How is Language Driven?

on January 24, 2009
Featured in News to Know

“But if universal grammar did not evolve by natural selection, how could it have arisen?” That’s one question posed by a recent study—one we can certainly answer!

In a recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, American and British researchers conclude that language was a cultural development, not a product of evolving genes. While the paper is rooted in untestable evolutionary ideas, it nonetheless gives us a prime opportunity to look at language from the biblical perspective.

Language changes too fast for genetics to evolve along with it.

The question the researchers ask is, did human biology evolve to accommodate linguistic developments, or was the biology “already there”? They answer that “genes for language could have coevolved only in a highly stable linguistic environment; a rapidly changing linguistic environment would not provide a stable target for natural selection.” In other words, language changes too fast for genetics to evolve along with it. ScienceDaily explains:

The authors conclude that it is unlikely that humans possess a genetic ‘language module’ which has evolved by natural selection. The genetic basis of human language appears to primarily predate the emergence of language.

Thus, all people groups have the same linguistic capabilities, even though the languages we speak differ. This lines up with the human capability to learn languages of cultures far separated from our own.*

University College London scientist Nick Chater adds:

“Our paper uncovers a paradox at the heart of theories about the evolutionary origin and genetic basis of human language—although we have [sic] appear to have a genetic predisposition towards language, human language has evolved far more quickly than our genes could keep up with, suggesting that language is shaped and driven by culture rather than biology.”
“But if universal grammar did not evolve by natural selection, how could it have arisen? Our findings suggest that language must be a culturally evolved system, not a product of biological adaptation. This is consistent with current theories that language arose from the unique human capacity for social intelligence.”

Chater also acknowledges that the entire Indo-European language group diverged in less than 10,000 years. Could it be that rather than having any evolutionary basis, a unique speaking capability of humans given to Adam and Eve at creation is part of their being made in the image of God? At Babel, God confused languages—though not the anatomy that allows it—and the diaspora of people groups further diversified those “confused” languages into the many spoken today.

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