In connection with Michael Flannery’s revised and updated Intelligent Evolution: How Alfred Russel Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism, we are asked to consider human language as one example of the challenge:
In 2016 the late great journalist, novelist, and social commentator Tom Wolfe wrote The Kingdom of Speech and exposed Darwin’s unsolved riddle, or one of them anyway: namely, how did humans by means of natural selection alone develop language and sophisticated verbal communication? The answer: we didn’t. It was a product inherent in us, what Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s partner and challenger, said it was all along, an intrinsic part of human exceptionalism.
Until recently this fact about speech simply couldn’t be confirmed, at least until 2008 when Daniel L. Everett published his findings working with the Amazonian Pirahã people. What the Pirahã taught us is that people invented language. Evolution — whether by natural selection, kin selection, or some other selection — didn’t produce it. Darwin couldn’t explain human speech because he refused to find it in unique human capacities.
For Wolfe, this unique acquisition of speech by humans is telling. Just compare apes and humans at their greatest level playing field — at rest. While apes lay in crudely constructed leaf mats in the forest, people sleep on hi-tech mattresses surrounded by even higher-tech contrivances of modern convenience. Why the difference. It’s grunts versus speech. Wolfe exclaims, “Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrera marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David. Speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can imagine.”Evolution News, “Only Wallace’s “Intelligent Evolution” Can Explain the Kingdoms of Speech and Faith” at Evolution News and Science Today
Indeed. There is a whole history of people telling themselves that apes think and talk like people. Often the results are tragic for the apes.
See, for example:
But, in the end, did the chimpanzee really talk? A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine sheds light on the motivations behind the need to see bonobos as something like an oppressed people, rather than apes in need of protection.
Can animal minds rival humans under the right circumstances? Are we just not being fair to animals, as some researchers think? Including apes as co-authors on a primatology research paper created quite a stir—among humans. The apes didn’t care.
Researchers: Apes are just like us! And we’re not doing the right things to make them start behaving that way…
Dolphinese: The idea that animals think as we do dies hard. But first it can lead us down strange paths.
2 Replies to “Where Wallace can shed light and Darwin can’t”
Lately I’ve been wondering if writing and reading are just as original and innate as speech. We don’t have artifacts from the earliest writing because it was likely done by a stick tracing in dirt.
The brain has specific areas and modules for writing and reading, just as it has areas for speech.
The best counterargument, of course, is the tribes that don’t have a writing system in modern or recent times. But in other contexts the lack of a structure usually turns out to come from loss of original genes, not from failure to develop the genes.
Probably no way to settle the question, but it seems like a question worth asking.
It would seem reasonable to consider the existence of a fundamental aptitude for communicating with symbols. Such symbols could be expressed in motions, gestures, or postures; by arrangements of stones or sticks; with paintings or abstractions; or through sounds including mimicry.
According to cognitive load theory, it also seems that our working memory (aka short-term memory) is extended by “preloading” a word or concept symbolically. For example, how would an ordinary American react if I say the following sequence out loud: “NRA,” “The 2nd,” and “CCW”?
However, a physicist might interpret these symbols to mean Nuclear Reaction Analysis, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and counterclockwise rotation.
So, I’m trying to think of animals in nature that understand or communicate using symbols (i.e. not Koko and sign language).