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Language: Darwin’s Eternal Mystery

Neil Thomas

In a previous contribution I expressed regret that the modern age did not have an outstanding satirist willing to take on overblown scientific pretensions of the stature of the early 19th-century satirical novelist Thomas Love Peacock. I recalled the magnificent quatrain he chose as the preface for his first novel, Headlong Hall (1816), which, although it was meant to lampoon ideas like phrenology belonging to his own age, would seem to fit the post-Darwinian era all too well: 

All philosophers, who find

Some favourite system to their mind

In every point to make it fit,

Will force all nature to submit.1

One can only speculate what Peacock (1785-1866) in his prime might have made of Darwin. His second novel, Melincourt (1817), featured an ape standing for Parliament under the name of Sir Oran Haut-ton, a spoof on the 18th-century speculation of the Scottish jurist Lord Monboddo (James Burnet) on the simian ancestry of mankind. But since the eccentric Monboddo’s ideas were commonly taken to be an elaborate joke born of intellectual diablerie, Peacock could not advance far beyond the slapstick element of his conceit to explore the deeper, metaphysical implications of Monboddo’s idea.

Enter Tom Wolfe

When I lamented the absence of such a writer as Peacock in the 21st century it must have temporarily slipped my mind that we do have a writer of a standing fully equal to that of Peacock in the shape of Bonfire of the Vanities author Tom Wolfe. In Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech (2016),2 published just two years before the author’s death, Wolfe took time out from his creative writing to focus on the everlasting crux of the origin of the human speech facility. It is a mystery which has puzzled humanity at least since the time of Johann Gottfried Herder in the 18th century and, as Wolfe points out with some humorous relish,3 the roots of the language facility remain as unknown now as they did when Herder wrote his Ueber den Ursprung der Sprache (On the Origin of Language) in 1772.

Neither Herder nor later Darwin, as Wolfe points out, could find one shred of evidence that human speech had evolved from animals. This was particularly galling to Darwin since his whole life was essentially a quest for the secrets of creation or, as Wolfe phrases it in more mordant tones, “Darwin had fallen, without realizing it, into the trap of cosmogonism, the compulsion to find the ever-elusive Theory of Everything, an idea or narrative that reveals everything in the world to be part of a single and suddenly clear pattern.” (p. 20)

Western and Native American Cosmogonies

In reviewing that fruitless human quest for explanations about origins, Wolfe appends an overview of native American cosmogonies, finding the Apache version of the creation of the whole firmament by a scorpion to be but a more colorful and imaginative version of “the currently solemnly accepted — i.e., ‘scientific’ — Big Bang theory, which with a straight face tells us how something, i.e. the whole world, was created out of nothing.” (p. 22)

Wolfe surely has a point. The current understanding of the universe’s origin — subject of course to no other, more convincing theory being advanced in my or your lifetime — is that about 15 billion years ago all mass and energy were compacted together but (for reasons equally unknown and doubtless forever unknowable) simply proceeded to inflate. Cosmologists, who are remarkably honest about their inability to illuminate the sheer unintelligibility of the cosmos (sometimes, it strikes me, even taking a perverse, mock- masochistic delight in the way it seems to cast out curve-balls in the way of human understanding4), concede that this originary event occurred “just like that” ­— without discernible rhyme or reason (that we or they can know of).

It can scarcely be denied that the Big Bang theory, despite its widespread acceptance by the scientific community and by the public at large (albeit passively), remains irredeemably problematic in logical terms: how can something come from nothing? It seems that the primal ka-boom lies quite beyond our conceptual bounds. Or, with reference to the older steady-state theory, how could something always have been there? The human mind at this point inevitably experiences what Chomsky once called “cognitive closure” — complete bafflement. We are left in the unenviable position of neither alternative making sense to us, both Big Bang and Steady State paradigms being equally overweighted by logic-defying anomalies.

