Why Not Only Us? Men Speak, Animals Make Noise

A review of the book Why Only Us: Language and Evolution by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky.

Everybody knows, or used to know, that only men speak. Animals make noise, but men make words. A tweet or a bellow is not a language—though a bellowing tweet is. Why?

The standard classical answer—an answer that is not incompatible with the central thesis of Berwick and Chomsky that man is unique—is that man is different in essence than every other animal. What they might not hold with is the proposition that man is possessed of, among other things, a rational soul. He also is equipped with a sensitive soul, just like other animals. Yet man is an entirely different creature.

Saying man alone among other animals possess a rational soul is not an thorough explanation for why only us. Why can’t otters, say, or crows or dolphins also possess a rational soul? After all, if evolution via some physio-environmental-chemical process is what “created” animals, and man is partly an animal, why can’t this physio-environmental-chemical process cause, or has caused, more animals to posses rationality? (Saying evolution is not to name the process.)

The answer is that those parts of us that comprise our rationality, our intellects and will, are not made of physical stuff; they are immaterial. (The proof of this can be found in many places.) Accepting that, even for the sake of argument, means that a physio-environmental-chemical process cannot account for those parts of us which are rational, for the very simple reason that physio-environmental-chemical processes cannot affect non-material substances.

So we are not here because of evolution; or, rather, not wholly. Some physio-environmental-chemical process could have (and I think did) brought us to the point at which our frames were sufficiently able to interact with non-material intellects and wills. But at the point some Higher Power must necessarily have intervened.

It’s not likely Berwick and Chomsky would agree with this explanation. They argue that some physio-environmental-chemical process created all animals, including us, and including those parts of us that create and process speech—and they assume, but of course cannot prove, also those parts that comprehend speech.

In search of this, much of the book is given over to anatomical discussion of neural pathways, brain structures, and so on. We see pictures of the dorsal pathway “Part of the AF/SLF connecting to precentral premotor cortex” in humans, chickens, macaques, etc. Lots of supposition where in the brain noise-making and noise-recognition is processed. About how it all works they say their guesses are “necessarily speculative because we do not really know how the Basic Property is actually implemented in neural circuitry.” This non-answer is satisfactory for the philosophical reader, but obviously won’t be for the biological one. I’ll not say anything more about physiology, as I’m in the philosophical camp. I also won’t here discuss what they call the Darwinian “Modern Synthesis”, “fitness”, about which they are critical, and “random” and “fully stochastic” evolution, and the like except to say “random” or “stochastic” are not substitutes for cause.

We are unique. There have been they say eight major transitions of lifeforms “ranging from the origin of DNA to sexuality to the origin of language—six, including language, appear to have been unique evolutionary events confined to a single lineage” (emphasis added). We don’t have to agree with what process caused these events to agree with this observation. Quoting Ernst Mayer about our uniqueness, “Nothing demonstrates the improbability of the origin of high intelligence better than the millions of … lineages that failed to achieve it” (ellipsis original).

Evolution (by whatever process) is punctuated, even in the genus homo. “What we do not see is any kind of ‘gradualism’ in new tool technologies like fire, shelters, or figurative art.” Examples in animals of “instantaneous” phenotypic change are also noted.

Only certain birds, they say, come anywhere close to us, but even that distance is unbridgeable. The most advanced birdsound is not a language; neither are any other animals sounds languages.

Human language has these key properties: “(1) human language syntax is hierarchical, and is blind to considerations reserved for externalization; (2) the particular hierarchical structures associated with sentences affects their interpretation; and (3) there is no upper bound on the depth of relevant hierarchical structure.” These structures aren’t found in any other animal sounds. “Linear processing,” which is found, “does not even come close to being adequate for human language.” There are “plenty of animal communication systems. But they are all radically different from human language structure and function. Human language does not even fit within the standard typologies of animal communications systems…” These terms are all explained and defended at length, leaving no doubt about our uniqueness.

True, other primates communicates, for instance as we do by gesture, “but this is not language, since, as Burling notes, ‘our surviving primate communication system remains sharply distinct from language.'”

In a “for whatever it is worth” aside a fundamental truth is revealed: “the overwhelming use of language is internal—for thought. It takes an enormous act of will to keep from talking to oneself in every waking moment—and asleep as well, often a considerable annoyance.”

