Darwin’s Problem: The Origin of Language

By Dr. Fazale Rana

Language can bind us together and language can separate us. One of the most frustrating things I encountered on a speaking tour in Lima, Peru, last spring was struggling to communicate with my Peruvian audience and hosts, many of whom spoke only Spanish.

Whether we speak the same language or not, all human beings possess a common language faculty. We are born with an innate capacity to learn language. This is a defining feature of humanity.

As a Christian, I view our language ability as a manifestation of God’s image in us. The scientific community, on the other hand, largely turns to evolutionary scenarios to account for the emergence of language. Yet, as a recently published essay attests, explaining the origin of language from within the evolutionary paradigm is a struggle.1

According to the essay (the authors of which include well-known anthropologist Ian Tattersall and legendary linguist Noam Chomsky), an improper understanding of what language is—and what it is not—helps confound an evolutionary explanation. The authors argue that language doesn’t equate to the ability to communicate. After all, animals can communicate, but they don’t posses language. Nor is language the same as speech. Instead, the authors assert that language is a cognitive process starting with neural activity that affects vocalization. Language is possible even when humans lack the capacity for vocalization (and hearing). For example, deaf people communicate by signing, not vocal speech. Still, they have the same language capacity as hearing people because the neural apparatus required for language is in place.

Tattersall, Chomsky, and their coauthors argue that evolutionary biologists too often focus on vocalization when trying to explain the evolution of language. But, as they point out, the emergence of this capability doesn’t coincide with the origin of language…

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