On the Origins of Language by Means of Natural Selection
Where did language come from? Why do we talk? Why does there exist such a mosaic of languages around the world? These questions may be the most central and awe-inspiring in all of linguistics. They are also the most important, because without some general understanding of these fundamental questions all other endeavors to understand the complexity of language will ultimately fail. Thus, we should courageously ask the tough questions, regardless of where the answers may take us. In other words, we must look at language scientifically, shedding ourselves of all prejudice, bias and desire for a specific outcome. With this view, it shall be noted that the origin of language is as yet still a mystery which beckons to be answered, however, a strong theory, known in biology, called Evolution, by means of Natural Selection, seems to answer and explain the aforementioned questions with, in the words of Carl Sagan, “systematic grace”.
Where Language Came From
There exists a myth, arising out of superstition, about the origin of language. This is known as “The Myth of the Mother Language”, as Dessalles puts it. This idea simply put; is there was once a single language that was the "mother" of all languages. All other languages came from vulgarization and degeneration of the mother language. The first languages used to support this myth were of course, Latin and Greek. “…similarities between Latin and Greek were traditionally interpreted as meaning that Latin had grown out of Greek.” (Dessalles 34) This is not evidence of anything in particular except that the two languages show particular similarities; also, no evidence of a sound or group of sounds, lexicon or syntax from Latin has been shown to have somehow made its way to Greek. “The evidence for these links was anecdotal; and there was no serious attempt to ground them in a coherent body of knowledge” (Dessalles 34) and from a scientific perspective, purely anecdotal evidence is not viable evidence. The other explanation, being that a god or gods created language, among everything else, violates logic and science to such an immense degree that discussing or considering it any further would be a waste of time. Thus we are left with one, and only one, rational and scientifically verifiable explanation, Evolution by Means of Natural Selection.
Evolution of Language by means of Natural Selection
This section will include and rely on two analogies. The first: Evolution being similar to that of children’s acquisition of language, which for our purposes will focus mainly on the Evolution side taking advantage of the smaller time scales involved in a human child’s ability to acquire language. The second: Languages are similar to species/organisms in biology. By using these analogies, we can get a better sense of the vast time scales involved and the journey language has taken over millennia.
We humans share much of our DNA with the rest of the animal kingdom. In fact, we do not have many significant differences until we get down to plants and bacteria, and even at that, we still have much in common. (Judge). To quote a chemist friend of mine, Chalmer Wren, “it’s not how many genes we have, rather, how they are expressed that makes us physically and biochemically different from all other species”. In other words, we humans aren’t so different from everything else that lives on this planet, that’s because we are a part of it. Like humans share DNA with a myriad of creatures on this planet, so too do we share language with them. If not for their early evolutionary accomplishments, we very well may not have language as we know it today, in fact, it could be quite different or not exist at all. Languages, in all their many forms, are like species of different animals inhabiting a world of thought and reaction to ensure its survival and that of its speakers. We can see two types of language evolution when taking this analogous view; the first and easiest to see is microevolution, for our purposes that of the evolution of lexical and, perhaps, phonetic items. The second, and far more difficult to see, is that of macroevolution, in language it is the evolution of languages from one to another. For instance, how Low German evolved into Modern English. However, before we can investigate such questions, we must first look at their origins, from where did the pieces come from? The answer lays with our animals relatives, both ancient and living today.
It was long believed, that our closest animal cousins, monkeys, had an emotive and reactionary language system that could hardly be called a language at all. Also, that because they were inferior, it was impossible for them to have any communication system that showed any signs of complexity, planning or thought. (Dessalles 5-7) However, in careful experiments, performed by Cheney and Seyfarth in their 1988 study, published in Animal Behavior, entitled ‘Assessment of meaning and the detection of unreliable singles by vervet monkeys’, they found that monkeys could engage in higher thought. They did this experiment by subjecting the monkeys to recordings of two distinct calls. The first call, wrr, is a trill sound, used when an individual notices the presence of another troop. The second call, chutter, is used when two troops either are threatening each other or start to fight. In the experiment, they found that those monkeys subjected to hearing the first call every 20 minutes hardly reacted to hearing the recording of the second call made by the same individual. (Dessalles 7) This is contrary to what one would expect to find with pure habituation, that is, one would expect them simply to react to the call as if the situation warranted, every time they heard the call. However, since this is not the case, one can only conclude that, like humans, they are engaging in a form of mental representation. Thus, Cheney and Seyfarth showed, “that the association between the acoustical forms and the behavioural responses was not direct but that I must mediated by a form of mental representation.” (Dessalles 6) This is similar to what we see in children early in their development. They too employ a crude form of mental representation when using calls or hearing them. Furthermore, the advantage of doing this, whether it is a baby human or vervet monkey is “the possibility of taking account of the context.” In other words, being able to assess the situation at hand, rather than simply reacting to specific calls, helps the animal in question to avoid manipulation, either by another troop of monkeys or a dubious member of their own. We share this property with monkeys, but admittedly at a different level. Our ability to employ this “representational mechanism”, as Dessalles calls it, is a mere improvement on a system and adaptation that has existed, presumably, for hundreds of thousands of years. Our genetic link to monkeys is analogous to that of our linguistic heritage to them, and as we will see, to others of the animal kingdom as well.