This hints at why language is necessary. They echo neurologist Harry Jerison who thought language necessary “for the construction of a real world.” How else do you name the animals? Tattersall agrees there was a sudden “innovation” in homo sapiens that accounted for language (ellipses original) “a neural change … in some population of the human lineage … rather minor in genetics terms [which] probably had nothing whatever to do with adaptation”.

In this adaption (they say) “there is no room in this picture for any precursors to language…There is no rationale for positing such a system: to go from seven-word sentences to the discrete infinity of human language requires emergence of the same recursive procedure as to go from zero to infinity, and there is of course no direct evidence of for such ‘protolanguages’.”

Berwick and Chomsky emphasize “that language is optimized for the system of thought, with mode of externalization secondary.” We think first and talk second. The natural question is why, especially since no physio-environmental-chemical process could have brought this about. Something else must have.


  1. Gary

    We think first and talk second.
    Some of us talk without thinking at all.

  2. Briggs, did the book say anything about language of deaf people, or deaf, dumb and blind people (e.g. Helen Keller)?

  3. Sander van der Wal

    While it would not be impossible according to evolution theory for otters or dolphins to have evolved rational souls, in reality they did not evolve rational souls.

    Further, you need to have a theory that states how to evolve rational souls, and you need to have shown in practice that certain animals now have rational souls, while they did not have them some time before, which makes at least possible for that that theory to be true, let alone testable.

    A theory that says that animals might evolve rational souls is not a scientific theory as long as there are no animals that have evolved rational souls while we were watching.

  4. SadiJay

    In the beginning was the Word.

  5. Kip Hansen

    The central issue is “What is the real nature of Man?”

    Those “terrible questions: that keep deep thinkers awake at night — “What am I?”, “Where did I come from?”, “Why am I here?”, “What happens to me when I die?”.

    Science will not answer these questions be cause it (science) has intentionally excluded itself from the field of investigation — in effect, trivializing itself.

  6. swordfishtrombone

    @ Kip Hansen,

    “Those terrible questions that keep deep thinkers awake at night:”

    “What am I?”

    A human being, which is a type of animal.

    “Where did I come from?”

    Your parents.

    “Why am I here?”

    Because your parents had sex.

    “What happens to me when I die?”

    Nothing. You just stop being alive.

    Need any more deep questions answering?

  7. swordfishtrombone

    “a physio-environmental-chemical process cannot account for those parts of us which are rational, for the very simple reason that physio-environmental-chemical processes cannot affect non-material substances.”

    Then why is our rationality affected by literally every known physio-environmental-chemical process, from drugs to Altzheimer’s? Your hypothesis doesn’t fit the facts.

  8. Ken

    Particular brain traumas (e.g. via strokes or other injuries) results in predictable effects; destroyed areas result in complete losses while partial destruction/damage results in partial losses or related impairments of the same functions lost when the same area is destroyed. This is observed time and time again. So is it with many partially damaged brain areas — motivative victims can and do re-learn lost functions …and… we observe a corresponding change, increase, in neural structures. The science/biology of neuroplasticity has come a very long way so far.

    Isn’t that rather conclusive evidence that the damaged or destroyed neural areas account for the degraded/lost capabilities … that those impacted functional capabilities arise from those neurons! We don’t need to comprehend “how” they work to recognize that, somehow, that is just what they do.

    Briggs makes zero, nada, zilch effort to explain how or why the correlation between neural damage and functional impairment does or does not reflect an actual or even possible cause-effect relationship — i.e., that neural structures, operating in as yet unknown ways, account for language (and cognition, self-awareness, etc.).

    If we don’t understand how a thing works, and we also observe stubborn consistency between inputs & outputs, our ignorance of ‘how’ the thing works cannot be a basis for a decisive conclusion that the correlation does or does not reflect cause-effect. At a minimum we must concede the correlation exists, and, that correlation at least might be due to cause & effect. Then, some evidence might be used to either accept or reject that hypothesis.

    Here, Briggs rejected such a hypothesis without acknowledging it exists and without any explanation. That’s a glaring omission.

    Sweep aside all the analytical slight of hand and emotional appeals used to link disparate themes and the entirety of the argument presented boils down to:

    ‘we cannot conclusively explain how or why speech arises …therefore… our ignorance proves the explanation must be god.’

    That’s a god-of-the-gaps argument — where we are ignorant, there is God.

    But in today’s blog essay the ignorance is itself a contrivance — to make the argument presented, the existence of obvious known correlations pointing to an alternative explanation are simply ignored.

