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Human Language: The Homo Homolog

Michael Denton


Editor’s note: In his new book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis, Michael Denton not only updates the argument from his groundbreaking Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985) but also presents a powerful new critique of Darwinian evolution. This article is one in a series in which Dr. Denton summarizes some of the most important points of the new book. For the full story, get your copy of Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. For a limited time, you’ll enjoy a 30 percent discount at CreateSpace by using the discount code QBDHMYJH.

Our own kind, Homo sapiens, slipped suddenly into being on the rich, game-laden African grasslands of the late Pleistocene, and spread rapidly over the next 200,000 years to every corner of the world. Here was the greatest of novelties, a new type of being — for the first time a creator and molder of the world — a speaking and thinking being, knowing, insightful, artistic, and religious. As well as a hunter, here was a storyteller, a mystic, a seer, and a dreamer. Nothing before in evolution had hinted at the possibility of such a novel organism. The radical nature of this mysterious happening, and the unprecedented intellectual advance it entailed, is shown graphically in the marvelous frescoes of cave art of the upper Paleolithic in Europe.

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One of the most curious features of human evolution, and one that poses at the outset an intriguing and still unanswered challenge to the Darwinian and functionalist narrative, is the fact that all modern humans share the same higher intellectual capabilities. This means, incredible though it may seem, a brain capable of the intellectual feats of an Einstein, a Newton, or a Mozart must have already emerged in our last common ancestors more than 200,000 years ago. Such intellectual abilities seem absurdly powerful, beyond any conceivable utility for hunter-gatherers on that ancient savanna, and hence beyond any functionalist explanation.
As Noam Chomsky recently commented: “[Alfred Russel Wallace] recognized that mathematical capacities [for example] could not have evolved by natural selection; it’s impossible because everybody’s got them, and nobody’s ever used them, except for some very tiny fringe of people in very recent times. Plainly they developed in some other way.”1
From an evolutionary point of view, the origin of man’s higher intellectual abilities is one of the greatest of all mysteries, of all facts to be explained. It would certainly seem, in light of these preliminary observations that the origin and evolution of our intellectual powers must have involved causal factors beyond natural selection.
Some of our mental abilities and emotional traits are certainly shared to some degree by other species, but language, as Chomsky comments, is without any homolog in any other species.2 Language is a Type-defining homolog, restricted to an individual species, and like other such homologs, it is not led up to by any empirically known sequence (e.g., starting with simple “grunts and gestures” and progressing though more and more complex communication systems till we reach human language). And again, no plausible hypothetical evolutionary series has ever been proposed. Thus, just as in the case of other defining novelties, the evidence is consistent with a saltational origin.
Because of the lack of homology and the lack of plausible adaptive evolutionary steps, the origin of language remains an abiding mystery. In two final articles in this series, we’ll look at other aspects of this mystery.
(1) Noam Chomsky, The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 15.
(2) Chomsky, The Science of Language, 47; Marc D. Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert C. Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael J. Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky, and Richard C. Lewontin, “The Mystery of Language Evolution,” Frontiers in Psychology 5, no. 401 (May 7, 2014).

Image: Cave painting, cave of Altamira, photo by DaBler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Denton

Senior Fellow, the Center for Science & Culture and the Center on Human Exceptionalism
Michael Denton holds an M.D. from Bristol University, as well as a Ph.D. in biochemistry from King’s College in London. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, Denton has had a critical impact on the debate over Darwinian evolution.