The Big Bang theory is perhaps the more problematic of the two. To accept the proposition that an unregulated, chance explosion/expansion produced our terrestrial order is rather like buying into that old canard that the multiple volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary could have been produced by an explosion in an ink shop. If on the other hand the explosion had been very precisely calibrated (somehow, by a higher power unknown) in order to deliberately retrieve order from seeming chaos, then that premeditated deliberation would in good logic demand a designing originator, and this would make the Big Bang a story of creation in the fullest sense.5 That conclusion of course would tip us into the theological realm of discourse in quest of a logical explanation to cover the totality of known facts. For the idea of the whole universe-in-embryo compressed into the space of a single subatomic particle would count in most people’s book as a full-on miracle, barely if at all distinguishable from the Bible’s creation ex nihilo, and it is little wonder that advances in modern science have sometimes been read as confirmation of the Biblical account contained in Genesis.6 They have at the very least done nothing to disprove the Biblical narrative.

Science and Educated Guesswork

What is striking about Wolfe’s analysis is the intellectual equivalence he perceives between such narratives as George Lemaître’s Big Bang, Darwin’s “abiogenetic” theory of life emerging from chemical reactions in a small warm pond, and what he sees as broadly corresponding native American versions. All such theories are “educated guesses,” with minor differences to be explained by the shibboleths of modern science vis-à-vis the more uninhibited speculations of native peoples. So for instance “in the Navajo cosmogony the agent of change was alive. It was the Locust. In Darwin’s cosmogony it had to be scientifically inanimate [to escape charges of animism]. Locust was renamed Evolution…. Like every other cosmogony, Darwin’s was a serious and sincere story meant to satisfy man’s endless curiosity about where he came from and how he came to be so different from the animals around him. But it was still a story. It was not evidence. In short, it was sincere, but sheer, literature.” (p. 27)

“Literature” then, not science, Wolfe concludes — all the more so since evolutionary theory flunks all five commonly acknowledged tests for a valid scientific hypothesis:

  1. Observability
  2. Ability to be replicated
  3. Capacity for Popperian falsification
  4. Can scientists make predictions from it?
  5. Does it illuminate other puzzling areas of science?

Wolfe remarks apropos of those five criteria: “In the case of Evolution… well…no…no…no…no… and no. In other words, there was no scientific way to test it.” (p. 27)

Ape and (Wo)man

In fact, Wolfe suggests with devastating bathos that what moved Darwin to postulate ape ancestry for humankind had nothing to do with science, but rather his visit to London Zoo in 1838 and his observations there of the facial and postural movements of the female orangutan, “Jenny,” sometimes sentimentally decked out in women’s clothing by her keepers.  Such were the rather skewed perceptions which informed Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) and which, Wolfe reasons, will have lain behind the accumulated excesses and improbabilities of that much later, Darwin-inspired discipline which took off in the 1970s, calling itself first sociobiology before tactically rebranding itself evolutionary psychology.7

With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that the morphological link between ape and (wo)man becomes on closer inspection much less straightforward than it might at first appear, as is shown pre-eminently in the different language competences of apes and humans. To establish a convincing evolution of ape to human it would be necessary to establish that simians could over time have increased their communicative vocabularies so as to transform inarticulate emotional cries into specific vocal symbols. But this in turn brings up the closely related problem of how to explain the rapid mental processing on which articulate speech depends. Without the simultaneous co-adaptation of the simian brain, how could the facility of speech, which depends on the interdependent agency of the brain in tandem with the specialised organs of vocal articulation, have developed by the essentially aleatory processes of natural selection? In order to prove that connection, one would have to be able to point to a precise physiological/neurological pathway of development, which nobody has yet been able to establish.8

Driving Darwin Crazy

How humankind gained its monopoly on language was a puzzle apt to drive Darwin crazy, writes Wolfe, and his co-discover Alfred Russel Wallace to one of the biggest U-turns in recorded history when he came to renounce his own theory of natural selection tout court.  By contrast, notes Wolfe, “a cosmogonist like Darwin couldn’t let it go at that. Speech had to have some animal genealogy…had to fit into his Theory of Everything.” Hence there emerged, concludes Wolfe, “Darwin’s real tour de force of literary imagination, the Descent of Man.” (p. 65) Here he had the licence to develop his Kipling-esque just-so stories (this allegation was made by the late Stephen Jay Gould, to the predictable displeasure of many colleagues). Darwin’s imaginative forays certainly ran counter to the more sober professional counsels of the day. The Philological Society of London in 1872 imposed a form of moratorium on research into language’s origin in 1872 and had been preceded by the Linguistic Society of Paris which actually banned speculation on this subject in 1866.