    That also hi-lites the anti-science perspectives expressed by so many believers: Science has been and continues filling the gaps [ignorance] with knowledge. A process via which we see a sort of urban renewal underway, one leaving fewer and fewer residences for any deity, or even effect of deity, to reside or operate.

    Thus come the attacks on science: “scientism” is as a sword against some imagined adversary having the belief that science will explain everything, but in reality it is the fear that science will explain too much, fill the wrong gaps, and thereby explain away the ability to hang onto a cherished belief in a particular god. That’s a losing battle — as evidenced, today, by the need to ignore an obvious correlation showing that reality isn’t cooperating with a belief.

  9. Ye Olde Statistician

    Why do some folks seem so mystified that a synolon shows psychic effects from somatic damage when it also shows somatic effects due to psychic damage. It’s all one being, after all. If you cut a triangle out of felt, and then set the felt on fire, you will also affect its three-sidedness (i.e., its form) along with the felt (i.e., its material). “Psychosomatic” is not the same as “imaginary.”

  10. Oldavid

    The brutal Man has an insatiable propensity for self-deification and Modernism is practically the synthesis of all attempts to “drag God out of His Heaven” and “subdue” Him to a vassal of the World. Modernists are slimy amorphous creatures that defy particular description or definition because they are masters of deception and disguise. The only thing that really distinguishes them from real Men is their subtle, multi-faceted denial of “being”; that is, a thing is not what it was or will be… it is inexorably “becoming”.

    Such humbug can easily present itself as anything at all that is socially, politically convenient because everything is in a state of flux or “becoming”. The only dogma that may not be challenged is the dogma of “Evolution”… anything else can be “reinterpreted” or evaded with specious nonsense. (Or just mockingly dismissed with infantile musings such as those of nosey-noisyfish above).

    Language (spoken or signed or written or any other) is peculiar to Man with his unique capacity to understand abstracts. As I have said many times before; the brain is just the physical organ that connects the metaphysical mind with the physical world of sense and motor response. Just because the connection is damaged with some loss of function does not mean that the human being is nothing but a pile of chemicals. (But some of the God-hating nutters around here could make one rather doubt the human capacity for understanding).

  11. Mactoul

    “the brain is just the physical organ that connects the metaphysical mind with the physical world of sense and motor response”

    This would require the “metaphysical mind” to be a thing but the Thomists claim that it is no such thing—the oft-repeated “soul is the form of body” or is it “soul is the form of the (rational) animal”.

  12. Ye Olde Statistician

    the oft-repeated “soul is the form of body” or is it “soul is the form of the (rational) animal”.

    Not exactly. A soul — anima in Latin; energeia in Greek — is the substantial form of a living body. Bodies have other forms, such as weight, color, size, etc., but these are accidental forms and do not “stand under” (sub stans) the being as such. Further, an atom of say sodium has a substantial form, consisting of a certain number of protons and electrons and neutrons arranged in a particular form or pattern, but not being alive, it is not an anima.

    As for rational animals, that is a particular kind of soul, one that has powers over and above the powers of the sensitive soul of other animals or the nutritive soul of that which merely lives.

    Hope this helps.

  13. Oldavid

    “Form” can be a rather confusing term due to its present day common usage to describe various physical attributes such as size, shape etc.

    Classically, form is more like the “essence” of a thing; that which makes it what it is. For example, a stone has its “stoneness” somewhat independent of the “accidents” of size, shape, density, colour, composition, etc. that distinguish it from other stones that also have the form, being, essence of “stoneness” that subsists in a physical “presence”.

    Metaphysical “things”, like a soul, are defined more by what they do and they “are” where they act. A soul that is the life of a body is where it orders the physical and chemical processes of a live organism. The life of an orange tree is “in” the tree because that’s where it acts… it’s not on the dark side of the moon.

    Rational souls do not only animate physics and chemistry; they have additional powers of intellect, will, comprehension… metaphysical “things” that pretty much are what they do and “where” they do it. It’s not too hard to comprehend if one can just detach from fashionable crass Materialism.

  14. Ye Olde Statistician

    The medievals addressed both essential forms and accidental forms, sometimes abbreviated as “essences” and “accidents.” Think of the Aristotelian categories, with essences corresponding to the first category and accidents to all the others. These do not quite correspond to grammatical categories of nouns and adjectives; but in the expression “Bacon’s big blue bouncy ball,” the object is more essentially a ball than it is big, blue, bouncy, or belonging-to-Bacon. Each of these latter can be altered without affecting its essence. (It could be painted red, or sold to Descartes, for example.) If you saw it and were asked, “What is that?” you would naturally answer, “That’s a ball!” and not “That’s blue!”

