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In the Context of Human Artifacts, Something Like Darwinian Evolution Actually Does Happen

Tom Bethell


Darwinian evolutionary theory has been challenged by skeptics, who cite a lack of evidence. Animals certainly once existed that are now extinct. And they flourish in a huge variety of species today. But sequences of ancestors and descendants, linking one kind to another, have never been convincingly established. That is why Richard Dawkins doesn’t disclose any in The Greatest Show on Earth (2009). Evolutionists rescue their own theory by taking refuge in “deep time.” But if something isn’t observed, why should it be regarded as science?

By the same token, we know that offspring differ from parents; they might be taller or shorter; thinner or heavier. But “indefinite departure from the original type,” to use A.R. Wallace’s phrase, likewise has never been observed — outside the confines of textbooks or theoretical treatises. What we do observe is small variations fluctuating around a mean.

On the other hand, a concept of evolution not unlike the Darwinian one is validly applied to human constructions. Language may be the best-known example. Latin evolved into French over a two-thousand-year period. Roman documents in Latin survive, and the language is still used by the Catholic Church. We have two millennia of documentation showing how Latin morphed into its daughter languages.

“Yes, language evolves — that is, language changes over time, and those changes accumulate to create completely new languages,” says the linguist Noel Rude. He goes on (in a private communication):

The origin of language is an entirely different matter. The kind of changes we observe — changes in sound, grammar, and semantics — do not explain how language came to be in the first place.

In a parallel way, we can confidently say that we no more know how life emerged from non-life after Darwin than we did before Darwin.

Just as Darwin hoped to explain organisms by positing an accumulation of parts, each addition helpful to the emerging organism, so linguists sought to explain languages from the “bottom up.” It was assumed that their development was determined by the physiological abilities and limitations of the speakers as well as by the stream of sound that they created.

After Darwin many theories about the origin of language began to be discussed. Some were so silly that in 1866 la Soci�t� de Linguistique de Paris banned such speculation. The dam was broken when Philip Lieberman published On the Origins of Language, in 1975. Here’s Noel Rude again:

Lieberman argued that until man evolved a bent vocal tract he couldn’t have produced vowel contrasts and therefore he didn’t speak. This was thought profound until somebody pointed out that parrots do quite well with just a beak.

This approach to the origin of language resembles the attempt to decipher written messages by studying the ink, the script, and the paper on which they were written. But this can’t get us very far. As Noel Rude adds, “we still need a top-down linguistics that addresses the problem of logic and meaning.”

How friendly are modern linguists to such a top-down study? The answer, to simplify, is that they generally are not friendly. Beyond that the complications build up quickly and get us into Noam Chomsky territory. He went part of the way toward the “top” and was critical enough of Darwinism to have annoyed Daniel Dennett en route. Dennett said that Chomsky sounded like a creationist.

This brings us to both a similarity and a divergence between the evolution of species and the evolution of language. First the similarity: language does evolve but it is not teleological. It does not aim to approach an end state, and in that sense it is Darwinian. The changes in Latin that led to French were not all along aiming to produce something elegant enough to please the Academie francaise (created in 1635); or indeed aiming to produce anything in particular.

The difference is this. The evolution of language has been observed, and recorded in detail. But in every instance it is produced by intelligent agents, namely human beings. Parrots can utter words, sometimes with disconcerting precision, but they don’t understand those words when considered as elements of a sentence.

The problem for Darwinists is that they insist that intelligence can play no role in their materialist, bottom-up scheme. They believe in — they insist on — the occurrence of evolution without intelligence. In contrast, proponents of intelligent design assert intelligence yet they deny the sufficiency of the Darwinian evolutionary mechanism. Or, if they don’t deny it, they insist on being shown the evidence.

Other human artifacts can also be said to have evolved, for example automobiles. In 1968, the Smithsonian Institution published a book by Ritchie Calder entitled The Evolution of the Machine. It is a proper use of the word evolution. Charts showing the “ancestry” of automobile companies over the past 100-odd years can be viewed online today. Cars of course display both intelligent design and teleology. The companies that design and make them deliberately pursue goals of comfort, efficiency and so on.

But Darwinism want to establish evolution as a “fact” and as something that happened without any guiding intelligence at all. Whether anything other than chaos can be achieved by such restricted means is very much open to doubt.

Image credit: Anthony M./Wikicommons.

Tom Bethell

Long-time journalist Tom Bethell is author of the newly released book Darwin’s House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey Through the Darwin Debates. Praised by Tom Wolfe as “one of our most brilliant essayists,” Bethell is the previous author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.