stimulus and the idea that you can read a billion English (or whatever) sentences and never read the same one twice. Sometimes they are just little factual inaccuracies because you are trying to throw your discipline a coming-out party and want everyone to have a good time and want things to seem more exciting than they are, like when you overstate the scope of the McGurk effect. Sometimes, though, you're making choices that skew things in a more fundamental way, and you are most certainly not stupid, so I think it has to be intentional, building the broader perception of the field in your (camp's) image.

I think I won't even get into the generative grammar stuff, except to say that clearly if you're trying to make arguments about what kind of sentences we find syntactically appropriate even if semantically odd, "colourless green ideas sleep furiously" doesn't license you to take structurally very strange (but interpretable and plausibly grammatical) sentences as examples, because there is nothing weird about its grammar. I also want to say that obviously a general-learning theory that works is not rule- but token-based, and that the weirder and more different your sentences get form normal speech the less relevant it is whether you can make a tree that works for them, since obviously real speakers find them problematic, even if not in the same way as word salad. "Oooh, technically, this is a sentence!" Right, and you make the tree more and more complicated to deal with it, which is the sickness of syntax. "Just move this and this and this and the theory can handle it!" Even when it's quite evident that the human being cannot handle a sentence like that (e.g., with more than a few layers of embedded phrases). Working memory, jerk. It seems so clear that grammar is a few basic parameters and then convention and probabilism gradually laying in patterns over free variation within those parameters. (In this regard I wonder about Chomsky's "minimalism," which I don't know much about. It may be that it handles the rulehappiness of the old ways.)

It gets more innocuous after that. The chapter on language acquisition is good, although Pinker obviously has his biases as hinted above. I like the evolutionary explanation for the critical period--why spend limited genetic resources giving the old human abilities when statistically speaking the human is more likely to be young than old (since in the aggregate more of us are dead when we're e.g. 50 than 20, etc.), and when 90% (or whatever) of all people born will benefit from super language power at age 5 but only some smaller proportion at 35? And the the chapter on proto-language hypotheses (Nostratic, Proto-World, etc.) gives an interesting look into that freaky world (though it has nothing to do with language being an instinct--and there is another dumb error here where he says that the Indo-European people must have dominated everything from Ireland to India, obviously thinking of groups of them spreading out and hten staying in place and developing their different languages, when clearly migration and language differentiation happened simultaneously and in weird back-and-forth never-gonna-be-completely-traceable ways).

But then in the last chapter he's ushing his thesis again in this cowardly way where he deploys Fodor to say "I hate relativism" and some smuggy smug grad student to sneer at the caricaturized version of the standard social sciences model (NOBODY except far rightists thinks human cultures can vary freely and without limit forever, my god. You say this has been the model "since the 1920s" but I think you mean it was the model in the 1920s). And of course he implies by proxy that relativism is more totalitarian since the blank slate (which is what you need at the beginning to have relativism if you are going to take biological determinism off the table, since either our differences are rooted in cognition or in culture) is the dictator's dream. Where to start? First--of course there is a fascist relativism where groups are qualitatively, biologically different and other. And of course a totally blank slate, which nobody thinks is what a person is, can be abused. But there is also a fluid, polyphilic difference-of-tendencies rooted in the various manifestations of culture that leads us to multiculturalism and good things. Pinker seems to be blaming relativism for both the biological and cultural variants, which is silly considering no one relativist can hold both positions.

And alongside Pinker's "we're all one fam" nativist universalism there is clearly a totalitarian universalism where there is one single biological human nature and those who fall outside it are illegit. (In practice, of course, Pinker's universal human nature is more or less neoliberal--he is keen to reject Chomsky's progressive politics.)

And the list of universals across cultures he gives from the work of Donald Brown is interesting and inspiring and takes up several pages (everything from gossip to tool use to extended families some form of privacy urge for sex to a "natural biology" where we recognize the differences between organisms as qualitatively different from those between other objects--so humans have no problem with a wheelchair being furniture and a vehicle but a big problem with a mule being a donkey and a horse--no, it's a mule, crossculturally!)

This would make a great beach read if you felt no compunctions about skipping the sentence trees and if you didn't have a lot invested in the universalism/relativism and naturalism/arbitrarism debates, which I currently seem to. I'll be less judgy when my MA thesis is done, pinks.
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