Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Language Problem

I've been enjoying Tom Wolfe's new book, The Kingdom of Speech, and heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the theory of evolution and/or the history of the study of linguistics. Michael Egnor at Evolution News and Views concurs with this commendation, and goes even further. Rather than me telling you what the book is about, I'll quote Egnor:
Tom Wolfe has a new book, The Kingdom of Speech, and it's superb. Wolfe's theme is that human language is unique and is not shared in any way with other animals. He argues forcefully that evolutionary stories about the origin of human language are not credible.

In the first chapter of his book, Wolfe describes an article in the journal Frontiers of Psychology from 2014, co-authored by leading linguist Noam Chomsky. Wolfe declares that:
"The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever," [the authors] concluded. Not only that, they sounded ready to abandon all hope of ever finding the answer. Oh, we'll keep trying, they said gamely... but we'll have to start from zero again. One of the eight was the biggest name in the history of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. "In the last 40 years," he and the other seven were saying, "there has been an explosion of research on this problem," and all it had produced was a colossal waste of time by some of the greatest minds in academia....

One hundred and fifty years since the Theory of Evolution was announced, and they had learned...nothing...In that same century and a half, Einstein discovered the speed of light and the relativity of speed, time and distance... Pasteur discovered that microorganisms, notably bacteria, cause an ungodly number of diseases, from head colds to anthrax and oxygen-tubed, collapsed-lung, final-stage pneumonia... Watson and Crick discovered DNA, the so-called building blocks genes are made of ...and 150 years' worth of linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and people from every other discipline discovered... nothing...about language. What is the problem? What's the story?...What is it that they still don't get after a veritable eternity?
Wolfe provides a précis of his argument:
Speech is not one of man's several unique attributes -- speech is the attribute of all attributes!
Yet despite almost two centuries of speculations and hypothesizing we're no closer today to being able to explain what language is or how we come to have it than we've ever been. Indeed, Darwin and his votaries tried to come up with a plausible explanation and failed so utterly that scientists gave up for almost eighty years trying to explain it. Says Wolfe:
It is hard to believe that the most crucial single matter, by far, in the entire debate over the Evolution of man - language - was abandoned, thrown down the memory hole, from 1872 to 1949.
It's also hard to believe that it's been 67 years since 1949 and still no progress has been made on this question. Egnor writes:
And yet, as Wolfe points out, Darwinists are at an utter loss to explain how language -- the salient characteristic of man -- "evolved." None of the deep drawer of evolutionary just-so stories come anywhere close to explaining how man might have acquired the astonishing ability to craft unlimited propositions and concepts and subtleties within subtleties using a system of grammar and abstract designators (i.e. words) that are utterly lacking anywhere else in the animal kingdom.
Egnor, who is himself a neuroscientist, closes his piece with these words:
I have argued before that the human mind is qualitatively different from the animal mind. The human mind has immaterial abilities -- the intellect's ability to grasp abstract universal concepts divorced from any particular thing -- and that this ability makes us more different from apes than apes are from viruses. We are ontologically different. We are a different kind of being from animals. We are not just animals who talk. Although we share much in our bodies with animals, our language -- a simulacrum of our abstract minds -- has no root in the animal world.

Language is the tool by which we think abstractly. It is sui generis. It is a gift, a window into the human soul, something we are made with, and it did not evolve. Language is a rock against which evolutionary theory wrecks, one of the many rocks -- the uncooperative fossil record, the jumbled molecular evolutionary tree, irreducible complexity, intricate intracellular design, the genetic code, the collapsing myth of junk DNA, the immaterial human mind -- that comprise the shoal that is sinking Darwin's Victorian fable.
The charm of Wolfe's book is that it reads like a novel, which is the metier for which Wolfe is famous. It's free of scientific jargon, it's funny and contains some fascinating insights into several of the major figures in the history of the search for an explanation for the origin and nature of language. Plus, it's only 169 pages long. All in all a great read.