Apes, words and people
Many years ago a friend of mine said, in response to my biblical challenge to his theistic evolutionary ideas, ‘If God didn’t evolve us from apes, why did He make us to look so much like them?’ I didn’t have an answer!
My answer these days is that God wanted to keep us humble by continually reminding us that we are created beings. As it is, fallen man’s dominion over the creation has been characterized by arrogance, exploitation and, in some cases, cruelty. Imagine how much worse it might have been if there had been no mammals on earth, no warm-blooded furry creatures to remind us of ourselves. If life consisted only of reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants and microbes, man would differ so much from all other creatures that he would no doubt have fallen even more easily into the trap of being a ‘god’ unto himself.
Despite all the hype surrounding the genetic similarity between man and other creatures, everybody knows that we are different. Very different. But how different?
Martin Nowak, formerly Professor of Mathematical Biology at Oxford University and now Head of the Program in Theoretical Biology at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, says that human language is ‘perhaps the most interesting trait that has emerged in the past 500 million years’.1
This is evolution-speak for the most important event since the origin of multicellular life. The outstanding thing about man, according to Professor Nowak, is language.
All animals communicate. Birds sing, dogs bark, bees waggle (‘dance’), chimpanzees make facial expressions and screeching noises. Even ants—as they pass each other, they briefly touch and communicate information about food sources and nest activities. But only humans have syntactic language.
Syntactic language is the ability to use symbols in unlimited combinations. All communication is symbolic—a sound or a signal is mentally associated with a particular meaning. A dog can bark a welcome to his master or a warning to an intruder. Apes can be taught to use signs as symbols, but in general will use just one symbol for one concept.
They might be able to string a few symbols together, but the one-symbol/one-concept restriction remains, and the order of the symbols will have no special significance. But humans can take an alphabet of 26 letters (in the case of the English language) and construct from it an infinite variety of expressions, from epic novels like War and Peace to multi-volume encyclopedias of knowledge. And not only do the symbols convey special meanings, but their order in the sequence does also. An ape might use one symbol to indicate a flower, but a human can write a library of books on the subject and still not exhaust the possibilities.
Now creationists can immediately identify the purpose behind human language: God gave us language so that we could communicate with Him and each other. But how do evolutionists explain the origin of language? The short answer is, ‘They can’t.’
The ‘paradox of language acquisition’2 goes like this: from babyhood, children learn their native language by hearing their parents use it, yet no-one teaches the young child the rules of the language, because in most cases the parents don’t even know the rules—they just use the language like their parents used it. One proposed solution to this paradox is that the child learns the rules of the language by trial-and-error matching of what is heard against a restricted set of candidate grammars that are built into them at birth. This built-in set of candidate grammars is called ‘universal grammar’.
Evolutionists don’t like the idea of a built-in universal grammar because it smacks of design, but the evidence does not appear to allow them any alternative explanation. The number of candidate grammars contained in the universal grammar must exceed the 6,000 known human languages, but it cannot be infinite. (This includes sign languages, which deaf people process in the same areas of the brain as hearing people use for spoken language.3 This is further support for built-in universal grammar, and it indicates that universal grammar doesn’t even depend on sound.)
If there were an infinite number of candidate grammars to choose from, the child would never be able to identify the correct one. This is because language changes with time and there is never a perfect match between what is heard and the ‘ideal’ version that is built in. As it is, however, the process is unerringly accurate—all children in a single-speech community grow up to speak the same language (unless they are physically impaired of course). This means that they must all have within them the same template for that particular language.4
How could such a system evolve by mutation and natural selection? Here is how Nowak and friends tried to explain it.
First, we should note that ‘language is not the property of an individual, but … of a population’.5 Everyone has to have it, or it doesn’t work. It is not enough for just one person to have thousands of candidate grammars built-in, with a particular language ‘on tap’, there must be a whole community of such people!
So they begin their evolutionary scenario with, ‘There is a population of individuals. Each individual uses a particular language’.3 They begin with everyone already being able to speak a particular language! They then suggest a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario to decide which particular language ends up with the most users.
Their evolutionary explanation of the universal grammar begins in a similar way: ‘Imagine a population of individuals using [a number of different] universal grammars’, and then they proceed with another ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario to see which one wins.3
So, to explain universal grammar, you have to begin with universal grammar. To explain different kinds of languages, you have to begin with different kinds of languages. To explain how a community can communicate using language, you have to begin with a community that can communicate with language. This is not just a circular argument but a completely interlocking and mutually interdependent complex of circular arguments!
Emeritus Professor Luigi Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford University recently wrote a book on his life’s work on the relationship between human genetics, geography and language.6 He is described in the book as ‘the world’s leading expert on human population genetics … who for the last fifty-five years has been developing ingenious methods for understanding the history of everybody … about the way our species has evolved and spread, leading to different races, cultures and languages’.
