Professor Deacon's research has combined human evolutionary biology and neuroscience, with the aim of investigating the evolution of human cognition. His work extends from laboratory-based cellular-molecular neurobiology to the study of semiotic processes underlying animal and human communication, especially language. Many of these interests are explored in his 1997 book, The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain.
His neurobiological research is focused on determining the nature of the human divergence from typical primate brain anatomy, the cellular-molecular mechanisms producing this difference, and the correlations between these anatomical differences and special human cognitive abilities, particularly language. In pursuit of these questions he has used a variety of laboratory approaches including the tracing of axonal connections, quantitative analysis of regions of different species brains, and cross-species fetal neural transplantation. The goal is to identify elements of the developmental genetic mechanisms that distinguish human brains from other ape brains, to aid the study of the cognitive consequences of human brain evolution.
His theoretical interests include the study of evolution-like processes at many levels, including their role in embryonic development, neural signal processing, language change, and social processes, and how these different processes interact and depend on each other. Currently, his theoretical interests have focused on the problem of explaining emergent phenomena, such as characterize such apparently unprecedented transitions as the origin of life, the evolution of language, and the generation of conscious experience by brains. This is fueled by a career-long interest in the ideas of the late 19th-century American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce and his theory of semiosis. His new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, explores the relationship between thermodynamic, self-organizing, evolutionary and semiotic processes and provides a new technical conception of information that explains both its representational and normative properties.
FIGURES: Left: Changes in proportions of cerebral cortical areas that are most directly linked to peripheral sensory and motor systems that have resulted from human brain expansion, in percent of prediction for a typical ape brain extrapolated to human proportions (from The Symbolic Species). Center: A section through a dolphin brain stained to show neuron cell bodies. Deacon's lab has an extensive collection of mammal brains including dolphins and whales. Right: Image showing the relative size differences between mouse, monkey, and human brains. Whale brains (not shown) can be 4 or 5 times larger than human brains.
Selected recent papers/chapters
Deacon, T. (2011) The symbol concept. In M. Tallerman and K. Gibson (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution. Oxford University Press.
Deacon T., Haag, J. and Ogilvy, J. (2011) The emergence of Self. In J. Wentzel van Huyssteen and Erik P. Wiebe (eds) In Search of Self: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Personhood, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
Deacon, T. (2010) A role for relaxed selection in the evolution of the language capacity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107: 9000-9006.
Deacon, T. (2010) What’s missing from theories of information? In Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen (Eds.) Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 146-169.
Deacon, T. and Cashman, T. (2009) The role of symbolic capacity in the origins of religion. Journal of Religion, Nature & Culture Vol. 3 No. 4, pp. 490-517.
Deacon T. (2009) The evolution of language systems in the human brain. In John Kaas (Ed.) Evolutionary Neuroscience, Academic Press, pp. 897-916.
Deacon, T. (2009) Relaxed selection and the role of epigenesis in the evolution of language. In Mark S Blumberg, John H Freeman, Scott R Robinson (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Development Behavioral Neuroscience, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 730-752.
Deacon, T. (2008) Shannon-Botzmann-Darwin: Redefining information. Part 2. Cognitive Semiotics2: 167-194.
Deacon, T. (2007) Shannon-Botzmann-Darwin: Redefining information. Part 1. Cognitive Semiotics1: 123-148.
Sherman, J. and Deacon, T. (2007) Teleology for the perplexed: how matter began to matter. Zygon 42: 873-901.
Deacon T. (2006) Reciprocal Linkage Between Self-organizing Processes is Sufficient for Self-reproduction and Evolvability. Biological Theory 1(2): 136-149.