Can Evolution Explain the Origin of Language?

by / August 20, 2016

With regards to origins, evolutionists and creationists don’t agree on much. The item of contention for today’s closer look: language. Creationists will tell you that God is the originator of language and gave man the ability to communicate via language as part of being made in the image of God. (Gen 1.27) For evolutionists, the origin of language is yet another unknown conundrum; one of the many things that evolutionists have no plausible theory to explain such as:

  • the origin of life
  • the origin of DNA and the coded information in it
  • the origin of multi-cellular life from single celled creatures
  • the non-directed specialization of cells that allow for the creation of specialized organs likes heart, lungs, etc.
  • and the specialized, completely different but complementary organs for accomplishing reproduction through two different creatures; the organs making the individual either male and female – and when paired male and female, reproduction is accomplished.

All the above happened – according to evolutionists – without plan, direction or design. Add to the list “origin of language”. In spite of  the lack of a coherent theory to explain any of this, evolutionists still cling to the merit-less theory of evolution.

While it’s no revelation that evolutionists and creationists don’t agree on much, there is one thing they do agree on: that the primary attribute that sets humans apart from animals is the ability to communicate via language. In fact the one phrase that both groups tend to use to describe this biological truth is that language is a “uniquely human” trait – not shared by any other animal (or plant[1] for that matter.)

From evolutionists:

“Language – the uniquely human ability to build from a few sounds an infinite range of meaning so that the insight and imagination of each of us can be shared among all of us.”[2]

From Creationists:

These unique abilities of communicating through a native language clearly separate humans from all animals.[3]

So both groups have concluded that it is language – not the use of tools, or some other measure – is a primary attribute (if not “the” primary attribute) that sets humans apart from animals. The question then becomes what is the origin of language (the symbols), and the ability of humans to use it? For evolution to be true, the entire process must be explained by purely natural processes. Such processes can neither plan, nor purpose nor design.   Steven Meyers, one of the highly regarded standard bearers for the intelligent design movement has summed up why evolution cannot be true:

“NeoDarwinism and its associated theories of chemical evolution and the like will not be able to survive the biology of the information age, the biology of the 21st century.”[4]

Though it may not be readily apparent, this statement shows clearly that evolution cannot have originated language or humans use of it. For the remainder of this article we will look at why this is so by examining the origin of language from the perspective of citizens of the information age, those who are cognizant of the fact that information systems – are just that – systems – not stand alone pieces – that are by nature complex and designed. If you use a mobile phone or connect to a web site with a computing device, you are using a complex system of multiple pieces of hardware and software that are designed to work together. It is not the kind of system that can come together by chance or evolutionary processes. Likewise for the system that comprises humans’ ability to speak and use language.

We will look at the bare basics of what it would take to create a biological system within a living creature capable of communicating via language as humans do, and then ask the question – are the undirected, un-designed, unplanned random processes of evolution able to produce such a complex system?

Making the Golden Droid speak
Part of the fun of science fiction is imagining what might be once science and technology catches up to the dream. In Star Wars ( the first one released subtitled “A New Hope”) we’re introduced to the talkative comic relief golden droid C3PO who describes his role as “human-cyborg relations” as he acquaints himself with Luke Skywalker. Later, in Episode 6 Return of the Jedi we learn that he is “…fluent in over six million forms of communication…” We’re only interested in the first one – its origin. In Episode 1 we learn that young Anakin Skywalker has begun assembling 3PO.  What would it require to give the droid abilities comparable to the capabilities of humans?  We first have to understand how the process of communication via language works in humans.

An overview of the communication process will suffice to show the complexities of language that a designer must account for – and will reveal why undirected random processes could never account for the origin of language because as you’ll see, we will run into these four problems that evolution cannot account for:
1. The Origin of the coded system called “language”
2. The Origin of the physical hardware that can handle  language
3. The Origin of the ability of non-material thoughts to somehow interact with the physical hardware of brain and body parts with the result of communication via language.
4.  The identity of a means or process capable of creating, assembling and integrating the complex system of communication by language and integrating it in a living creature.

