Sunday, 19 October 2014

Storytelling Cannot Solve Darwin's Problem, i.e. The Sudden Origin of Language

Our linguistic skills cannot be explained by Darwinian mechanisms.

Joel Kontinen

Since the time of Darwin, the (naturalistic) origin of language has troubled evolutionists. A recent article in PLoS Biology attempts to tackle this problem.

The authors acknowledge that it is indeed an enigma:

“The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma. In this essay, we ask why. Language's evolutionary analysis is complicated because it has no equivalent in any nonhuman species. There is also no consensus regarding the essential nature of the language ‘phenotype.’ According to the ‘Strong Minimalist Thesis,’ the key distinguishing feature of language (and what evolutionary theory must explain) is hierarchical syntactic structure. The faculty of language is likely to have emerged quite recently in evolutionary terms, some 70,000–100,000 years ago, and does not seem to have undergone modification since then, though individual languages do of course change over time, operating within this basic framework.”

Johan Bolhuis and his colleagues go on to say:

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.... For reasons like these, the relatively sudden origin of language poses difficulties that may be called ‘Darwin's problem.’ ”

Except for the part on reaching the moon, this looks a bit like a description from the early chapters of Genesis that depict humans as being intelligent and innovative from the very beginning.

It was Charles Darwin himself who initially put to words the horrid doubt that the authors refer to. Writing to William Graham on 3rd July 1881, he stated:

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

While they attempt to address this problem they actually manage make things worse for Darwinism:

Evolution by natural selection is not a causal factor of either cognitive or neural mechanisms. Natural selection can be seen as one causal factor for the historical process of evolutionary change, but that is merely stating the essence of the theory of evolution.”

It seems that evolution is an inadequate explanation for the emergence of language:

"In addition, evolutionary analysis of language is often plagued by popular, naïve, or antiquated conceptions of how evolution proceeds."

Language is an immaterial phenomenon. It cannot be explained by storytelling.

It takes intelligence (and a mind) to invent something as sophisticated as language.

For Darwinists, this is an insurmountable problem. But it is by no means the only one.


Bolhuis, Johan J. 2014. Ian Tattersall, Noam Chomsky, Robert C. Berwick. 2014. How Could Language Have Evolved? PLoS Biology 12(8): e1001934. (26 August).

Darwin correspondence project.