August 14, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionists Struggle to Explain Language

Theories of language evolution don’t rise much higher than ape chest-pounding, monkey screams and imaginative speculations.

It’s another Big Bang Theory. The origin of human language remains just as puzzling today as it was in Darwin’s time. Many stories have come and gone, but they lack scientific rigor. The evidence we have shows that complex, grammatical language is unique to humans, but that hasn’t stopped evolutionists from trying to bridge the gap by conjuring it up from the bottom up (studying ape antics) or the top down (studying humans).

Top Down

Marcus Perlman (U of Wisconsin-Madison) has attracted attention for his new theory that language began by vocalizations and gestures together, rather than by gestures alone. In “Recreating language’s Big Bang through a game of vocal charades,” he describes the problem on The Conversation:

BM-EmperorCharlie-smRoughly 7,000 languages are used around the world, and many thousands more have cycled in and out of existence throughout human history. Where did these languages come from, and how did our ancestors create the very first ones? One basic unanswered question is whether the first languages began as gestures, like modern-day signed languages of the deaf, or as vocalizations, like most extant human languages, which are spoken.

Unfortunately for scientists interested in these questions, languages don’t leave fossils. So instead, experimental psychologists like me try to understand how language evolved by conducting communication studies with modern human beings.

Perlman gathered participants to play a game where they had to use charades to invent new words. He says that the invented words tended toward onomatopoeia, like scratchy sounds to indicate “rough” or quick, high-pitched sounds to indicate tiny. But what about grammar? Here, he leaps forward in his imagination:

Iconic gestures, which can be understood even when communicators lack a common language, can then be molded into a system of signs and grammatical rules that are shared between members of a community. Over time and generations, they can develop into a fully complex and expressive language.

But can studies on fellow humans who already grew up speaking in grammatical syntax reveal anything about the origin of languages? The participants knew they were playing games concocted by the experimenter. At best, Perlman’s idea is heuristic; at worst, purely anecdotal – an outworking of his precommitment to materialistic evolution.  He himself recognizes the limitations of his work, only suggesting that it offers a “glimpse of how language could have evolved” —

But what do these findings say about the bigger question of how the first languages originated? Certainly great caution is warranted in generalizing to the evolution of language from experiments conducted in the laboratory with English-speaking undergraduates or online with Mechanical Turk workers.

But our experiments do show that the human potential to create iconic vocalizations is quite impressive, far exceeding many previous estimates that have influenced scientific theories of language evolution….

Importantly, our claim is not that spoken languages must then have evolved exclusively from vocalizations. Rather, our argument is that there is considerable potential for vocalizations to support the evolution of a spoken symbol system….

Yet even if language has multimodal origins, our study hints at the intriguing possibility that many of the spoken words of modern languages may have long ago been uttered by our ancestors as iconic vocalizations.

His statements rank high on the perhapsimaybecouldness index (PCI). If anything, the empirical evidence he cites supports the conclusion that humans are unique. The equipment for language was already present; therefore, language did not evolve. Nevertheless, Perlman’s theory was picked up semi-enthusiastically by the science media as evidence for evolution, despite its debunking of the gesture-origins theory of language:

  • Spoken language could tap into ‘universal code’ (Catherine Matacic at Science Magazine): “Sotaro Kita, a psycholinguist at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom who was not involved in the study, says the Perlman work is ‘theoretically very important,’ and could ‘knock out’ a common explanation for language evolution: that humans developed gestural language first, and only much later moved on to spoken language. Instead, says Kita, it is much likelier that gestures and spoken language evolved in lockstep.
  • Human language may have started differently than thought (PhysOrg): “These findings, the researchers claim, suggest that it appears more likely that our ancestors used both hand-signals and noises to convey meaning, which over a long period of time, evolved into more complex sounds that came to be associated with common ideas among multiple people.”

It might be predicted from a design perspective that human languages would have commonalities. That, indeed, is what Science Magazine reports: despite their differences, human languages “evolved” to make communication “as efficient as possible.” But is their Genesis reference a Freudian slip?

Have you ever wondered why you say “The boy is playing Frisbee with his dog” instead of “The boy dog his is Frisbee playing with”?  You may be trying to give your brain a break, according to a new study. An analysis of 37 widely varying tongues finds that, despite the apparent great differences among them, they share what might be a universal feature of human language: All of them have evolved to make communication as efficient as possible.

Earth is a veritable Tower of Babel: Up to 7000 languages are still spoken across the globe, belonging to roughly 150 language families. … Yet despite these different ways of structuring sentences, previous studies of a limited number of languages have shown that they tend to limit the distance between words that depend on each other for their meaning. Such “dependency” is key if sentences are to make sense.

So how did that evolve? They don’t say. After the suggestive phrase that languages “have evolved,” the E-word never again appears in the article. Instead, they talk about how existing sentence structures make sense in terms of efficient memory processing. Maybe there was some good sense, not just babble, behind Babel.


At the other end of the gap, evolutionists look at monkeys and apes for clues they are evolving into language speakers.

Marmoset kids actually listen (Science Magazine): In this article, readers can feel the tension the big-bang theory of language creates, along with a wistful longing to smooth it out for Darwin:

Undergraduate linguistics courses typically present language as unique to humans. Chomsky and others have postulated a language organ that evolved in hominids. This idea found modest support in the lack of evidence for vocal production learning (imitating sounds) in nonhuman primates. But did language suddenly emerge in the Homo lineage as a “hopeful monster” who could learn new sounds and meanings? Evidence for vocal learning in nonhuman primates is now emerging, and in hindsight, looking at vocal production learning as the sole evolutionary precursor of language might have been shortsighted.