The Communication Process
Consider what must happen to communicate an idea from the communicator to a receiver:

Communicator Process: (Starting Point) Mind > Thought > ENCODE thought  > Muscle Activation > Detectable Air disturbance (Signal)

Receiver Process: Detectable Air disturbance(Signal) > Ear Activation > Intelligent filter > Decode Signal > Thought > Mind (Ending Point)

Let’s walk through the process step by step. For ease of reference I’ll refer to the Communicator as “C” and the Receiver as “R”. (If it makes it easier for you, you can think of C as in C3pO and R as in R2D2.)

The mind: Originator of thought
The mind of the communicator originates a thought. Here is a picture of a  thought:

pteranodon

Now C decides to share that thought. We don’t have telepathic capabilities, there is no direct transference of thought, so in order to transfer the thought, C must encode the thought in a system of symbols that can sent as a signal (humans use sound as the signal) then the signal is decoded by R. The system of symbols is called “language.” And here we run into our first problem: the origin of language. What is the origin of this shared set of symbols called language?

The Nature of Language – and dead ends regarding origins
To understand the unsolvable-by-evolution nature of this problem, let’s make a few observations about language.  Language is a method of communication that uses a shared set of predefined symbols that function as a code.  You’ll immediately recognize that symbols and codes by their very nature require an intelligence to create them. Already I’ve introduced a short code: “C” for Communicator and “R” for the receiver.  So the first question that arises is how can undirected, un-designed, random processes generate a system of shared symbols that function as a code . Second how do the multiple members of the target group learn the code simultaneously so the language can be used?  Language, if not shared by C and R is useless.

Further, the components of language – words – by their very definition, have meaning, and are used with a purpose according to a plan. But evolution is a process with no meaning, no purpose, no plans. How can such an undirected, meaningless process create the embodiment of its antithesis – language consisting of words with meaning to be used to achieve a purpose?  Evolutionists have struggled to answer that question but all their suggestions fail miserably to explain the creation of a language. Briefly here are some of the dead end alley suggestions offered by evolutionists:

  • The Animal Sound theory
    This theory supposes that the sounds made by animals (grunts, primate calls, etc.) developed into words with meaning as humans became smarter.
    The problem: “…scientists believe animal sounds are non-linguistic and are not used to communicate an idea or concept; instead, they convey emotions, just as crying, laughing, screaming and other sounds do in humans.[5]
  • The “Bow Wow Theory
    Similar to the Animal Sound theory, the bow wow theory – proposed by Max Müller in 1880, is a theory also based on initial sounds and  posits that the first words sounded like the item it referred to. “Dog” for instance would be “bow wow”; “bird” – a chirping sound, etc..
    The Problem: most words don’t sound anything like what they refer to; and many words refer to objects that make no sound and are not associated with sound.
  • The Human Intelligence Theory
    This theory suggests as man evolved and grew more intelligent, that intelligence gave him the ability to communicate via language.
    The problem: scientists have held at least since the sixteenth century that the best sign of intelligence is language use[6], and as linguist and scientist Dwight Bolinger put it, with intelligence so dependent on language “Language could hardly be a precondition for language.”[7]
  • The Emergent Phenomenon Theory
    This theory supposes a) Language itself pre-existed before man’s ability to use it and b) It was somehow already in man’s head, and as man evolved, the ability to use it emerged.
    The problem: The claim that language pre-existed, fully formed before the minds that use it is an extraordinary one. Not even Big Bang Theorists or Darwinists claim complex things like the universe or humans sprung forth out of nothing, fully formed. Apparently such theorists think it reasonable that undirected material processes somehow created a non-material, symbolic system consisting of abstract objects – and did so in a manner that it came forth fully formed. The idea is so far from anything seen or experienced it’s laughable.
    If proponents try to redeem the theory by saying it didn’t spring forth fully formed, it evolved – that goes against empirical evidence, as demonstrated below.

Language cannot have “evolved”
There are other theories for the origin of language[8], but they are equally without merit. But before returning  to the communication process let’s lay the whole matter of languages evolving to rest.

