Behe and language origination

When Behe was told that both Greek and Latin derive naturally from the ancient Indo-European language, as evidenced by the similarities between the family of languages which includes those two, he said:

Although one may determine relationships of languages by looking at similarities of words and of grammer, how duplications, modifications, and the shuffling of words actually occurred is completely beyond the knowledge of science.  One cannot know whether they arose gradually or suddenly, by human selection, or by the intervention of a language designer.

In fact, since no human has ever been able to invent a single language with the complexities of a natural language, as opposed to artificial language, it appears highly unlikely that natural human selection could possibly produce the complexity of Greek and Latin.  How could inflections “suddenly appear” in Greek and Latin, if there were no intelligence capable of designing grammar?  Furthermore, languages don’t fossilize, so the fossil record will provide no evidence of “naturalistic evolution,” nor will anything else. 

Remember, frater might in some way resemble φρατηρ, and Latin verb inflections might resemble Greek verb inflections, but the similarities say nothing about how a language like Latin is produced.  The sheer complexity of both Greek and Latin, which has only been understood by humans recently, could hardly have been produced by humans who did not understand the complexities of language.

Well okay, he didn’t really say that, but he wrote something equally unscientific and just plain divorced from reality.  What I wrote above is based on the following:

By itself, however, the hypothesis of gene duplication and shuffling says nothing about how any particular protein or protein was first produced–whether slowly or suddenly, or whether by natural selection or some other mechanism.  Remember a mousetrap spring might in some way resemble a clock spring, and a crowbar might resemble a mousetrap hammer, but the similarities say nothing about how a mousetrap is produced.  In order to claim that a system developed gradually by a Darwinian mechanism a person must show that the function of the system could “have been formed by numerous successive, slight modifications.”  DBB 90

Of course I had to change it to fit language evolution, and perversely, I had to shift his analogy to one that actually is roughly analogous with biological evolution, hence it becomes absurd to say that the similarities of an evolved language say nothing about how these originated, although of course the (non-accidental) similarities of his designed object really do give no indication (by themselves) of how they were actually made.  When I change his dis-analogous comparison into an analogous comparison, it becomes a senseless claim (think of how differently aliens might make these objects).

I briefly discussed his denial that genetic evidence tells us about evolution yesterday, along with his denial of all of the other evidence. But this particular denial cuts so close to the heart of Behe’s errors and apparent lack of understanding of science that I thought it would be worth discussing further, especially since it tantamount to denying the evidence used to understand language evolution (although the selectional mechanisms are different, which shows up in the details of both evolutions, including their taxonomies). For, nucleotide sequences, coupled with their organization, have many similarities to languages and their structures, even though they also have many dissimilarities. 

By contrast, there is no “phenotype evolution” of language comparable to the evolution of phenotypes in biological evolution, and all “language fossils” (texts) are quite recent, certainly more recent than the Indo-European language, which is inferred solely from the vocabulary and grammar of the languages derived from it.  We’re stuck comparing evolution of the “languages” of biology and of humans, if we wish for the most honest analogy of the evolutions of both.

And of course one may study languages in context to understand the mechanisms of language evolution.  This, by the way, opposes how a science touching upon intelligent cognition actually operates, versus ID which has no mechanism or meaningful causes whatsoever.  Indeed, even the rates of language evolution are thought able to be studied, so that one study concluded (as most biologists also conclude regarding organic evolution) that languages typically go through bursts of evolution, as in “punctuated equilibrium.”

Among IDists there seems to be quite an aversion to actually considering evidence.  Behe does not look at the gene sequences and ask what they tell him, instead he looks at them and denies that the evidence matters.  In addition, he brings in a canard in the above quote, using Darwin as the standard for what sorts of changes are possible in evolution, when in fact many consider that at least some of the changes (like gene duplications) can be quite dramatic and not “slight” changes as such. 

If one looks at genes one may observe whether or not gene duplications provided the opportunities for “slight modifications” (at least relatively small changes are thought responsible for modifying most duplicated genes) which in time could produce dramatic changes.  In a similar manner, one may detect whether or not there was a single ancestral gene, if one is able to do enough comparison of the appropriate genes, and thus whether or not two or more copies evolved from one or more duplication events (important in the evolution of the adaptive immune system, soon to be discussed here).  One may observe ancestral functions of genes by genetic comparisons, and therefore what later genetic capacities have evolved.  Above all, one may discover what constraints existed in the evolution of a certain capacity, for instance what sorts of genes were needed for a function like adaptive immunity, and to discover precursor genes that already had some of the needed function.  Indeed, that is often enough how the precursor gene itself is found, through the function, and only then it is found to have an ancestral sequence.