Trying to bridge the “evolutionary canyon” between apes and humans, authors Margoliash and Tchernichovski discuss a paper by Takahashi et al., that studied vocalization development in marmosets. They found hope in “evidence for a developmental process, rather than its endpoint, which reveals a shared developmental program for animal communication and human language.”  But where did the developmental program come from? Bypassing that conundrum, they think “This indicates an ancestral developmental program that is shared not only between humans and other primates but also across mammals and birds.” Doesn’t that make it worse for evolution? Did the common ancestor of birds and mammals have this? Why not say that dinosaurs and alligators had it? Their discussion, also high on PCI, is heavy on “emergence” because they are determined to explain language in Darwinian terms:

How can we relate these behavioral results to an evolutionary process? Perhaps, just as evolution can be understood as a modification of a developmental program, we could think about vocal learning as a modification of a program for vocal development. The early stages of vocal development are remarkably similar across taxa…. The infant produces highly diverse but loosely structured vocalizations, a cloud of sounds from which distinct clusters gradually emerge. This indicates a transition from a continuous, graded signal to a weakly symbolic vocal performance. Call types then undergo further differentiation and selective attrition. A process for combinatorial capacity emerges.

This comes dangerously close to Haeckel’s “recapitulation” theory if they think the baby is replaying the tape of its evolutionary past. Let’s see if they pursue that: “A single explanation for the complex factors influencing changes in vocal developmental patterns over evolutionary time is unlikely to emerge. However, Takahashi et al.‘s findings point to an ancient substrate for vocal learning that an evolving large hominid brain could take advantage of, thus continuing the evolutionary process that has enabled communication in other animals.”

Not quite recapitulation, but close. They leave the origin of the “evolving large hominid brain” to others.

Gorilla my dreams: “Apes may be closer to speaking than many scientists think,” Science Daily suggests in its headline about Koko the gorilla.  This is another bottom-up approach, looking for language in our supposed nearest of kin. The local expert is, once again, Marcus Perlman. “Koko bridges a gap,” he says. “She shows the potential under the right environmental conditions for apes to develop quite a bit of flexible control over their vocal tract. It’s not as fine as human control, but it is certainly control.”

Bonobo “Baby Talk” Reveals Roots of Human Language (National Geographic). Forever in love with the ape-to-man transition (see also “Nut-Bashing Monkeys Offer Window Into Human Evolution“), NG promotes Neely Ann the Bonobo as a budding philosopher just slightly less precocious than Einstein. Liz Langley channels what Neely Ann is thinking. “As we watch the bonobos, I think I hear a vocalization called peeping—a short, high-pitched sound bonobos make with their mouths closed,” she whispers. “Peeping, which is very similar to the burbling of human infants before they form words, may tell us more about the evolution of human speech.” As Langley left, she missed Neely Ann burbling, “I peep, therefore I am.”

Speaking humans exist. Gorillas exist. Marmosets and bonobos exist. To be empirically rigorous, evidence for bridges between them in the unobservable past hardly rise to the level of anecdote.

Evolutionists use language to destroy it. Did you notice? They are not just peeping and burbling. (On second thought…). They are at least attempting to appeal to abstract concepts that are not reducible to onomatopoeic sounds. “Truth,” for instance, sounds very different between languages on different continents, but refers to the same abstract reality. These evolutionists assume free will, consciousness, thought, morality, and other Christian concepts to undermine them. They use language to destroy it, to rob it of its significance. If all they are doing is peeping and burbling because evolution developed the capacity for vocalizations somehow, then nothing they say makes any sense.

Nancy Pearcey has a new book out, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism and Other God Substitutes. It looks pretty good for pointing out the materialist’s propensity for the self-refuting fallacy. Listen to her on ID the Future explain how materialists freeload from the Christian worldview to espouse their ideas, because they know they cannot derive them from their own assumptions. That applies to their theories of the “evolution of language” as well. “The evolution of language” is itself a self-refuting concept if it has to stand on its own as mere vocalization by material brains and vocal cords. Without logical concepts to which the words refer, the sounds of the words signify nothing. A parakeet can be taught to imitate the sounds. If humans are analogous to parakeets, they are not dealing in matters of truth, logic, or morality.



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  • Jon Saboe says:

    Unless the hardware is compatible, the software can not be installed.

    Which came first — the intelligence to make USE of the language — or the language the drives the intelligence?

    You can try to install human language into chimps and dolphins — but you will fail.

    Even Chomsky knows better — that language can’t emerge naturalistically.

    Not to mention that, the more ancient a language, the more complex it is linguistically. To get a group of people to simultaneously agree on anything — much less, agglutinative case endings — is too much to expect from hisses and grunts.

    Languages devolve — just like life — even thought the changes in language ARE driven by intelligence.

  • doug hulstedt says:

    One thing I have done is supposed that everything up to the tower of Babel is universal human knowledge. One area that deserves mentioning is language origins.
    The most intriguing of websites is a website on language origins. Search edenics and Isaac Moseson. His thesis is that all languages save one have their origin in ancient biblical Hebrew. English for example has at least 22,000 Hebrew/English cognates. I personally sent Moseson the question about Hebrew/Japanese cognates and he sent me back 11 pages of cognates. It is almost as the Bible was telling the truth about the Lord confusing language as opposed to creating new languages. Babel means confusion right?

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