April 15, 2022 | Jerry Bergman

Did Humans Get Language by Mistake?

The Origin of Language Sill Baffles Evolutionists.
The Newest Theory: It was a Really Lucky Accident!

 

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

Charles Darwin naïvely proposed that human language evolved from animal grunts by a Lamarckian process: “As the voice was used more and more, the vocal organs would have been strengthened and perfected through the principle of the inherited effects of use.”[1]

Ed. note: Lamarckism was the theory of “use and disuse” that Darwin was trying to replace with his idea of natural selection in his first book, The Origin of Species. Twelve years later in his second book, The Descent of Man, he had been finding Lamarckian ideas increasingly useful.

The latest theory for the origin of human language appeared 26 March 2022 in a headline in New Scientist magazine which announced, “How Humans Learned to Speak: The accidental origins of our greatest innovation.” The authors correctly observed that

in daily life, we rarely give language a second thought – never mind its many perplexing mysteries. How can noises convey meaning? Where do the complex layers of linguistic patterns come from? How come children learn language so easily, whereas chimpanzees can scarcely learn it at all? We believe these questions have remained unanswered because scientists have been looking at language all wrong.[2]

The authors claim that new research “undermines prevailing ideas that humans possess an innate language ability somehow wired into our brains, encoding grammatical rules.”[3] They

argue that language isn’t about rules at all … it is about improvisation, freedom and the desire to be understood, constrained only by our imaginations. This radical idea helps to explain those long-standing mysteries about language – as well as how language evolved and why it makes humans special.[4]

As the authors note, chimpanzees are scarcely able to learn language. They can improvise; they have much freedom to vocalize, and appear to have a desire to be understood. They are not constrained only by their imaginations; so why did they not learn to use language and we humans did? The authors reject theories such as the following, which have been the most widely accepted theories of language origins.

For generations, scientists have sought to understand how the rules of language derive from biology. The founding figure in modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, has long argued that language is governed by a “universal grammar” somehow built into our genes and brains, with specific grammars of individual languages as variations on this universal blueprint. More recently, psychologist Steven Pinker at Harvard University proposed that humans have an evolved language instinct, created by natural selection.[5]

In other words, they imply that the ability to use language is not built into our genes, nor is it derived from a biology-based universal grammar. And it did not evolve by natural selection, as evolutionists have widely believed for decades.

Rejection of the Evolution of Language

Actually, the authors, Cornell Professor Morten Christiansen and behavioral scientist Nick Chater, have many very good motivations to attempt to come up with a new explanation for the evolution of language. The reasons include the fact that the “origin of human language is regarded by some as the hardest problem in science” and consequently the “origin of human language has thus provided fertile ground for speculation.”[6]

The Rationale for the New Theory

Their rationale includes a proposition that languages change much faster than our brains are able to evolve. It took around 3000 years for languages as diverse as Danish, Hindi, Polish, and Waziri to evolve from a common proto-Indo-European origin. In contrast, the selectionists in the Darwin camp believe that human evolution required hundreds of thousands of years. Christiansen and Chater remind their readers that “evolution has no foresight, so couldn’t have adapted our early ancestors in Africa to deal with the subsequent spectacular diversity of the world’s languages.”[7] Instead, they note that

biological evolution adapts organisms to their local environment, such as shown by Charles Darwin’s studies of Galapagos finches, which revealed that the birds had evolved into different species with beak variations each exquisitely adapted to crack nuts, eat cactus fruits or catch insects. If language evolved through biological adaptation, we would expect distinct adaptations of innate grammars to the different local linguistic environments.[8]

But “distantly related populations show no signs of having brains adapted to their particular language. All … immigrant children easily learn the language of their new home.”[9] They conclude that these are compelling arguments against the traditional theories of the evolution of language. But if the main source of language was not biology, then how did humans acquire language? They propose that the answer is culture; language evolution, therefore, becomes a consequence of cultural evolution. And that requires a major rethink of how language evolves.

The two argue that the world’s 7,151 known living languages[10] are the result of countless repetitions of language which are all influenced by culture. They do admit that biology still plays some role, if a minor one,[11] but ignore a major problem for language origins: that being, culture may fine tune human language, but the heart of language is biology. Apes cannot use language as can humans because they do not have the necessary biological structures. Neither do bees, dogs, dolphins, whales, and birds, although they all can, in a very limited way, effectively vocalize to communicate.

Culture is very important in shaping the details of a particular person’s language, but biology must be at the heart of language production. The presence of organs that enable language is the primary reason why only humans have language. A typical English speaker produces around 10 to 15 speech sounds per second, or about 150 words per minute.[12]

Children learn language very rapidly as if this ability is built in. A 6-year-old middle-class American child typically has a recognition vocabulary of close to 8,000 root words, and about 14,000 words total. Most of these words were learned in the child’s previous four years at an amazing rate of five or six roots daily! As an adult, the average American may have an over 150,000-word vocabulary, some educated adults much larger than this.[13] Culture influences this, but the innate capacity to learn and store this many words, and correctly voice them, is biological in nature. As Christiansen and Chater admit, “There is no doubt, for example, that particular regions of the human brain are especially involved in language, and that the nature of our vocal tract is crucial for allowing us to articulate words.”[14] Language requires biology.