Bringing the story up to date, Wolfe points out that Noam Chomsky, who for decades thought that he had cracked the language problem by his postulation of a language “organ” situated in the brain, finally threw in the towel and admitted defeat. And as Wolfe somewhat impishly points out, if Chomsky, who had never accepted the development of language by successive evolutionary adaptations, and was now recanting his “organ” theory, then this inevitably had large implications: “Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato’s transcendent eternal universals… He was relocating the field [of inquiry] to Olympus.” (p. 89)

This meant in plain English that he was all but conceding language might have been “God-given” which, in Richard Lewontin’s old phrase, could be construed as the heresy of “allowing a divine foot in the door.”

The Zero-Sum Game

As Wolfe documents, a whole host of “certified geniuses” have failed to crack the human language problem, and this must count as a blow to Darwinian ideas of evolution. For Darwin’s theory is essentially a zero-sum game — if it fails to explain one of its aspects, it flunks the lot. For instance, if you do not prove that life originated by the chemical fluke of abiogenesis, then you cannot coherently argue that “natural selection” went to work on a “creation,” which you have not even proved to have occurred in the way you describe. The well-known Miller-Urey experiment in 1953, designed to spark life in a test tube, was not ultimately successful. Its implicit promise was to be able to extend Darwin’s timeline back to the pre-organic formation of the first cell of life, and so establish the fundamental point of departure for the mechanism of natural selection to go to work on. This would also of course have delivered a stunning victory for the materialist position. In the event, though, it succeeded only in dealing a disabling body blow to materialist notions by its failure to discredit the theistic position.

Without a traceable abiogenetic moment, Darwin’s entire theory of evolution via natural selection fails: as matters stand, the bare emergence of living cells remains an unsolved mystery, let alone the claimed corollary of that mysterious and suspiciously unexplained cellular “complexification” said to follow from it and to have occasioned in future time the fabled development from microbes to (wo)man. In fact, the most significant finding of Miller and Urey appears to have been a presumptive indication of a supra-natural etiology for the cellular system — an inference to theistic creation or theistic evolution which was of course the very obverse of the result both scientists were seeking. 

Hence the attempt to discuss the subject of how the process of selection by Nature began to operate whilst not even broaching the question of how Nature itself arose in the first place must count as a major evasion and as a failure of Darwinian theory as a whole. Which is why Wolfe concludes his study with remarks which call into question the whole neo-Darwinian narrative: “To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.” (p. 169) We should be grateful to Wolfe for his single foray into the area of evolutionary speculation, deserving, I would add, of the kind of readership numbers which he was able to command for his creative works.

References

  1. The Novels of Thomas Love Peacock, edited by J. B. Priestley (London: Pan, 1967), p. xvix.
  2. Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016).
  3. The 20th century’s premier linguist, Noam Chomsky, never backed the idea of language being an evolutionary “adaptation” and latterly even forsook his own theory of there being a language “organ” in the brain. In later years Chomsky retreated to a position of stoic bafflement in the face of the inexplicable. See Wolfe, pp. 3-6. 
  4. I am thinking for instance of the television cosmologist Hakeem Oluseyi (distinguished research professor at the Florida Institute of Technology) whose TV persona contrives not to take either himself or the theories of sundry colleagues overly seriously.
  5. And of course it does come perilously close to the Genesis account, because according to the originating father of the Big Bang theory, the Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, the present exponential expansion of the universe could, by our reversing the process, be traced all the way back to the putative cosmic microdot, the primeval atom. 
  6. See Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), pp. 253-257.
  7. Wolfe refers to Darwin’s own words in the peroration to his Origin of Species as a kind of “smoking gun” linking Darwin with sociobiology: “In the distant future I  see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be securely based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power of gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” (p. 44)
  8. The explanation Darwin advanced in The Descent of Man for his alleged perfectly orchestrated co-adaptation was entirely speculative, as for instance when he muses on where we humans might have got our superior IQ and articulacy from: “The mental powers of some earlier progenitor of man must have been more highly developed than in any existing ape, before even the most imperfect form of speech could have come into use; but we may confidently believe  that the continued use and advancement of this power would have reacted on the mind itself, by enabling and encouraging it to carry on long trains of thought.”