Language - An Embarrassing Conundrum for the Evolutionist?

Hello! This is my first post on the blog and whilst I didn't want it to be an angry rant after I found this youtube video there seemed little could have been done to avoid it.

This is a video by a creationist named “ppsimmons” who writes on the front page of his youtube channel that he “apologizes for not knowing enough to scientifically refute the evidence for creation nor for being clever enough to “scientifically” support the theory of evolution.” And yet he feels to be enough of an authority to make videos refuting evolution using 'science'.

I know I shouldn't let this annoy me as much as it obviously has, I know that there will always be creationists out there and I know that these creationists will never listen to anything I have to say. However, in this case, I've decided to respond mostly to set straight the interpretation of Robert Berwick's words used in this video.

Robert Berwick is a Professor at MIT who specialises in computation, language and evolutionary biology. The quotes used in the video are taken from a news story written by David Chandler from the MIT News Office. Now, this isn't an academic pap er, it's an article written by a journalist. Do the creationists attempt to refer to any primary source journal articles to see what Berwick has to say in a more considered and academic discourse? Of course not! They have taken some sound bites out of context to a second degree and used them in an argument that states that evolution is "a collection of pseudoscientific ideas and straw man arguments passed off as scientific truth".

I will now address each quote taken by the video and explain the degree of misrepresentation:

1) “Some researchers in recent years have speculated that mutations in a gene called Foxp2 might have played a fundamental role in the evolution of human language. That was based on research showing that the gene seems to be connected to language ability because some mutations to that gene produce specific impairments to language use. But the claim that the gene mutation is directly connected to the development of language is very unlikely to be right. This kind of straightforward connection is just not the way organisms are put together. When it comes to something as complex as language, one would be hard-pressed to come up with an example less friendly to evolutionary study.

Now, speculating that a gene might have a role in the evolution of language is different from saying that it's directly connected to the development of language. The article doesn't make it too clear that whilst Berwick is making the point about development this doesn't necessarily mean he disputes it had a role in Language Evolution, and regardless of whether this is what he actually meant, disputing that FoxP2 has a role in the development (or evolution) of language is also not the same as claiming that NO genes might have a role in such mechanisms. All he is really trying to say is that explaining language evolution through genetics is very very complex. This doesn't mean that a better solution to the problem, just because it is a complex one, is to claim that a magic man did it.

As a side note the original article doesn't quote Berwick as using the word 'friendly' in the statement: “one would be hard-pressed to come up with an example less friendly to evolutionary study”, he used the word 'amenable'. I'm not sure if this has been changed because the maker of the video assumed that other creationists wouldn't understand the word 'amenable', or because he wanted to completely change the meaning of the statement. Regardless of his intentions, the phrase: “one would be hard-pressed to come up with an example less friendly to evolutionary study.” is repeated again at the end of the video (and in the video information) away from the context of the foxp2 gene which makes it feel like it's referring to the study of language evolution as a whole. It's also important to note that whilst Berwick might be inferring the problems which surround the application of genetics to language development (and evolution) might be very bloody difficult, and far from AMENABLE, this doesn't make them impossible.

The video also omits the following from the original article:

'because some mutations to that gene [FoxP2] produce specific impairments to language use, and because our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, lack both these gene mutations and the capacity for language.'

Now, to give the reference to the source and delete the evolutionary evidence contained within that source in your representation of it, it may mean that most people viewing your video will be too lazy to go and check, but it doesn't help your argument when someone does uncover it.

2) And the specific Foxp2 connection is based on a whole chain of events, each of which is speculative, so there’s little chance of the whole story being right. Rather, language is almost certainly the result of a far more complex and subtle interplay among a variety of factors, Berwick says, and it may never be possible to connect it to specific genetic changes.