Some of the major language areas. From Wikimedia Commons.

Biology Required for Speech

The main structures required to verbalize language include the articulators: the tongue, the upper and lower lips, the upper and lower teeth, the upper gum ridge (alveolar ridge), the hard palate, the velum (the soft palate), the uvula (free-hanging end of the soft palate), the jaw and its muscles, the glottis (space between the vocal cords) and the pharyngeal wall.

Other required organs include the nasal and oral cavities, the lungs, epiglottis, the hyoid bone, the vocal folds (vocal chords), larynx (popularly called the Adam’s apple), and the nervous system.

Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area deal with speech and language comprehension. From Wikimedia Commons.

Most importantly, language depends on specific structures in the brain—especially Broca’s area found in the left inferior frontal gyrus and Wernicke’s area, both which deal with speech and language comprehension (see diagram, left).

Christiansen and Chater explain that “The debate continues over whether language originated in gestures or sounds.” They then present their theory, namely that the beginning of human language was likely from many sources for the reason that early communicators would have probably have used as many ways as possible to communicate. The result would be a progressive cycle:

the ability to use an ever-growing set of clues would have increased social complexity, favoring people with bigger brains, which in turn would enable even more advanced charades playing, selecting for the evolution of still bigger brains, and so on. How humans got into this cycle isn’t known. It is even possible that language was a side effect of having evolved bigger brains for another reason. What seems clear, however, is that our nearest primate cousins, the great apes, didn’t join us. They aren’t able to play charades because they lack many of the underlying skills on which it piggybacks. This helps explain why language is unique to humans.[15]

Summary

The new “accidental” theory does not explain the origin of speech, but actually detracts from the enormous problems inherent in evolutionary theories about language. Appealing to cultural accidents emphasizes the fact that evolutionists do not have a clue about how speech could possibly have evolved. A few quotes cited from eminent experts illustrate this situation.

Language is our greatest invention. Without it, our other spectacular achievements would be inconceivable … The emergence of language has been described as one of seven major transitions in evolution. It changes everything. It allows humans to pass on knowledge and skills to future generations, rather than being condemned to relearn them afresh in each generation. It allows us to create the complex webs of agreements that underpin our social interactions and groups, as well as creating moral and religious norms to help us coordinate our actions with others. Without language, there could be no legal system, no organized trade or finance, no politics and no cumulative science or technology.[16]

We agree with Számadó and Szathmáry, who wrote that

The recent blossoming of evolutionary linguistics has resulted in a variety of theories that attempt to provide a selective scenario for the evolution of early language. However, their overabundance makes many researchers skeptical of such theorizing … despite justified skepticism, there is [even] no agreement as to the criteria that should be used to determine the validity of the various competing theories.[17]

The authors then attempt to provide yet another framework for thinking about the evolution of human language, yet conclude that explaining “the evolution of human language is likely to remain a challenge for the coming decade.”[18] In short, the new theory helps explain local language adaptations, but not the complex biological basis of language.

References

[1] Darwin, Charles. 1871. The Descent of Man. London, UK: John Murray, p. 57.

[2] Christiansen, Morten H., and Nick Chater. 2022. “Playing with words.” New Scientist 253(3379):38-41, March 26, p. 38.

[3] Christiansen and Chater, p. 38.

[4] Christiansen and Chater, p. 38.

[5] Christiansen and Chater, 2022, p. 38.

[6] Számadó, Szabolcs, and Eörs Szathmáry. 2006. “Selective scenarios for the emergence of natural language.” ScienceDirect (Trends in Ecology & Evolution) 21(10):555-561, October, p. 555.

[7] Christiansen and Chater, 2022, p. 38.

[8] Christiansen and Chater, 2022, p. 38.

[9] Christiansen and Chater, 2022, p. 38.

[10] Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 2022. https://www.ethnologue.com.

[11] Christiansen and Chater, 2022, p. 39.

[12] Studdert-Kennedy, Michael. 1985. Some Developments in Research on Language Behavior. New Haven, CT: Haskins Laboratories, p. 105. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED270831.pdf#page=105

[13] Studdert-Kennedy, 1985, p. 105.

[14] Christiansen and Chater, p. 39.

[15] Christiansen and Chater, 2022, p. 41. Emphasis added.

[16] Christiansen and Chater, 2022, p. 41.

[17] Számadó and Szathmáry, 2006, P. 555.

[18] Számadó and Szathmáry, 2006, p. 555.


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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Comments

  • tjguy says:

    Great article! Question. In one of the last quotes, I found this:

    “The emergence of language has been described as one of seven major transitions in evolution.”

    Just curious, but what are these “seven major transitions in evolution”?

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