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Science vs. Creationism: the Origin of Language

Dr. Fazale Rana of the old-earth creationist Reasons to Believe Ministries, thinks he has found a serious problem for evolutionary theory. Reacting to a PLOS ONE paper written by linguist Noam Chomsky, paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, and others, Rana says:

Whether we speak the same language or not, all human beings possess a common language faculty. We are born with an innate capacity to learn language. This is a defining feature of humanity.

As a Christian, I view our language ability as a manifestation of God’s image in us. The scientific community, on the other hand, largely turns to evolutionary scenarios to account for the emergence of language. Yet, as a recently published essay attests, explaining the origin of language from within the evolutionary paradigm is a struggle.

An astute reader may have already observed that these two explanations are not mutually exclusive. A Christian who is also a scientist can believe our language ability is a manifestation of God's image in us and turn to evolutionary scenarios to account for its emegence.

But that's not the only problem with Rana's analysis. In his summary of the paper, he omits the most important points.

The greatest obstacle to scientific study of the origin of language is defining just exactly what language is.

First, language involves more than mere communication. Animals have developed many ways to communcate with each other, from gorilla chest beating to dog markings to the dance of the honey bee. But none of these can really be considered language.

Additionally, language is distinct from vocalization. Whale songswolf howls, and bird melodies may pass information between individuals, but don't rise to the level of language. On the other hand, most linguists agree that human sign languages used by hearing-impaired people are just as complex as spoken languages.

Communication is a vital part of language, but languages have many additional characteristics. Languages are open-ended: Sounds can be combined to make words; the same sounds may yield two different meanings due to sound grouping, stress, or pitch. Different languages may assign different meanings to the same sounds.

Words or symbols are organized into a grammar, with word endings or word order supplying additional meaning. Words may be assigned to grammatical categories such as noun or verb; these categories may in time be broken down (such as when nouns are verbed). New words or symbols can be added to the language as they are needed.

A single word may have multiple meanings, with the context determining which is appropriate. Conversely, a language may have multiple ways to express the same meaning.

That last feature points us toward the biggest differences between human language and animal communication. A language lets us move beyond communication to express symbolic thought, to express creativity, to consider hypotheticals, to ponder what it all means.

No form of animal communication qualifies as language (though prairie dog yips come surprisingly close). So how did humans become endowed with this ability?

Lingiustics can't answer that question, nor can paleontology, but perhaps archaeology can. If language involves the ability to think symbolically, then perhaps if we could find artifacts relating to symbolic thought, we might better understand how language evolved. The authors of the PLOS ONE paper attempt to make the connection:

Such objects began to be made only substantially after the appearance, around 200,000 years ago, of anatomically recognizable H. sapiens, also in Africa. To be sure, this inference from the symbolic record, like much else in paleontology, rests on evidence that is necessarily quite indirect. Nevertheless, the conclusion lines up with what is known from genomics.

In evolutionary context, things developed rapidly from there.

Then, within a remarkably short space of time, art was invented, cities were born, and people had reached the moon. By this reckoning, the language faculty is an extremely recent acquisition in our lineage, and it was acquired not in the context of slow, gradual modification of preexisting systems under natural selection but in a single, rapid, emergent event that built upon those prior systems but was not predicted by them.

Chomsky and his co-authors also note:

Finally, there has been no detectable evolution of the language faculty since it emerged, with no known group differences. This is another signature of relatively recent and rapid origin. For reasons like these, the relatively sudden origin of language poses difficulties that may be called “Darwin's problem.”

All of this is summarized by Rana. He concludes his quotation with the words "Darwin's problem," which lead nicely into his conclusion that creationism is superior to evolution.

Rana apparently failed to notice that the paper had two more sections following, in which Chomsky and colleagues actually proposed a solution to Darwin's problem, centered in Chomsky's Strong Minimalist Thesis. Noting that all the anatomical necessities were in place in earlier hominids, Chomsky proposes:

The only thing lacking for language would be merge, some specific way to externalize the internal computations and, importantly, the “atomic conceptual elements” that we have identified with words.

Chomsky defines different types of merge, but essentially they all involve the ability to take two distinct symbols and combine them into a unit. This unit can then be combined with another symbol to form a new unit. This, according to Chomsky, is how grammars are built. Chomsky concludes:

Evolutionary analysis can thus be focused on this quite narrowly defined phenotypic property, merge itself, as the chief bridge between the ancestral and modern states for language. Since this change is relatively minor, it accords with what we know about the apparent rapidity of language's emergence.

A change like this would be very hard to observe in the archaeological record, especially since we can only observe the effects of such a change. As such, we can't claim at this time to have a scientific explanation for the origin of language.

But that shouldn't give any comfort to Fazale Rana and other creationists. I'll explain why in my next post.

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