Any theory of the origin of language that relies on language evolving is dead on arrival because evidence shows that when language evolves, it gets simpler, not more complex. In other words, the development of language moves in the opposite direction that evolutionists need it to move.  Consider:

“No known language in the whole of human history can be considered ‘primitive’ in any sense of the word. In her book, What is Linguistics? Suzette Elgin wrote:[9]
‘… 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.’[10]

In short, languages started out complex, and the only “evolution” that took place was the evolution to a simpler form. Not the other way around as required by evolution. Prof Simon Kirby of  the Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh, demonstrates how messages become shorter and simpler through the game of “broken telephone”.  The game starts with a message that is passed from individual to individual privately a number of times.  Then the final message, as recounted by the last person, is compared to the original message.  In one trial, starting with the sentence “The survival of certain words in the struggle for existence is natural selection” after being passed through about 30 people became “longer existence is not longer existence.”   Though the meaning has changed, and in fact has become nonsense, that is not the important part. The import thing to notice, as Simon argues is that “… the sentence has become shorter and easier to learn.”[11]  This  simplification of language has been demonstrated through this and other experiments. Language does not evolve in complexity. It evolves in simplicity. Thus if there is no language to begin with, the process of evolution will not take a sound and turn it into language.

Encoding the Thought
Already we see evolutionists have no answer to problem 1 – the origin of language. But let’s continue on and reconsider C and his thought – depicted by the picture above. How would you describe it? A flying reptile over the oceans? A pterosaur over blue waters? A pteranodon in flight searching for fish over a large body of water? All these are attempts to encode the above picture into language. Consider young Anakin, trying to give C3PO the ability to talk – to do this same type of encoding. How would he do it? How do we give any computer new abilities? It’s not by magic and it’s not by the un-designed processes available to evolution; it’s by design. We program devices with new coded information which we call “software”; and depending on the requirements of the software, the device might also require an upgrade in the hardware. Anakin might have called the hardware/software combination installed in C3PO to encode thought to speech a cipher-box – since it is tasked with encoding information.

There is an analogous structure in the humans. A piece of biological hardware performing the tasks of a cipher-box. It’s a part of the left frontal cortex, and is also tasked with encoding thoughts into speech. It’s called Broca’s area. We know it’s associated with the production of speech because “while patients with damage to Broca’s area can understand language, they are generally unable to produce proper speech…”[12] Just as Anakin would need to build a cipher-box into 3PO to allow speech, – a device which could only be the product of  design; likewise the biological hardware (the brain) and software (the brain’s built in abilities to use language) could only come about by design.

BrocasAreaSmall

Invoking the Muscles

Once you have a thought, and have encoded it in language. Speech does not just happen. It’s a complex process as Prof. Simon Kirby of the Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh explains:

“Right now I’m doing something pretty extraordinary. I’m breathing out slowly while at the same time moving my tongue jaw and lips in an incredibly fast ballet of movement. I can use this skill to take thoughts in my head and transfer it into yours.”[13]

He likens the movement of the muscles that produce speech to a “ballet of movement.”  Like any ballet, such a ballet does not just randomly happen. Aside from the obvious skill and training needed, the brain has specialized circuitry making such movement (and thus speech) possible. This circuitry is used to control  “sequencing, for timing, for generating… for the production of fluid and articulate speech”[14] says one researcher.

Most modern cars rely on precisely designed electronic ignition which allows them to run smoothly and efficiently. What are the chances that if you were to remove that circuitry and replace it with something generated by random chance, it would run at all, much less smoothly? Zero. Likewise the chance of random evolutionary processes producing such specialized circuits is zero.

Reversing The Process – Receiving the message
Having activated the muscles that produce sound waves that can be detected, the Receiver (R) must now reverse the process to understand the message.

Starting with the ears (a marvel of complexity within themselves), the ears must be able to distinguish between raw sounds and the sounds of language. Once again we find there is biological hardware built into the brain that does precisely that.  On an episode of Brain Games they described the area and demonstrated its power by first playing a clip of distorted speech (which was unintelligible) – then the undistorted version – and  finally the same distorted version again – which was suddenly understandable. They explained it as follows:

“Your Brain has a special area designed to separate language from all the other sounds in the world. This language detector know as Wernicke’s area is so powerful that once you hear the clear version it adapts to match these raw sounds to their meaning.”[15]

We saw there was an equivalent of a cipher-box. Now we see there is also the equivalent of a decipher-box.

Decoding the Sounds
Without getting into the power of Wernicke’s area I simply draw your attention to the fact that the brain has specialized biological hardware used to decode raw sounds into discernible language parts. In 1876, Carl Wernicke discovered that “Damage to Wernicke’s area results in a loss of the ability to understand language. Thus, patients can continue to speak, but the words are put together in such a way that they make no sense.”[16] So this biological hardware is involved not only in the comprehension of sound, but also in the comprehension of language. Another key part to a complex system for which evolution has no explanation of origins.

