Mark Newbrook

Linguistics, Monash Uni



Two aspects of language and evolution:

  1. General nature of linguistic change/evolution

Pennock (1999) on linguistic evidence against creationism: the clearly evolutionary character (in general terms) of medium-/long-term linguistic change

Compare ‘creationist linguistics’ (Baker, Davis etc) - including acceptance of ‘Tower of Babel’ story

Reviews of Pennock mainly positive, but note attacks by Behe etc

Points from Newbrook (2000) (linguist’s review of Pennock)

Analogy with biological evolution imprecise:

  1. Linguistic forms acquired in lifetime, not inherited genetically (cultural transmission); hence changes arise during lifetimes, not through genetic mutation; greater diversity as further consequence, including inter-generation if mobile or if cultural change is rapid

(Note Chomsky’s equivocal stance on genetic aspects, lack of diversity & evolutionary origins)

  1. Linguistic changes mainly non-adaptive (function of cultural

divergence/convergence; often likened to fashion); but some important

exceptions (arguably over-emphasised by Pennock)

  1. More specific differences (eg, only incomplete biological analogy for

dialect continua - though in fact the match is better than might initially

be imagined)

  1. Arguably, need to distinguish ‘normal’ (short-term) linguistic change

from long-term evolutionary origins (note terminology) (see especially

  1. above) - but easy to overstate this

(Note lack of ‘hard’ evidence of evolutionary origins [no ‘primitive languages’ survive]; but need to beware of hyper-egalitarianism)

e) Use of different analogies to emphasise different points

  1. Very small number of errors on linguistic points


  1. Rapidly growing field of research on evolutionary origins of human


a) Animal systems & differences

a.i) Other primates (what they do themselves, what we can teach them)

a.ii) Cetaceans

a.iii) Birds (see Pepperberg)

b) Time of origin of human language

b.i) ‘Orthodox’ (100,000 - 200,000 BP)

b.ii) Davidson (60,000 BP?)

(Note issue of voyages to Australia & dating within Australia;

compare recent claims on very early voyages to Japan & Rudgley

on Pacific voyages earlier still)

b.iii) Ruhlen (30,000 BP?)

(Note radical ideas on reconstruction and deep-time philology;

issue of Australian languages & settlement dates)

b.iv) Creationists (c 6,000 BP as per Genesis?)

(Note Vedantic Creationism: Mesozoic)

  1. Place of origin of modern humans

c.i) ‘Orthodox’ (East Africa)

c.ii) ‘Fringe’ variants on c.i) (Kaulins, etc; note genetic evidence)

c.iii) Other ‘fringe’ proposals (Goodman)

  1. Nature of origin of human language (note conferences, Hurford et al. (eds.), etc)

d.i) Archaeological evidence (fossils, traces of relevant activity, etc)

(Note issue of language vs speech; claims re Neanderthal vs Cro-

Magnon, etc)

d.ii) Links with culture & agriculture (note Foster’s talk)

d.iii) Cognitive vs communicative evolution and ‘missing links’

d.iv) Role of modularity (compare Chomsky)

d.v) General psychological explanations for linguistic ‘universals’

(Whorf, Sampson, etc)

These are the notes of the talk given to the Atheist Society, Melbourne
on 13 June 2000 by Mark Newbrook
Back to Atheist Society