April 16, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionary Language Lingo Contradictory

Human language is such a unique feature of our species, it would seem to defy evolutionary explanations.  Can evolutionists take this living phenomenon and fit it into a historical narrative?  A couple of papers in leading journals attempted to do so.  Are their conclusions the only ones that can be drawn from the evidence?
    In Science,1 Quentin D. Atkinson [U of Auckland] argued that language began in southern and central Africa.  He counted phonemes (individual sound elements) in over 500 languages and believes he detected decreasing diversity with distance, supporting his contention that language was born in Africa and spread from there.  The “founder effect” in evolutionary theory asserts that diversity decreases with distance from a center of innovation.  Charting phenomic diversity this way requires dealing with potential mixers like population size and density, cultural stability, migration habits, and other things; Atkinson believes he controlled for these factors and the clinal trend persisted.  Whether he controlled for all possible demographic variables is not clear.
    Atkinson believes his phoneme evidence correlates with genetic and phenotypic evidence of declining diversity with distance from Africa, but he did not explain how language originated; it was just some kind of “innovation,” he suggested.  “Truly modern language, akin to languages spoken today, may thus have been the key cultural innovation that allowed the emergence of these and other hallmarks of behavioral modernity and ultimately led to our colonization of the globe,” he said, without explaining what combination of mutations led to this innovation.
    In a study of a different kind in Nature,2 Dunn, Greenhill, Levinson and Gray feel they have debunked the idea of “language universals” long promoted by Noam Chomsky.  This is the idea the human babies have innate parameters that steer them toward the adoption of a language, and that these universals constrain language diversity.  J. H. Greenberg had also taught that universal biases in human development lead toward common features of language.  Instead, Dunn et al showed that language characteristics are lineage specific, not universal, at least in regard to word order.
    The papers were reported optimistically by Science Daily and the BBC News.  Ferris Jabr in New Scientist used a Genesis meme to quip that “Evolutionary Babel was in southern Africa.”  Jabr did provide some skeptical counterpoint: “Most linguists do not think it’s possible to trace linguistic history past 10,000 years,” Merritt Ruhlen of Stanford University, California was quoted as saying.  “There is a lot of anger and tension surrounding that kind of analysis.
    Even taken at face value, though, the two papers appear at odds.  One suggests a universal common origin of language from a single spreading center; the other suggests independent lineages.  A wider question is whether such historical questions are tractable by science without access to the speaking habits of alleged hominid ancestors who, according to evolutionary thinking, first began tying grunts to thoughts, beliefs and concepts.
    The editors of Nature recognized some distasteful ramifications of the paper by Dunn et al..  Extrapolating the new disjunct theory of language evolution into a wider philosophical issue that affects all of science, they said:

Since at least the days of Aristotle, a search for universal principles has characterized the scientific enterprise.  In some ways, this quest for commonalities defines science: without it, there is no underlying order and pattern, merely as many explanations as there are things in the world.  Newton’s laws of motion, the oxygen theory of combustion and Darwinian evolution each bind a host of different phenomena into a single explicatory framework….
  This tendency in the natural sciences has long been evident in the social sciences too.  Here, Darwinism seems to offer justification, for if all humans share common origins, it seems reasonable to suppose that cultural diversity could also be traced to more constrained beginnings….
    That, at least, is the hope.  But a comparative study of linguistic traits published online today … supplies a reality check.….
    “The conclusion?  We should perhaps learn the lesson of Darwinism: a ‘universal’ mechanism of adaptation says little in itself about how a particular feature got to be the way it is, or about how it works.  This truth has dawned on physicists too: universal equations are all very well, but the world actually consists of particular solutions, and these are generally the result of contingent history.  One size does not always fit all.

It would seem that this “lesson of Darwinism” could undermine Darwinism itself.  If Darwinism cannot explain how a “particular feature got to be the way it is, or about how it works,” what is it explaining at all?  Darwin was attempting to propose a universal cause, a “one size fits all” natural law for biology: the law of natural selection.  If, as the editors said, “the word actually consists of particular solutions” in a “contingent history”, claims to universality have been lost within Darwinism itself – including claims about the evolution of language. 


1.  Quentin D. Atkinson, “Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa,” Science, 15 April 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6027 pp. 346-349, DOI: 10.1126/science.1199295.
2.  Dunn, Greenhill, Levinson and Gray, “Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals,” Nature published online 13 April 2011, doi:10.1038/nature09923.
3.  Editorial, “Universal truths,” Nature 472 (14 April 2011), p. 136, doi:10.1038/472136a.

Notice how Nature’s editors used the phrase “this truth”.  Ask them Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”  Truth is a concept, expressed in language, that is not reducible to particles and forces.  It certainly would not be an expected outcome of an evolutionary process, whose end product is survival.  A good lie that leads to survival would be favored equally with any that happened to correspond with reality.  [Got truth?  Try The Truth Project.]
    Studies like these are unlikely to come up with any conclusions immune to future falsification.  As such, they are just games being played by members of the scientific establishment.  To fortify this charge, remember that evolutionists believe mutations led to the “innovation” or “emergence” of this complex ability (02/18/2009) – an ability rooted in the conceptual realm, a unique ability that separates human beings from animals: language.  The human body is ideally designed to speak (vocal chords, airways, mouth, tongue, ears, brain), and the human mind is able to use the hardware to convey abstract concepts (many with no survival value) in sentences with syntax and semantics.  Evolve that, Charlie (02/21/2008).
    Alfred Russell Wallace denied that the evolutionary theory he “co-discovered” with Darwin could account for language and the other traits that so clearly separate humans from animals:

The special faculties we have been discussing clearly point to the existence in man of something which he has not derived from his animal progenitors–something which we may best refer to as being of a spiritual essence or nature, capable of progressive development under favourable conditions.  On the hypothesis of this spiritual nature, superadded to the animal nature of man, we are able to understand much that is otherwise mysterious or unintelligible in regard to him, especially the enormous influence of ideas, principles, and beliefs over his whole life and actions.  Thus alone we can understand the constancy of the martyr, the unselfishness of the philanthropist, the devotion of the patriot, the enthusiasm of the artist, and the resolute and persevering search of the scientific worker after nature’s secrets.  Thus we may perceive that the love of truth, the delight in beauty, the passion for justice, and the thrill of exultation with which we hear of any act of courageous self-sacrifice, are the workings within us of a higher nature which has not been developed by means of the struggle for material existence.

Source: Western Kentucky University; see also Michael Flannery, Alfred Russell Wallace, A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute, 2011), appendix B, pp. 138-139.
    To fit these beliefs into his belief in common ancestry of humans with lower life forms, Wallace had to interject a creation event into the human line.  Why not save a step and start with creation?  Either way, he has undermined any evolutionary explanation for mankind’s special faculties, including language.  Take that, Charlie.

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