    They made a whole inquiry into what they called “the intension and remission of forms,” which took them away from Aristotelian binaries and toward the continuum. Some things were more or less blue, so they began to talk about addition and subtraction of blueness and the quantitative extension of the blue form. Stuff like that. See Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, also William Wallace, The Modelling of Nature, both of which contain useful discussion of the topic.

    The Modern revolution consisted largely of the restriction of science to accidental forms only, which is why Moderns debated whether human beings were still human if their skin color was different.

  15. Oldavid

    Orrite, YOS.

    I’m not in the business of trying to make ordinary and intuitive concepts into waffling esoterica that can be “interpreted” by high-brow academic initiates to imply that they are not what they are according to arcane “insights”.

    You and your mates will need to demonstrate that Adam and Eve were not created as the perfection of their “type” but as an imperfect, naturally perfectible, prototype. It assumes that all being is in the process of “becoming”. For you lot, it assumes that God is on a “learning curve” that will culminate in an unattainable “Omega Point”.

    No wonder that there is nothing that cannot be sacrificed to feed the “Evolution” monster.

    Lift your game, buster, either you accept the Scriptural, Apostolic, Faith (completely harmonious with observation and Reason) or you adhere to some superstition commonly known as Materialism or Scientism.

  16. Ye Olde Statistician

    All I did was point out what medieval philosophers and theologians meant by formal cause, and suddenly you’re off on a tangent about Adam and Eve, eveolution, materialism, and what-not. Where do you come up with that Omega Point stuff? Or that God, and not us, is on a “learning curve.” What do you suppose Pope Benedict meant when he said that “being-in-movement as a whole (and not just the beginning) is creation”?

  17. Oldavid

    Glad you mentioned Ratzinger, YOS. He was (and, presumably, still is) an ardent disciple of the arch heretic Teilhard de Chardin who seems to have coined the term “Omega Point”. Ratzinger even went to considerable length of subterfuge to “redefine” Creation, Original Sin and Redemption to accommodate his “Evolutionary” views.

    The nonsense anti-science has some pretty high profile devotees apart from you and your mates.

  18. swordfishtrombone

    I forgot to respond to the main claim (and title) of this post.

    A five-minute Google search is all it takes to realise that the main claim of this article is false. Yes, there are differences between individual animal languages and human ones, but there are also many points of similarity. The whole question is being actively researched, and the jury is most definitely still out and unlikely to return a unanimous verdict.

    According to many of articles I read, there are four main qualities to human language – some animals display three of them, but none display all four. Hardly a sharp distinction.

  19. Ye Olde Statistician

    Because you can always “define language down” to include all sorts of things that are “like” language, but aren’t. How many of these four points require interpretation by humans in order for the resemblance to be manifest? At what point does sign-using become symbol-using?

    But what is a symbol? A symbol does not direct our attention to something else, as a sign does. It does not direct at all. It “means” something else. It somehow comes to contain within itself the thing it means. The word ball is a sign to my dog and a symbol to you. If I say “ball” to my dog, he will respond like a good Pavlovian organism and look under the sofa and fetch it. But if I say “ball” to you, you will simply look at me and, if you are patient, finally say, “What about it?” The dog responds to the word by looking for the thing: you conceive the ball through the word ball.
    — Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, p.153

  20. Oldavid

    As I may have mentioned before, I have had a lifetime of experience with animals… pets, domesticated livestock and feral. I like them immensely and get along very well with them. They all have their “special friends” that they can recognise and remember for many years. The baby ones learn from the mother ones and the group what is good to eat, threats to be avoided, where to go and when, and innumerable other things that escape the attention of a two pronged observer that lives in another realm.

    With their wonderful memories they can be trained by an unthreatening (sympathetic and respectful “boss”) to respond to stimuli in astonishingly complex ways… but they never “understand” what they’re doing other than as the “Pavlovian” association. (I really, really hate Pavlov for making a simplistic nonsense of what ordinary people have known about their animals for thousands of years).

    I have been known to remark on many occasions that “it’s disconcerting to notice how similar God made these animals to us”. But that’s not the same as saying “we are made like them”. It is a more distant simile to Man is made in the likeness of God… the animals are made in the likeness of Man.

    Blardy humiliating in the finest sense.

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