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Monkey study challenged over Darwinian claims

NASHVILLE (BP) — A study of monkey calls hailed as evidence for the evolutionary origin of human speech has been critiqued by an Intelligent Design proponent as “flimsy” support for the Darwinian scheme.

An article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society similarly has argued for the supernatural origin of language, stating that a divine creator is the “only reasonable way to account for” the phenomenon of language.

The study of African gelada monkeys — published April 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — may offer insight into common ways in which animals and humans vocalize sounds, but it does not explain how language came to convey “complex meaning,” said a biologist with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that plays a leading role in the Intelligent Design movement, which argues the universe is the product of intelligence rather than blind chance.

“Words can be combined to convey potentially any message,” Ann Gauger, the Discovery Institute’s director of science communication, told Baptist Press in written comments. “Language can be used to talk about itself; the sounds that convey particular meanings are arbitrary and dependent on conventions agreed to by the speakers; and language can convey events past, present, future or imaginary. These are just some of the characteristics of human language that resist any comparisons with animal vocalizations.”

The study, authored by two University of Michigan scholars and two Europeans, argues that gelada calls follow a linguistic principle known as Menzerath’s law, which states that longer sequences of language tend to have shorter components. In human speech, for example, longer sentences tend to contain shorter clauses, and longer words tend to contain shorter syllables. With geladas, longer calls tend to contain shorter “grunts,” “moans,” “wobbles” and “yawns,” as researchers classified the components.

The researchers do not believe different types of gelada calls communicate different meanings, but they argued the meaning of monkey calls is not important in establishing initial evidence for the evolution of language.

“Identifying basic patterns of sequence structure that are shared by human and nonhuman animal communication provides evidence for evolutionary preservation, or convergent evolution, of the processes underlying the emergence of such patterns,” the four coauthors wrote. “… Finding Menzerath’s law in gelada communication suggests that strings of sound following this law could predate the evolution of meaningful combinations.”

Lead author Morgan Gustison of the University of Michigan told NPR male geladas likely seek to produce longer vocal sequences with shorter, faster components in an attempt to dominate “vocalization” sessions and establish themselves as leaders in a group.

Gauger, of the Discovery Institute, called the study “a pretty flimsy piece of evidence for the evolution of language.”

“My dog barks faster when he’s in a fight with another dog over territory or dominance,” Gauger said. “Is he trying not to be interrupted or just to overpower the other dog? The last dog barking wins. It’s the same with monkeys, I would guess. But that has nothing to do with human language or its evolution. Language conveys complex meaning, and the meaning is not dependent on speed.”

In December, evangelical scholars John Baumgardner of Southern California Seminary and Jeremy Lyon of Truett-McConnell College went even further in an article published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. They argued the existence of language “falsifies” the “foundational truth claim” of those who argue the material world is all that exists and humans evolved apart from God’s action.

Language is expressed through a physical medium like ink on a page, sound waves in the air or electronic encoding in a cell phone network, Baumgardner and Lyon wrote. But meaning, which is an essential component of language, is independent of any physical medium and therefore cannot arise from a material source.

That fact, they wrote, is key to proving God’s existence.

The laws of chemistry and physics, Baumgardner and Lyon wrote, “offer no clue whatsoever that matter can assign meaning or otherwise deal with meaning at even the most rudimentary level. Even when matter is organized in extremely complex ways, such as in electronic networks with trillions of interconnected transistors, there is no hint, in the absence of software, of any ability whatsoever to generate meaning-bearing signals or behavior. Although naturalists once imagined that such behavior might somehow emerge, there is no observational evidence that suggests it possibly can.”

The existence of language with meaning — especially complex biochemical language like DNA coding — appears to leave “no other rational possibility” than to believe an Intelligent Designer, God, created it, Baumgardner and Lyon wrote. “The case is so strong that God’s reality ought to no longer be a topic for debate in scholarly circles.”

The “linguistic capacity of such an Intelligent Designer … ought to draw a person’s attention to the God of the Bible,” they wrote. “The Bible, from its first page to its last, discloses God as a God who speaks. And especially in the Bible’s opening verses, when God speaks, things happen.”