What was this evolutionist thinking when he proposed that human language evolved out of the lip smacking and buzzing sounds made by monkeys?
W. Tecumseh Fitch didn’t get any ridicule at all on Science Daily for proposing that “Monkey Lip Smacks Provide New Insights Into the Evolution of Human Speech.” Nor did he from PhysOrg, which dutifully reprinted the press release from University of Vienna that stated, “Intriguingly, chimpanzees also make communicative sounds with their lips, including both loud lip smacks and lip buzzes (‘raspberries’).” The monkey on Fitch’s shoulder in the accompanying photo appears to be knocking on his master’s head, wondering, “Anybody home?”
Fitch’s theory is not a hoot, the press release assures us. “Scientists have traditionally sought the evolutionary origins of human speech in primate vocalizations, such as monkey coos or chimpanzee hoots,” the article stated without describing whose tradition deserved respect. “But unlike these primate calls, human speech is produced using rapid, controlled movements of the tongue, lips and jaw.” Fitch did his grunt work using cineradiography to analyze the lip-smacking behavior of macaques. He found that the lips move faster than they do when monkeys howl. He did not explain, though, how non-vocal lip movements could be a precursor of language, since monkeys are still smacking and buzzing raspberries without having evolved more advanced oratory, despite having millions of years more time to evolve than their upright primate brethren presumably had. Didn’t they at least evolve envy?
In his paper published by Current Biology (31 May 2012, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.04.055) with three colleagues, Fitch recognized his hunch has some missing links:
Yet, there are striking differences between the two modes of expression, the most obvious of which is that lip-smacking lacks a vocal component (though a quiet consonant-like bilabial plosive or /p/ sound is produced when the lips smack together). Thus, the capacity to produce vocalizations during rhythmic vocal tract movements seen in speech seems to be a human adaptation. How can lip-smacking be related to speech if there is no vocal component? … Our data only address the evolution of vocal tract movements (the filter component) involved in speech production.
It also cannot be tested:
Because most traits involved in speech—the vocal production apparatus and the brain—do not fossilize, we are left with only the comparative method for investigating the evolution of speech. By comparing the behavior and biology of extant primates with humans, we can deduce the behavioral capacities of extinct common ancestors.
The press release agreed, ending, “the origin of the ‘singing’ component of speech, which requires voluntary control over the larynx, remains mysterious.” Much more mysterious, yet unstated, would be how to evolve Shakespeare from lip-smacking.
Update 6/7/2012: Nature reported on Fitch’s hypothesis, giving it no raspberries but a serving of whipped cream.
Fitch did not do his job as a scientist. He should have considered all the alternative hypotheses. As usual, he ruled out intelligent design or creation from the get-go, but there are other evolutionary theories he could have tested without abandoning the Cult of the Bearded Buddha that requires all observations to be fit into the Grand Myth.
He could have, for instance, tested the Raspberry Theory of Language that proposes language evolved from the other end of the digestive tract, another body part that produces buzzing sounds. Over millions of years, it is just as imaginable that an unguided process would give monkeys voluntary control over the pitch, duration and modulation of emitted signals, independent of the larynx. Another theory is the Hand-Under-the-Armpit Theory of Language. This proposes that meaningful signals (also independently of the larynx) made by pumping the arm over the hand inserted into the armpit evolved into middle-school boys communicating with one another.
Perhaps it’s good Fitch didn’t consider these alternatives. We wouldn’t want to find his cineradiography going viral on YouTube.
Fitch’s shallow reasoning is evident in that he completely ignored meaning (semantics). Meaning is orthogonal to signal. It’s conceivable that certain ordered lip-smacks or raspberries could be controlled to communicate S.O.S. The meaning of S.O.S., however, has nothing to do with the signalling method. The message could be communicated with flashlights, telegraph, knots on a rope, skywriting, eye blinks or any number of methods. Suggesting that lip smacking led to language is like saying that flashlights created Morse Code.
Fitch’s hypothesis is also self-refuting. The language he employed in his paper, if considered seriously, has its roots in unguided processes of lip-smacking and the production of buzzing sounds by his ancestors’ lips. His readers are justified, therefore, by responding in kind.
Save this latest evolutionary tale for the day of Darwinism’s spectacular collapse, when intelligent people will hoot and holler at the credulity of Darwinists. They may well communicate their disdain independent of the larynx, by rolling their eyes and circling their index fingers around their ear, unquestionably employing intelligent design to convey the purpose of their bodily signals.