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Incomplete Nature, by Terrence Deacon - one reader's encounter

As you may know if you have visited my book reviews pages, I have previously had a lot of good things to say about Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species. In fact I list it as one of my choices for reading about human evolution. So when I saw that Deacon had a new book out (Incomplete Nature: Can Anything Emerge from Nothing?) I bought it at once and looked forward to reading it and, in due course, reviewing it. Unfortunately, I have to admit defeat, at least for the moment; I've failed to read it.

Deacon's previous book was not light reading, particularly the description of semiotics based on the work of Charles Sanders Peirce. But I found Deacon's account of the differences between the human and animal brains to be illuminating, and I thought his theory of how language co-evolved to be easily learnt by children was important. So I hoped for a lot from his new book, but I was quickly disappointed.

The first book contained lots of factual information. This one, in contrast, has lots of dense verbiage but relatively little that my mind could focus on. After trying and failing, on and off, for a few weeks I decided to see what others had made of it . I went to Deacon's entry in Wikipedia and found there a link to a review by the philosopher Colin McGinn. It appeared in the New York Review of Books on 7 June 2012.

McGinn didn't like the book. For one thing, he said, a lot of Deacon's ideas had already been published by others and this had not been sufficiently acknowledged. This accusation has now led to a lot of discussion on the Internet.

More to the point, for me, was that McGinn found the book all but unreadable, describing Deacon's prose style as abominable. He illustrates this with a couple of quotations and continues:

Five hundred pages of this rebarbative word-spinning are enough to daunt even the most determined reader (it certainly ruined my vacation break). I am professionally accustomed to reading long unreadable books, but this is by far the most unreadable book I have ever encountered. It is obviously completely unsuitable for the interested general reader, for whom one assumes the book is primarily intended..

Having read this, I feel a bit better about my failure to make headway with the book. I haven't totally given up, and I shall probably dip into it from time to time and read some sections.

The discussions of homuncular fallacies, computational models of cognition, information theory, and the notions of physical and mental work contain some solid (if familiar) points. A very dedicated reader might be able to extract some useful ideas from the dense and impenetrable prose.

Unlike McGinn, I'm not professionally required to read unreadable books. I read for pleasure - I'm 'the interested general reader' - and my reviews are mostly written for similar people. I don't think it is right to review anything I haven't managed to finish, so it's unlikely that a review of Incomplete Nature will appear here any time soon. I'm grateful to McGinn for preventing me from feeling guilty about it.


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