I agree with what Berwick has said here, I do not agree with 'ppsimmons' interpretation of what he has said here:

“or in other words what Dr Berwick is saying is that it may never be possible to connect the explanation of the existence of language to naturalistic evolution”

Errr... that's not what he's saying. We've already made connections between 'naturalistic evolution' and language, every time we observe some trait of human language within a species which is not our own we are drawing connections. The many theories of language evolution draw on 'naturalistic evolution' to create plausible stories of how language came about and whilst most of these are currently speculative they are grounded in what has been proven to be scientifically true and are therefore more legitimate than claiming that a magic man did it.

3) Even defining something as complicated as language in a precise way is daunting, as ongoing disputes over the significance of language experiments with apes, parrots and dolphins have made clear. Berwick says, “If you can’t define what it is, why study it from an evolutionary point of view?”

I agree with this statement but evolutionary linguists have accepted and dealt with this problem. Since 2002 when Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) made very explicit guidelines as to what the definition of language is, both in the broad sense (FLB) and the narrow sense (FLN). This has generally caused any paper on the subject since to define exactly what they mean by 'language' before going on to expand on its evolution. This has prevented the problems that the multidisciplinary approach were experiencing before, without these labeling tools they were simply talking past each other because they weren't taking about the same thing when they used the word 'language'.

4) Ultimately, the important thing is to understand that language is, at bottom, something that takes place inside the human mind and is independent of any particular sound, sight or motion. The same internal mental construction could be expressed through verbal speech, through writing or through sign language without changing its basic nature, Berwick says. “It’s not about this external thing you hear,” he says. “It’s about the representation inside your head.”

All “ppsimons” takes from this is that the representation inside your head is human consciousness and this is also unique to humans and evolutionary unexplainable. He doesn't explain why.

He finishes with this:

“So it seems to me that the more we look at the real scientific evidence around us and ask the real scientific questions the more evolution is exposed for what it really is.”

Scientific evidence? All this video does is look at some misrepresented problems which scientists have when it comes to language evolution which the author found in a news article. You can't just make a list of questions which scientists don't yet have a concrete answer to and claim that god did it. I don't need to express here how flawed that argument is when we look back at the entire history of scientific discovery and what the solution was before science had the answer. A magic man did it.

(Apologies once again for a completely useless rant, it did, if nothing else, make me less angry and raised some interesting points on the way).

Useful links:

Original video

To read Robert Berwick address some of the problems relating to language evolution himself, in an actual scientific article, see:

Berwick, R. C. in press. Syntax facit saltum redux: biolinguistics and the leap to syntax. In Anna Maria Di Sciullo & Cedric Boeckx (eds.), The Biolinguistic Entreprise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Other references:

Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N. and Fitch, W. T. (2002) The language faculty: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?, Science 298, pp. 1569-1579.

  • Wintz

    Argh, that video was definitely worth an angry rant. Good job. I'll have to check out Berwick's paper. One of best evolutionary explanations I've come across lately is Terrence Deacon's (2010) paper: A role for relaxed selection in the evolution of the language capacity.

  • Is it really true that in America there is a serious debate between evolutionists and non-evolutionists in the 21st century? Seen from outside, it looks unbelievable.

  • Thanks for the link Wintz, I'll give it a read. I still haven't got round to reading Deacon's 'the symbolic species' yet, it's sat on my shelf looking lonely.

    Jesús - I think every country has its fair share of religious nuts but America does seem to have more than most. Only today, in the UK, has the news broke that the government's 'Council for Learning Outside the Classroom' has given a Creationist zoo a 'Quality Badge' in recognition of its educational programme. It's worrying, it really is.

  • I think apart from the overly technical bits on neurobiology and his very complicated "Neo-Peircean" theory of symbolic reference Deacon's "Symbolic Species" really is a very cool book. The only other quibble I have with it is that although he dresses his theory of why symbolic language evolved up in very technical terms it actually boils down to "pre-humans needed marriage contracts to regulate who sleeps with who and who gets meat from who"
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000453.html

    Hannah - I second your notion of every country having its religious nuts. Last year I went to a lecture on the relationship between religion and evolution here in Germany, only to realize that the lecturer (Siegfried Scherer, a Professor for Microbiology at the Technical University of Munich) was an intelligent-design proponent, who wrote a school-textbook called "Evolution - a critical textbook"