Cavalli-Sforza agrees with Nowak that language is the major characteristic distinguishing us from the apes.7 ‘Children are born with the propensity and ability to learn a language … it requires a precise anatomical and neurological foundation’, which apes don’t have, and which Cavalli-Sforza believes was present in our earliest ancestors.8
Problems for evolution
If language had evolved in a step-wise Darwinian manner, we would expect some to be ‘primitive’ and some to be ‘advanced’, but he acknowledges that there are no ‘primitive’ languages. All contemporary humans use very complex languages; the grammar and syntax of some ‘primitive’ peoples are in fact richer and more precise than the more ‘evolved’ languages like English and Spanish.7
All known languages can be grouped into about 17 language families. ‘But linguists have had trouble reconstructing relationships above the [language] family level’,9 ‘most modern classifications stop at the level of families’,10 and some linguists have completely ruled out the possibility of a hierarchical classification above the family level.11 Why? ‘If we want to stay on absolutely firm ground [and why wouldn’t we?], the situation is worse than simply lacking a reliable tree to link all modern languages: it is not even certain that all languages share a common origin. Most linguists consider both problems insoluble.’12
So the experts agree that there is no evolutionary explanation for the origin of language? Well, no they don’t! I have quoted to you in their own words the missing evidence, yet neither author accepts the conclusion that it leads to. Unfortunately, countless readers will uncritically read these authors and be led to believe that scientists have explained the evolutionary origin of human language!
Meanwhile, in the real world, not only does the ‘enormous complexity’3 of human language confound evolutionists’ attempts at explanation, the timescale is stunningly recent.
Cavalli-Sforza says, ‘Most language families appear to have developed during a brief period between 6,000 and 25,000 years ago’.13 This is impossibly recent in evolutionary terms. According to these evolutionists, language separates us from the apes; it was present in our earliest human ancestors, and our nearest common ancestor with the apes lived about 5 million years ago.3 So where has this 99.5–99.9% of language history disappeared to? Creationists would say, of course, that it never existed!
If we revise Cavalli-Sforza’s 6,000 to 25,000 years to account for evolutionary time dilation then we come to, in Biblical terms, post-Flood times, which fits well with the timescale of the Tower of Babel. And the ‘brief period’ fits well with the idea that God confounded the language of the people at Babel in order to disperse them throughout the world (Genesis 11:1–9).
In short, evolutionists have not even been able to properly address, let alone explain, the question of the origin of language. It is far too complex. They must begin with language, and not just in one person but in a whole community at the same time. And not just one language but thousands of languages, and not acquired, but built-in—not slowly over millions of years, but in ‘a brief period’ just a few thousand years ago.
Nor does the ancestor-descendant sequence go back to one original language; it stops at ‘about 17’ language families. There is no sign here of the slow and gradual, simple-to-complex, ancestor-descendant Darwinian pattern. The correspondence with the Biblical picture of recent creation, and then human dispersal at Babel, is extraordinary.14
Evolutionists cannot get to first base in explaining the origin of language, yet human communication goes a long way beyond just language, as illustrated in the following story related by neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks.1
All of the Aphasia Ward had been eager to hear the President’s address to the nation. All eyes were on the television. There he was, the charmer, the performer, with his practised rhetoric, his theatrics, his emotional appeal. And all the patients were convulsed with laughter. Why? Were they failing to understand him? Or did they understand him all too well?
Natural speech does not consist of words alone, but of utterance—an uttering forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being. The language portion of this utterance is processed in the left side of the brain, and the non-verbal portion of the utterance is processed in the right side of the brain. If the left brain is damaged, ‘aphasia’ can result—where the language content of utterance is destroyed and only the non-verbal is perceived.2 To compensate for this loss, people with aphasia often develop extraordinarily enhanced powers of interpreting the non-verbals, sometimes to the extent that people close to them are not always aware that they suffer any defect at all.
What they perceived in the President’s address was glaring incongruities and improprieties in facial expression and tone of voice; so much so that it made them laugh. You see, it is impossible to lie to such an aphasic. Lies are always couched in words, but aphasics cannot understand the words. They hear the sound and understand its feeling and tone but not its meaning, and they read the face and body language. It seems they understood the President all too well!
But there was one lady in the ward who suffered from the opposite problem. She had right brain damage and was oblivious to the non-verbals. For her the only utterance came in the words. To compensate for her loss, she had developed an extraordinary ability to wring every drop of meaning from the words alone. She did not laugh. She was incensed. ‘He is not cogent’, she said, ‘He does not speak good prose. His word use is improper. Either he is brain damaged or he has something to conceal.’ Perhaps she also understood the President all too well.
Dr Sacks concluded the story with the observation that it is only we ‘normals’ who are so prone to verbal deception. We communicate so easily that we forget how enormously complex the process is and therefore how accessible it is to misuse.
References and notes
- Sacks, O., The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Picador, London, Ch. 9, 1986.
- Sometimes aphasia is only partial, not complete.
References and notes
- Nowak, M.A., Komarova, N.L. and Niyogi P., Computational and evolutionary aspects of language, Nature 417(6889):611–617, 2002. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 614. Return to text.
- Hickock, G. et al., Sign language in the brain, Scientific American 284(6):42–49, 2001. Return to text.
- The ‘window of opportunity’ for learning syntax by imitation gradually closes by age 7, which is why children can learn 2–3 languages at once with ease, but adults have far more problems learning a foreign language. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 616. Return to text.
- Cavalli-Sforza L.L., Genes, Peoples and Languages, Penguin Books, London, 2001. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 59. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 174. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 134. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 139. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 138. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 142. Return to text.
- Ref. 6, p. 145. Return to text.
- See also Wieland, C., Towering change, Creation 22(1):22–26, 2000. Return to text.