Language as “Darwin’s problem”

Language as “Darwin’s problem” April 16, 2015

Noam Chomsky is not a conservative Christian but is rather a leftwing radical.  But in his day job, he is a pioneering linguist, having shown how all languages depend on “deep structures”–complex grammatical processes that are built into the human mind–that all languages have in common and that children can master almost without effort.

He has teamed with a famous anthropologist, Ian Tattersall, and other scholars (Johan J. Bolhuis and Robert C. Berwick) to pose the question How Could Language Have Evolved? They certainly believe in evolution and they try to find a minimalistic feature that might have evolved, but the article shows that language, with its irreducible complexity (the intelligence design term, not theirs), is very difficult  to explain in terms of random selection over time, to the point that the authors describe language as “Darwin’s problem.”

From Fazale Rana, Reasons To Believe : Darwin’s Problem: The Origin of Language:

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.

According to the essay (the authors of which include well-known anthropologist Ian Tattersall and legendary linguist Noam Chomsky), an improper understanding of what language is—and what it is not—helps confound an evolutionary explanation. The authors argue that language doesn’t equate to the ability to communicate. After all, animals can communicate, but they don’t posses language. Nor is language the same as speech. Instead, the authors assert that language is a cognitive process starting with neural activity that affects vocalization. Language is possible even when humans lack the capacity for vocalization (and hearing). For example, deaf people communicate by signing, not vocal speech. Still, they have the same language capacity as hearing people because the neural apparatus required for language is in place.

Tattersall, Chomsky, and their coauthors argue that evolutionary biologists too often focus on vocalization when trying to explain the evolution of language. But, as they point out, the emergence of this capability doesn’t coincide with the origin of language. It is true that vocalization is a necessary condition for language, but it is not a sufficient condition. As a case in point, Neanderthals possess the same version of FOXP2 (the so-called language gene) as humans. While scientists believe that this gene plays a role in the auditory and vocalization processes, its activity alone doesn’t account for speech. Nor does the presence of FOXP2 in the Neanderthal genome imply that Neanderthals had the neural apparatus to enable processes like merge and displacement, two defining features of human language. (These two processes produce a hierarchical structure that characterizes language and allows for a near-infinite range of syntactical possibilities.) . . .

The fact that every human being has the identical language capacity compels the authors of the essay to argue that language originated suddenly. Their argument gains added support from the exponential growth of technology since the origin of modern humanity. Language must have facilitated this rapid growth. Neanderthal technology did not experience a similar growth pattern. In fact, it remained largely static from the time Neanderthals first appeared (around 250,000 to 200,000 years ago) to the time they went extinct (around 40,000 years ago). This implies that these hominids lacked language capacity.According to the authors, “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…The relatively sudden origin of language poses difficulties that may be called ‘Darwin’s problem.’”

For the original article, go here.


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