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Claims about the origin of language admitted to be “highly speculative”

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In a pop science outlet, no less.

What? Weren’t chimpanzees learning to talk just last year or something?

A recent study of the origin of language dares to contradict Noam Chomsky. He held that a single gene mutation roughly 70,000 through 100,000 years ago gave rise to human language. Many have professed skepticism and the latest paper concludes: “ Our results cast doubt on any suggestion that evolutionary reasoning provides an independent rationale for a single-mutant theory of language.”

This research is all highly speculative, of course, as the evolution of language is notoriously challenging to explore with any certainty.

“The basic difficulty with studying the evolution of language is that the evidence is so sparse,” Ray Jackendoff a former student of Chomsky’s and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, wrote. “Spoken languages don’t leave fossils, and fossil skulls only tell us the overall shape and size of hominid brains, not what the brains could do.”

Ross Pomeroy, “Did Language Evolve With a Single Mutation? A New Study Says That’s Unlikely.” at RealClear Science

It’s almost like some people want to take language seriously now.

Paper. (open access)

See also: Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness

and The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly

2 Replies to “Claims about the origin of language admitted to be “highly speculative”

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    as to:

    This research is all highly speculative

    Translation: “We have no empirical evidence that our hypothesis is true”

    Which they themselves admit at the end of their very next sentence

    ,,, “the evidence is so sparse,”

    Moreover, their main problem with the origin of language in humans is not with population genetics as they seem to believe it is,

    What is more likely, they asked, that a single, all-important language mutation sprung up and spread to all Homo sapiens over the course of 100,000 years, or that many, smaller mutations gave rise to human language over a vastly longer timespan?
    Conducting many simulations informed by known variables of evolutionary dynamics with various population sizes and generational timespans, the authors found that it’s much more probable that language evolved through a gradual accumulation of many, smaller mutations, rather than one giant mutation as Chomsky proposes.
    A big factor undergirding this result is that many, smaller mutations could spread at the same time. Moreover, even if some fail to become fixed in the human population, other mutations that produce similar phenotypic effects could emerge and take their place. This is not the case for Chomsky’s proposed single mutation – it either becomes fixed or fades out.

    ,,, as problematic as population genetics is turning out to be for their belief in the abrupt origin of language in humans,,,,

    The waiting time problem in a model hominin population – 2015 Sep 17
    John Sanford, Wesley Brewer, Franzine Smith, and John Baumgardner
    Excerpt: The program Mendel’s Accountant realistically simulates the mutation/selection process,,,
    Given optimal settings, what is the longest nucleotide string that can arise within a reasonable waiting time within a hominin population of 10,000? Arguably, the waiting time for the fixation of a “string-of-one” is by itself problematic (Table 2). Waiting a minimum of 1.5 million years (realistically, much longer), for a single point mutation is not timely adaptation in the face of any type of pressing evolutionary challenge. This is especially problematic when we consider that it is estimated that it only took six million years for the chimp and human genomes to diverge by over 5 % [1]. This represents at least 75 million nucleotide changes in the human lineage, many of which must encode new information.
    While fixing one point mutation is problematic, our simulations show that the fixation of two co-dependent mutations is extremely problematic – requiring at least 84 million years (Table 2). This is ten-fold longer than the estimated time required for ape-to-man evolution. In this light, we suggest that a string of two specific mutations is a reasonable upper limit, in terms of the longest string length that is likely to evolve within a hominin population (at least in a way that is either timely or meaningful). Certainly the creation and fixation of a string of three (requiring at least 380 million years) would be extremely untimely (and trivial in effect), in terms of the evolution of modern man.
    It is widely thought that a larger population size can eliminate the waiting time problem. If that were true, then the waiting time problem would only be meaningful within small populations. While our simulations show that larger populations do help reduce waiting time, we see that the benefit of larger population size produces rapidly diminishing returns (Table 4 and Fig. 4). When we increase the hominin population from 10,000 to 1 million (our current upper limit for these types of experiments), the waiting time for creating a string of five is only reduced from two billion to 482 million years.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pm.....MC4573302/

    ,,, No, their main problem with the origin of language in humans is not with population genetics as they seem to believe it is, as problematic as population genetics is turning out to be for their belief in the abrupt origin of language in humans,,, No, their main problem is with the fact that both written and spoken language themselves first require that abstract thought itself first exists.

    ab·stract
    adjective
    1. existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence.

