Evolutionary Language Search Lands at Babel

Search for evolutionary explanation of languages falls short and lands at Babel.

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Apes around the world can understand each other, so why do intellectually superior humans have around 7,000 distinct languages? queries evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel.  Pagel, a professor at the University of Reading in the UK, heads a team searching for an evolutionary explanation for our many languages. “Why,” he asks, “would humans evolve a system of communication that prevents them with communicating with other members of the same species?”1

From an evolutionary point of view, any trait that advanced humanity beyond its supposed ape-like ancestry must have offered a survival advantage. So, in a New Scientist editorial called “War of words: The language paradox explained,” Pagel writes:

You could take a gorilla or chimpanzee from its troop and plop it down anywhere these species are found, and it would know how to communicate. You could repeat this with donkeys, crickets or goldfish and get the same outcome.

This highlights an intriguing paradox at the heart of human communication. If language evolved to allow us to exchange information, how come most people cannot understand what most other people are saying?

In other words, if humans evolved language in order to communicate with each other, then why did language continue to evolve in a way that interfered with such communication? Pagel finds the biblical explanation best. Of course, he does not consider the Bible to be a reliable historical source and therefore tries to apply its principles to his model of social evolution. He writes:

This perennial question [why there are so many languages] was famously addressed in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, which tells of how humans developed the conceit that they could use their shared language to cooperate in the building of a tower that would take them to heaven. God, angered at this attempt to usurp his power, destroyed the tower and to ensure it would not be rebuilt he scattered the people and confused them by giving them different languages. The myth leads to the amusing irony that our separate languages exist to prevent us from communicating. The surprise is that this might not be far from the truth. . . .

For the myriad biological species in the tropics, there are advantages to being different because it allows each to adapt to its own ecological niche. But humans all occupy the same niche, and splitting into distinct cultural and linguistic groups actually brings disadvantages, such as slowing the movement of ideas, technologies and people. It also makes societies more vulnerable to risks and plain bad luck. So why not have one large group with a shared language?

Pagel adds, “We should expect new languages to arise as people spread out and occupy new lands because as soon as groups become isolated from one another their languages begin to drift apart and adapt to local needs.” But then he notes that the opposite appears to have happened, writing, “But the real puzzle is that the greatest diversity of human societies and languages arises not where people are most spread out [like the Arctic], but where they are most closely packed together [like Papua New Guinea, where neighboring tribes typically speak distinctly different languages].”

Research recently published in Science compares linguistic data in an attempt to trace the origin of Indo-European languages. The authors suggest that these languages emerged from the region of Anatolia (Asia Minor).2

It is the very fact that human languages fly in the face of evolutionary ideas that prompts Pagel to call our linguistic history an evolutionary “paradox.”

Nothing in the new research or in Pagel’s editorial supports the notion that humans had to evolve from intellectually inferior animals and a trail of primitive hominids. In fact, it is the very fact that human languages fly in the face of evolutionary ideas that prompts Pagel to call our linguistic history an evolutionary “paradox.” Though he not only considers the biblical account of the tower of Babel a myth but errs in his re-telling of it, he at least recognizes the actual effect God’s linguistic judgment had.

Pagel misrepresents the purpose for which God confused the languages as well as the actual events. The historical account of the tower of Babel is recorded in Genesis 11. Following the global Flood, God commanded people to spread out and repopulate the earth. The bulk of humanity refused and instead consolidated power in one area and built the tower, but not to gain access to heaven. Nothing in the Bible says that was their goal or that God got angry at their attempted forced entry. Genesis 11:4 records, “And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.’” Thus the tower was part of the unifying efforts of the people as they combined their efforts to build a single civilization in one place in defiance of God’s instruction.

God scattered the people by confusing their languages because their unified rebellion gave them much power to defy God’s plans. The Bible says nothing about God destroying the tower. Genesis 11:6–9 records,

And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.

Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.

Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

As intelligent people dispersed from the tower of Babel and their groups became isolated, the “movement of ideas and technology” was slowed, and humanity’s power and ability to perpetrate ungodliness and evil was limited. God provides another clue as to His plans for mankind and the reason it was necessary to limit man’s potential by linguistically interfering with unity and cooperation: Acts 17:26–27 records the Apostle Paul saying, “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” Though missionaries and Bible translators all over the world must work hard to make God’s Word and the good news of the gospel available to people in their own languages, Paul’s message lets us know that the lack of a language barrier would have allowed sinful humanity to make this sin-cursed world even more evil and resistant to the gospel message than it is.

The biblical history of the dispersion from the tower of Babel also indicates that diversity of language emerged from the area of “a plain in the land of Shinar” away from which many groups of people traveled some time after the global Flood. Noah’s Ark had come to rest in “the mountains of Ararat,” so geographically the region would have been in the region we know as the Middle East. Thus, not only Pagel’s linguistic analysis but also the geographical conclusions from the latest linguistic research (suggesting the Indo-European languages diversified from the region of Asia Minor) are essentially consistent with the historical facts supplied to us through God’s Word.

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  1. M. Pagel, “Reading Evolutionary Biology Group - Home,” University of Reading, www.evolution.reading.ac.uk.
  2. R. Bouckaert et al., “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European language Family,” Science 337 (24 August 2012): 957–960.


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