The bee dance holds the key to another of our seemingly unique human abilities, displacement. Displacement is “the ability to talk about referents that are removed from time or space” (Hickerson 33)(Emphasis added) The bee dance is how bees communicate: using motions, and the variable speed of these motions, to indicate the location of food. However, they do not do these dances in any close proximity to the food in question, rather they perform these dances in their hives, far removed from the food to which they are referring. Thus, one can also conclude that bees have a crude form of the concept of referents in mind, to what degree is yet unknown. We, as humans, also possess this amazing ability. However, as is the case with the monkeys, we employ this ability at a seemingly high level in that we are able not only to talk about things that are not immediately present in front of but that exist currently, we can talk about things that previously existed or may exist in the future. Again, we see an improvement upon a preexisting structure or system.
The existence of a vocabulary, or a digital code, is also an evolved feature that we can observe in other organisms. The fifth step Hickerson describes as an “essential step” in our evolutionary acquirement of language is the “growth of lexicon, from a limited set of signs to a vocabulary at least 10,000 words in fully evolved language.” (Hickerson 45) This digital code, once thought to be “proof positive of the originality of the system of human communication”, is actually not unique in nature. Birds, specifically male nightingales, have this feature in their communications. The “male nightingales…have about 200 different types of song which are in part learned.” (Hauser 286) This fact, discovered via an experiment performed by M.D. Hauser entitled The Evolution of Communication with baby nightingales “established that their singing is structured into their memory in four hierarchical levels: song-sections, songs, packages, and context.” (Dessalles 19) The order was found to be more complex than once thought, resembling, to some degree, the complexity of human communication. The experiment found “the bird produces sequences (contexts) during which it will go from one ‘package’ to another, the package being memorized combinations of elements sung, which are themselves built out of simpler elements, the sections.” (Hauser 286) This indicates that these birds have even more features, specifically Charles Hockett’s Design Features, thought only exclusive to humans, although these birds express it in a more simplistic form. It appears their communication system is both “productive”, which is “a system that can grow” and “transmissible”, the ability to pass on knowledge, be it language or culture, down to one’s young. (Hickerson 33-34) One can think of the “sections” as morphemes of a sort, like those a child learns early on when learning to speak. Similarly, the “packages” can be seen as phonemes and the sequences, or contexts, seen as words or simple sentences and phrases. With this astonishing fact, it is not remarkable in the least that humans as a species were able to build on this innate ability built into us via Evolution. Though far removed from the birds, their use of a digital code has permeated down through the ages to be with us to this day.
Additionally, some features, which have been the cornerstone of language evolution for some time, must be considered critically. The first is a biological question; one that humans have thought to be true for at least the past one hundred years. The question is, whether or not the human brain as a whole or any part of the human brain is excessively larger than that of monkeys, specifically chimpanzees. Some believe they have already answered the question, proposing, as in Deacon’s theory, “that our cognitive and linguistic ability derives from our prefrontal cortex working in concert with our cerebellum.” (Lieberman 232) Although on the surface, it sounds true based solely on what one could call ‘common sense’, the proposition does not stand up to a shred of scientific evidence. In fact, all the scientific evidence actually points in the opposite direction. This is an astonishing and, above all, humbling discovery. Studies found that “Deacon’s theory is not consistent with MRI studies that have determined the volumes of different part of the brain in living monkey, apes, and humans.” (Lieberman 234) This is not the end of the evidence, however. Using MRI volumetric studies, they found “that the cerebellum is disproportionately smaller in humans” (Lieberman 234) than in monkeys or apes. Deacon’s theory by now is on the rocks and the following information from the same study eliminates it as viable. “Moreover, the frontal regions of the brain are disproportionately larger in humans than in apes.” (Lieberman 234) This is the opposite of Deacon’s theory. In addition, “if human prefrontal regions were disproportionately larger, other frontal regions would have to be disproportionately smaller, and this is not evident.” (Lieberman 234) Thus, it is obvious that the human brain, though a remarkable result of evolution, does not differ much from the primate brain to any ‘disproportionate’ degree. Furthermore, it should not be surprising that primate language and behavior is so similar to our own.