Indeed, the constraints of biological evolution are rather more strict–hence cause is more easily matched up with effect–than in language evolution.  Yet no one really thinks that we can’t come to reasonable conclusions about many of the mechanisms of the evolution of a given language.  Biological evolution is much more precisely understood than is language evolution, and yet the IDists do not complain about the latter, only the former.

I brought up such obvious evidence of origination in the penultimate paragraph in part because I intend to discuss mainly the evidence that adaptive immunity evolved, and not so much the questions about how it “could evolve”–though clues about such possibilities are also to be found in genes, without being resolvable at this time–as has happened often.  Someone like Behe (unlike many traditional creationists) does not deny the massive evidence for language evolution merely because no one has ever truly shown that humans are capable of functioning to effect such complex evolution–indeed, one simply uses the evidence of language evolution to understand presently known mechanisms and possibly some remaining unknown ones (on the other hand, Behe would be likely to simply credit “intelligence” as the cause of language evolution, and thus would probably fail once again).    Likewise, when we observe genes in agnathans (jawless fish) and gnathostomes (jawed vertebrates) which gave rise to different families of genes for their divergent adaptive immune systems, we understand evolution to occur by sufficient and observable means, crucially via “natural selection,” and seek to understand how these systems evolved by such known means–and possibly by unknown means–if effects of these may be discovered.

The fact is that genomes are coming on-line more and more swiftly–for many reasons–with one of the prominent reasons being in order to discover how genes and pathways evolved.  Fortunately for us, several of the “irreducibly complex” pathways not only were reasonably well understood when Darwin’s Black Box was written, but are even better understood today.  The evolution of adaptive immunity may be one of the best examples of learning from genetic comparisons how it evolved from innate immunity (primarily), and so, far from being a problem (though questions remain), it is in fact one of the best counterexamples to Behe’s complaint that he doesn’t understand how it evolved, so it must not have done so.  And that is what will be discussed soon in the Darwin’s Black Box category.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

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6 Comments on “Behe and language origination”

  1. Bob Says:

    Language is a behavior, so there is abundant information about behavior in a variety of non-human animals that we can learn from. I have a paper under review about this view.


  2. […] My previous post in this category (Darwin’s Black Box), and this one, are leading up to future posts dealing with the evidence of the evolution of immunity, framing the issue.  After all, Behe manipulates the argument by framing everything according to his perspective, which truly does amount to dishonest framing.  I am indeed framing (in the way more writers on these matters should do), by restoring the context that Behe stripped away from his own discussions of these things, and I do not doubt that this is quite an honest frame.  The immune system is very important in both of his books, so I have an additional point to bring in as introduction, which is that the evidence of the evolution of the immune system goes directly against Behe’s claims of the inadequacy of evolution, in both of his books–but especially in Edge of Evolution (which is why this post is also in the EoE category, and will be put on the EoE cumulative post). […]


  3. […] My previous post in this category (Darwin’s Black Box), and this one, are leading up to future posts dealing with the evidence of the evolution of immunity, framing the issue. After all, Behe manipulates the argument by framing everything according to his perspective, which truly does amount to dishonest framing. I am indeed framing (in the way more writers on these matters should do), by restoring the context that Behe stripped away from his own discussions of these things, and I do not doubt that this is quite an honest frame. The immune system is very important in both of his books, so I have an additional point to bring in as introduction, which is that the evidence of the evolution of the immune system goes directly against Behe’s claims of the inadequacy of evolution, in both of his books–but especially in Edge of Evolution (which is why this post is also in the EoE category, and will be put on the EoE cumulative post). […]


  4. […] My previous post in this category (Darwin’s Black Box), and this one, are leading up to future posts dealing with the evidence of the evolution of immunity, framing the issue. After all, Behe manipulates the argument by framing everything according to his perspective, which truly does amount to dishonest framing. I am indeed framing (in the way more writers on these matters should do), by restoring the context that Behe stripped away from his own discussions of these things, and I do not doubt that this is quite an honest frame. The immune system is very important in both of his books, so I have an additional point to bring in as introduction, which is that the evidence of the evolution of the immune system goes directly against Behe’s claims of the inadequacy of evolution, in both of his books–but especially in Edge of Evolution (which is why this post is also in the EoE category, and will be put on the EoE cumulative post). […]

  5. Michael Says:

    Great post. I loved reading it.


  6. […] All creationism has to offer us is a cautionary example, and a source of endless humor (example: the intelligent design of languages?).4 The administration should establish a policy of promoting knowledge of important scientific […]


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