Deriving Meaning
Once the sounds are recognized as words the brain of the receiver (R) can now use language to derive meaning. Helping in that quest is another specialized part of the brain. Biomedical Engineer Sri Sarma of Johns Hopkins University explains:

“You might be surprised to learn that your vision is really useful in understanding spoken language. A part of the brain called the Superior Temporal Sulcus helps sync a speakers lips to what you’re hearing.”[17]

So here we see yet another specialized biological hardware component integrated into the brain, added to help derive meaning during the complex process of communication via language.

Reconstructing the thought
Whether the thought evoked in R matches the original thought in C depends on many factors. How was the thought encoded? (was it described as “a flying reptile over the oceans?”   Or ” a pteranodon in flight searching for fish over a large body of water?”)  These would probably evoke different mind pictures in different people. And as Sri Sarma reminds us “Language isn’t just words. Pitch, tone and inflection all work together to create meaning. Scientists call it prosody.”[18] The study of meaning is a different field of study which takes us beyond the focus of this article, which is the origin of Language. But having examined some of the complexities involved in communicating via Language we can close with some clear observations.

Conclusion

Evolutionists have no idea where language came from or why humans have the ability to communicate via language. And our brief overview has illuminated at least 4 insurmountable problem areas that evolutionists have no feasible explanation for.

Evolution cannot explain:
1. The Origin of the coded system known as “language”
Evolutionists have given it their best shot, and haven’t even come close to a feasible theory for the origin for language.

2. The Origin of a specialized pieces of  biological hardware that can deal with language.
Humans have specialized biological hardware in their brains that make language possible. Those components include:

  • Broca’s Area
  • Wernicke’s Area

Without such specialized biology, communication via language is impossible. Evolutionists have offered no feasible explanation of how evolutionary processes could have developed such specialized biological hardware which  brain researcher Todd Preuss of the  Yekes National Primate Research Center likened to a “very sophisticated bit of computer circuitry.”[19]

3. The Origin of the ability of non-material thoughts to somehow interact with the physical hardware of the brain and body parts with the result of communication via language.

The picture above shows C3PO looking at a picture of a pteranodon flying over water. If he wanted to communicate that to R2D2, what mechanism would allow him to do that? After encoding the image in a language, 3PO would need some method to transmit the coded message. Whether he did so  with an electronic connection to R2D2, or had a mechanism that imitated a human voice and sent a sound signal,  he would need some combination of hardware and software to create a signal to transfer the code. Such a system would need to be designed and installed before he could use it.

Likewise in humans. Before we can transmit a thought that has been encoded in a language, we need specialized biological hardware powered by built in software that the brain interacts with to produce the signal – which in the case of humans – is spoken words. We’ve  looked at one such biological  mechanism – Wernicke’s Area. Evolutionists have no explanation of how either the components or the entire complex, interactive system developed using the blind, purposeless processes of evolution.

4.  The identity of a means or process capable of creating, assembling and integrating the complex system of communication by language and integrating it in a living creature.

Evolutionists would have you believe blind, purposeless, meaningless processes created both the individual components and the entire system – the intricate, complex, purposeful, meaning-filled system that allows communication via language.  If evolutionary processes were capable of that, we would expect to find C3POs and R2D2s emerging from random errors in the automobile manufacturing process. But we don’t, and we won’t. Just as it’s clearly evident that C3PO’s ability to speak was given to him by a designer[20], likewise it is clearly evident that the ability for humans to speak was given to them by their creator.

There is an obvious solution to the origin of language and the ability to communicate using language – but materialists don’t want to hear it. Nevertheless the truth is, the first man Adam was able to speak from the day he was created, and we know he was highly intelligent because he was able name all the creatures in existence  (Gen 2.19-20) – giving names in some cases that pointed to attributes of the creature.

Language, like man, was created by God, it did not evolve. And like the unalienable rights written about in the American declaration of independence, man was endowed by his creator not only with certain unalienable rights, but also with the gift of language and the ability to use it. Like those who deny God’s creation of the universe, those who deny God’s creation of language and man’s ability to use it are without excuse. (Rom 1:20).