Additionally there exists another feature, which has been popular in supporting the notion that human language is unique to nature. Brain lateralization, championed as being the single feature that distinguishes us from all the “lower animals”, is the next feature examined. Lateralization, “the localization of the control center for a specific function, e.g. speech, on the right or left side of the brain” (Dictionary/MSN) , refers to, in this case, the left hemisphere of the human brain. Extensive research has shown that “the left hemisphere in about 90 percent of the present human population has a dominant role in regulating both motor control and language.” (Lieberman 235) This fact helps us understand why the high percentage of right-handedness exists in our species. However, this fact does not mean that brain lateralization is anyway the “key to human language” (Lieberman 236). Studies have found that the reality is quite the contrary, citing that “the left hemisphere of the brains of species of frogs regulates their vocalizations.” (Lieberman 236) This lends a great deal of credibility to the theory that language evolved, to its present state in humans, through a slow gradual process analogous to that of other traits that evolved. Our earliest ancestors, the hominids, were most likely predominately right-handed. This is evident from the 2 million year old tools they made and left behind. (Lieberman 236). Although, at this point, it may seem like the evidence points to language being centralized in the left hemisphere, it is not the case. In fact, “language capacities are not isolated in the dominant hemisphere of the human brain.” (Lieberman 236) This means that, although one hemisphere may be more active during speech and language activities, the activity, or “the work” involved in producing language is distributed, unevenly, throughout the brain like many of our neural processes. This is in line with what we observe in other animals as well. The brain is efficient in terms of delegating tasks to specific areas of the brain in ways that we are still attempting to understand. These are uncomfortable facts that, thanks to science, we must live and grapple with. Science does not sugarcoat things that may be too harsh it simply dispenses facts impersonally and leaves the overall interpretation to us. Before we look at the evidence, it should be noted that this information does not demean us, but speaks to a deeper connection to the living beings around us.
Assembling the Puzzle
What does all this mean? The assortment of disparate facts is in no way complete, however, it does begin to show us how ancient human language really is, and how it connects us to nature in general. Language, as with every other trait humans have come to express, is a conglomeration of several different beneficial features. In our closest relatives, the primates, we have acquired the ability of metal representation, or the ability to analyze linguistic messages in relation the surrounding environment and current situation. This was advantageous for two reasons. One, it gave us the ability to not be deceived, either by dubious members of the group or by sounds that occurred naturally that bore some resemblance to a sound in the language of the group. Two, arguably the most important consequence, it may have given rise to our human ability of critical thinking and analysis of complex abstract ideas and concepts, like language. The humble and hard-working bees gave us the ability to talk about referents removed from the immediate time and place, displacement. This was advantageous to us mainly because it allowed us to engage in more complex planning and gave a particular group more cohesion. Coupled with mental representation, it allowed early humans not only to plan for the present, but possibly for the future, in a semi-abstract manner. The birds, nightingales in particular, gave us two indispensible language features; the foundations of vocabulary and a primitive form of traditional transmission. Adding these particular features were advantageous, both in their primitive and modern forms. It allowed for a set of words, ideas, and concepts to be assembled, and then taught to the young, who would add to and improve upon the existing language. Brain size and lateralization, the features of the brain that were ever-present during the formation of these, were crucial to developing these features into more complex and useful forms of themselves and to melding them together to create a seamless and streamlined mechanism, we call language. It is because of the fact that our language, built upon pre-existing structures and features that we cannot claim our human language to be unique in the animal kingdom or in nature in general.
We need not conclude that our language has no uniqueness to it however. Although mainly built upon the language features of our fellow inhabiting creatures, it does have at least two unique features, which we humans as a species have contributed to the long process of evolution. The first of these is duality of patterning, hypothesized by Charles Hockett. This feature, linguistically, may be the most important trait that our language has. It allows our language to be rich and complex in ways that the other animals cannot match. The second is writing. Humans can, if they wish, write down their language, and pass down their acquired knowledge, not only to their own young but also to future generations to which they may not be related. In addition, since these generations will be able to read the knowledge, they too can build upon it and the language will persist and evolve on its own, branching off into a great unknown. Like in species evolution, language evolution comes down to the young. Any simple change in the language may be added to a vast accumulation some years in the future, becoming utterly unintelligible to the original language from which it came; this is the origin of new languages. And with all these features put together, and observed of the vast and incomprehensible span of evolutionary and geological time, we see the origins of language.
Dessalles, Jean-Louis. Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language. Trans. James Grieve. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Dictionary/MSN, Encarta. Encarta Dictionary. Englewood, 8 May 2008.
Hauser, M. D. "The Evolution of Communication." MIT Press (1996): 286.
Hickerson, Nancy Parrott. Linguistic Anthropology. Belmont: Earl McPeek, 2000.
Lieberman, Philip. Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Understanding: Evolution. By Ned Judge. Dir. N/A. The Science Channel. Prod. Ned Judge. 2004.
Authored by Joel
President RRS @ MSCD