Evolution and the Development of Human Speech
I often have watched individuals speaking to their pets in seemingly “normal” conversations. Judging by the facial expressions on some of those pets, one might occasionally expect them to open their mouth and give a scholarly reply. However, the condition of communication between humans and animals is a one-way bridge that can be crossed only in one direction. Thus, the owner usually is left staring at the animal in a mixture of admiration and frustration. I firmly believe that aside from a few words (i.e., food, sit, ball, etc.), the only words most animals hear are reminiscent of the “teacher” featured in Charlie Brown cartoons who speaks in a series of “Wha-wah, wha-wah’s” that never are quite understood. The fact of the matter is, language is quintessentially a human trait. All attempts to shed light on the evolution of human language have failed due to the lack of knowledge regarding the origin of any language, and due to the lack of an animal that possesses any “transitional” form of communication. This leaves evolutionists with a huge gulf to bridge between humans with their innate communication abilities, and the grunts, barks, and chatterings of animals.
In the January 2001 issue of Science, M.A. Nowak and his colleagues attempted to bridge this gulf with a paper titled “Evolution of Universal Grammar” (Nowak, et al., 2001). This paper, which is a continuation of a 1999 paper titled “The Evolution of Language” (Nowak and Krakauer, 1999), uses mathematical calculations in an effort to predict the evolution of grammar and the rules surrounding it. While Nowak and his team inferred that the evolution of universal grammar can occur via natural selection, they freely admitted that “the question concerning why only humans evolved language is hard to answer” (1999, p. 8031). Hard to answer indeed! The mathematical models presented in these papers do not tell us anything about the origination of the more than 5,000 languages used in the world today. If man truly did evolve from an ape-like ancestor, how did the phonologic component [the branch of linguistics that deals with the sounds of speech and their production] of our languages become so diverse and variegated? Nowak’s paper also does not clarify the origination of written languages, or describe how the language process was initiated in the first humans, since we know today that languages are taught by parents to their offspring.
Nowak and his colleagues believe that the “first step” in the evolution of language was “signal-object associations.” They speculate that common objects, frequently utilized, were given a representative signal or sign (in a manner similar to our common sign language). These researchers also believe that early in evolution, these signals were “likely to have been noisy” and therefore “mistaken for each other.” Nowak suggests that these errors necessitated the formation of words, and describes this step in the evolution of language as going “from an analogue to a digital system.” However, there is no evidence that demonstrates how these “prehistoric” people made the quantum leap from signals to words. The last step Nowak describes is the evolution of basic grammatical rules in an effort to convey even more information than just simple words. While these speculations make a nice, progressive path toward human language, they do little to explain adequately the anatomical differences found in animals and humans. The human supralaryngeal airway differs from that of any other adult mammal, and is essential for speech. While chimpanzees have been taught to communicate by means of sign language, they cannot speak and do not appear to use any complex syntax in communication.
Nowak and his colleagues assume that language “evolved as a means of communicating information between individuals” (p. 8030), and speculate that natural selection favors the emergence of a rule-based, universal language system. But if natural selection “favors” a complex language, how do we account for the nonvocal communication observed in animals, and why hasn’t this communication “emerged” into a formal language in those animals? In an effort to explain this embarrassing lack of understanding, Nowak offered several speculations as to why animals have not evolved a better form of communication. In his explanation, he listed:
Signal-object associations form only when information transfer is beneficial to both speaker and listener.
In the presence of errors, only a very limited communication system describing a small number of objects can evolve by natural selection.
Although grammar can be an advantage for small systems, it may be necessary only if the language refers to many events.
Thus, they feel that animals may not possess the need to describe “many” events.
But these speculations leave gaping holes when viewed in light of past research. There are countless experiments in which humans have tried to teach communication skills to primates, but the skills are neither capable of being “built upon” nor passed on to offspring. Chimpanzees and gorillas can learn to use only 300 to 400 words, and even that requires special effort and nonvocal communication. One such experiment in the 1970s involved a chimpanzee named Nim. Nim was taught sign language, and then asked to produce syntactically correct strings by making signs along with his teacher. Without help from the teacher, Nim was unable to form sentences that displayed the kind of syntactical rules used by humans. Nim’s sign usage could best be interpreted as a series of “conditioned discriminations” similar to behaviors seen in many less-intelligent animals. This work suggested that Nim, like circus animals, was using words only to obtain food rewards. Additionally, work with an ape named Washoe was unable to demonstrate that offspring placed with her understood any of the signs she tried to pass along.
Maybe this is a convenient place to note the difference between the way animals and humans “think.” Animals are capable of perceptual thinking only, while humans are able to think conceptually. Perceptual thought, which is typical of animal behavior, “requires the actual or nearly immediate presence of pertinent objects,” whereas conceptual thinking does not. Conceptual thought is independent of objects. Animals cannot reason or make judgments. No ape can reason as follows: If such is the case, then so and so is not. The question is not, can animals “think”? The issue is, can animals think and communicate in the way humans do? The answer is a resounding no!
Should you be suspicious when someone says that language evolved? In his paper titled “A Physicist Looks at Evolution,” British physicist H.S. Lipson put it well when he wrote: “I have always been slightly suspicious of the theory of evolution because of its ability to account for any property of living things (the long neck of the giraffe, for example). I have therefore tried to see whether biological discoveries over the last thirty years or so fit in with Darwin’s theory. I do not think that they do. To my mind, the theory does not stand up at all” (1980, p. 138). Suspicious to be sure! When language first appears on the scene, it already is developed and very complex. The late Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson described it this way: “Even the peoples with least complex cultures have highly sophisticated languages, with complex grammar and large vocabularies, capable of naming and discussing anything that occurs in the sphere occupied by their speakers. The oldest language that can be reconstructed is already modern, sophisticated, complete from an evolutionary point of view” (1966, p. 477). No known language in all of human history can be considered “primitive” in any sense of the word. In her book, What is Linguistics?, Suzette Elgin remarked: “The most ancient languages for which we have written texts—Sanskrit for example—are often far more intricate and complicated in their grammatical forms than many other contemporary languages” (1973, p. 44). It appears that, from the beginning, human communication was designed with a great amount of complexity and forethought, and has allowed us not only to communicate with one another, but also with our Creator.
Elgin, Suzette H. (1973), What is Linguistics? (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall).
Lipson, H.S. (1980), “A Physicist Looks at Evolution,” Physics Bulletin, 31:138, May.
Nowak, Martin A. and David C. Krakauer (1999), “The Evolution of Language,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA), 96:8028-8033, July 6.
Nowak, Martin A., N.L. Komarova, and P. Niyogi (2001), “Evolution of Universal Grammer,” Science, 291:114-118, January 5.
Simpson, George Gaylord (1966), “The Biological Nature of Man,” Science, 152:467-477, April 22.