Notes
1. Researchers Mark Mescher, and Consuelo De Moraes among others suggest even plants communicate with one another.
Beyond the Wormhole episode: ” ‘Alien Minds’ – How do Aliens think?”, Documentary, 2014

2. Host Alan Alda narrating for the evolution promoting documentary:
The Human Spark episode “Brain Matters” Documentary, 2009

3. Brad Harrub, Bert Thompson and Dave Miller, The origin of language and communication Creation Ministries International, TJ 17(3) 2003 (PDF) https://creation.com/images/pdfs/tj/j17_3/j17_3_93-101.pdf

4. Stephen Meyer, ref from Lee Strobel’s DVD Documentary “The Case for a Creator”, Illustra Media, 2006

5. Lieberman, P., Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution, W.W.
Norton & Company, New York City, pp. 133–134, 1998.
Ref from  Michelle French, The origins of language: an investigation of various theories
TJ 18(3) 2004. 24; online: https://creation.com/images/pdfs/tj/j18_3/j18_3_24-27.pdf

6. “In the late sixteenth century a Spanish doctor, Juan Huarte, wrote a study of human intelligence, stating that its best evidence is language use…”
Chomsky, N., Cartesian Linguistics, as cited in Chomsky, Ref. 6, p. 9, 1966.
Ref. from Charles V. Taylor, The Origin of Language, Journal of Creation 11(1):76–81
April 1997, online: http://creation.com/origin-of-language/

7. Clark, V.P., Eschholz, P.A. and Rosa, A.F. (Eds.), Language: Introductory
Reading, St. Martin’s Press, New York, p. 28, 1981.
Ref from Michelle French, The origins of language: an investigation of various theories
TJ 18(3) 2004. 24; online: https://creation.com/images/pdfs/tj/j18_3/j18_3_24-27.pdf

8. Other theories: “The Sign language” theory and “the Meme” theory
For more on those and their problems, see
Michelle French, The origins of language

9. Brad Harrub, Bert Thompson and Dave Miller, The origin of language and communication, Creation Ministries International, TJ 17(3) 2003 (PDF) https://creation.com/images/pdfs/tj/j17_3/j17_3_93-101.pdf

10. Elgin, S.H., What is Linguistics? Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, p. 44,
1973. ref. from Harrub, Thompson and Miller, The origin of language and communication

11. Prof Simon Kirby, ref from Beyond the Wormhole episode “Alien Minds”, documentary, 2014

12. Host Morgan Freeman Narrating for Beyond the Wormhole episode “Alien Minds”, documentary, 2014

13. Prof Simon Kirby, ref from Beyond the Wormhole episode “Alien Minds”, documentary, 2014

14.  Researcher Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, University College London, ref from:
The Human Spark episode “Brain Matters”, Documentary,  2009

15. Host Jason Silva Narrating for Brain Games episode “Language”, Science TV serial, 2014

16. Harrub, Thompson and Miller, The origin of language and communication

17. Sri Sarma ref from  Brain Games episode “Language”, Science TV serial, 2014

18. Sri Sarma ref from  Brain Games

19. Todd Preuss, ref from The Human Spark episode “Brain Matters” Documentary, 2009

20. In the case of human creations like androids, it would be multiple designers, not a single designer. The production of such intricate hardware and software is always a team effort.

In an evolutionary scenario, specialized hardware such as Wernicke’s area in humans would not exist in the earliest ancestors. Natural processes cannot create it, so evolutionists have no idea about the origin of such biological hardware with its accompanying built in intelligence to work with language.


Featured Image:  C3PO ponders Pteranodon © Duane Caldwell
Pteranodon © Sergey Drozdov / fotolia
Broca / Wernicke’s location in the brain – Public domain

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Duane Caldwell
Duane holds a B.Sc. in Aeronautics and a M.Div. from Trinity International University. A former pastor, one of his favorite Bible verses is Isaiah 11.9: "...for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." Until that day arrives Duane is distressed to see the glory due God given to false ideas like Evolution and the Big Bang. He is likewise distressed to see those deceived into believing that science contradicts the Bible or has solved all problems apart from God. He considers his current ministry to be demonstrating why the Christian worldview is the only true worldview, and why science does not contradict it or the Bible. He blogs on numerous topics touching the faith at Rationalfaith.com.

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