    There simply is no way to have written and spoken language without first having the ability to think abstractly. When we arbitrarily define a sound, or define squiggly lines on a piece of paper, as to having a specific meaning, there simply is no physical or concrete parallel to that. We, via our abstract thought, made a decision that a certain sound, or group of squiggly lines on a sheet of paper, would represent a certain object or a certain idea.

    Again, there simply is no way to have written and spoken language without first having the ability to think abstractly. When we define some sound or lines on a sheet of paper as to having a particular meaning we are obviously imparting meaning onto the sounds or onto lines on a sheet of paper that had no physical or concrete existence separate from and prior to our abstract thought that those sounds or those lines on that sheet of paper will represent such and such.

    And yet here is the kicker, the ability of humans to think abstractly is what, as Dr Egnor put it, makes us “more different from apes than apes are from viruses.”

    The Fundamental Difference Between Humans and Nonhuman Animals – Michael Egnor – November 5, 2015
    Excerpt: Human beings have mental powers that include the material mental powers of animals but in addition entail a profoundly different kind of thinking. Human beings think abstractly, and nonhuman animals do not. Human beings have the power to contemplate universals, which are concepts that have no material instantiation. Human beings think about mathematics, literature, art, language, justice, mercy, and an endless library of abstract concepts. Human beings are rational animals.
    Human rationality is not merely a highly evolved kind of animal perception. Human rationality is qualitatively different — ontologically different — from animal perception. Human rationality is different because it is immaterial. Contemplation of universals cannot have material instantiation, because universals themselves are not material and cannot be instantiated in matter.,,,
    It is in our ability to think abstractly that we differ from apes. It is a radical difference — an immeasurable qualitative difference, not a quantitative difference.
    We are more different from apes than apes are from viruses.,,,
    https://evolutionnews.org/2015/11/the_fundamental_2/

    Thus, the main problem for Darwinists with the origin of language in humans is not with population genetics as they seem to believe it is (and as problematic as population genetics itself is for their belief). No, the main problem for Darwinists is that there simply is no way for abstract immaterial concepts and ideas, which are necessary for spoken and written language to even exist in the first place, to exist within their materialistic framework.

    To reference Dr. Egnor again (since he has a gift for putting these things clearly and succinctly), i.e ” What is the “physics” of the fact that the area of a circle is pi multiplied by the square of the radius? And of course what is natural and physical about imaginary numbers, infinite series, irrational numbers, and the mathematics of more than three spatial dimensions?”

    Naturalism and Self-Refutation – Michael Egnor – January 31, 2018
    Excerpt: Mathematics is certainly something we do. Is mathematics “included in the space-time continuum [with] basic elements … described by physics”?,,,
    What is the physics behind the Pythagorean theorem? After all, no actual triangle is perfect, and thus no actual triangle in nature has sides such that the Pythagorean theorem holds. There is no real triangle in which the sum of the squares of the sides exactly equals the square of the hypotenuse. That holds true for all of geometry. Geometry is about concepts, not about anything in the natural world or about anything that can be described by physics. What is the “physics” of the fact that the area of a circle is pi multiplied by the square of the radius? And of course what is natural and physical about imaginary numbers, infinite series, irrational numbers, and the mathematics of more than three spatial dimensions? Mathematics is entirely about concepts, which have no precise instantiation in nature as described by physics.,,,
    Furthermore, the very framework of Clark’s argument — logic — is neither material nor natural. Logic, after all, doesn’t exist “in the space-time continuum” and isn’t described by physics. What is the location of modus ponens? How much does Gödel’s incompleteness theorem weigh? What is the physics of non-contradiction? How many millimeters long is Clark’s argument for naturalism? Ironically the very logic that Clark employs to argue for naturalism is outside of any naturalistic frame.
    The strength of Clark’s defense of naturalism is that it is an attempt to present naturalism’s tenets clearly and logically. That is its weakness as well, because it exposes naturalism to scrutiny, and naturalism cannot withstand even minimal scrutiny. Even to define naturalism is to refute it.
    https://evolutionnews.org/2018/01/naturalism-and-self-refutation/

    In short and in conclusion, all abstract language must originate from an immaterial mind.

    John 1:1-4
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Skimming the article, it’s clear that these authors are stuck in 1970 in their understanding of language AND genetics. They don’t consider epigenetics or horizontal transfer, and they see language as a Fortran program. Both biology and linguistics have loosened up (and humbled down) a lot since then.

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