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Austin Cline

Human Speech, Human Mind, and Human Evolution

By November 11, 2007

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Neanderthal Head, Reconstructed
Image Source: Jupiter Images
Svante Pääbo and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have extracted from Neanderthal fossils a gene linked to the creation of bird songs, ultrasonic sounds in mice, and language in human beings. According to Pääbo's findings, the gene is exactly the same in Neanderthals and modern humans; combined with physical structures necessary for producing complex sounds, this suggests very strongly that they could have had about the same speech capabilities as us.

This is interesting from an evolutionary perspective, but not all that shocking and certainly not inexplicable. It does, however, create a dilemma for creationists: why would Neanderthals have the genetic basis for speech if they are not us? Christian theology holds that humans and humans alone were created with souls and with a place in God's plans, but if the Neanderthals were as capable of speech as us, it's difficult to explain what their place in "creation" must be.

There has been much speculation about Neanderthals' ability to speak. They were endowed with a hyoid bone, which anchors the tongue and allows a wide variety of movements of the larynx. Neanderthal skulls also show evidence of a large hypoglossal canal. This is the route taken by the nerves that supply the tongue. As such, it is a requisite for the exquisitely complex movements of speech. Moreover, the inner-ear structure of Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of Neanderthals, shows that this species was highly sensitive to the frequencies of sound that are associated with speech.

That Neanderthals also shared with moderns the single known genetic component of speech is another clue that they possessed the necessary apparatus for having a good natter. But suggestive as that is, the question remains open. FOXP2 is almost certainly not “the language gene”.

Source: The Economist

If one believes in souls, then one must consider whether Neanderthals had souls. It would be bizarre to think that they would not have souls if they could speak to some degree like we do, had culture, and may have even had religious beliefs. On the other hand, how can a person believe that they had souls if they believe that we homo sapiens were specially created by God, separate from the rest of the animal world?

The existence of Neanderthal souls is not entirely compatible with traditional Christian theology; the non-existence of Neanderthal souls is also not entirely compatible with traditional Christian theology — especially if we remember all the evidence for their more advanced capabilities. This is hardly surprising because traditional Christian theology was created without knowledge of Neanderthals — it is, after all, a human creation without any divine or supernatural influence.

If we dispense with all the nonsense of souls and theology, though, there aren't any problems or incompatibilities. The ability of Neanderthals to speak is an interesting evolutionary question and it would be nice to know just how extensive their language skills might have been. The only "problem," if there is one, is for human egos:

The idea that the forebears of modern humans could talk would scupper the notion that language was the force that created modern human culture—otherwise, why would they not have built civilisations? But it would make that chat with a Neanderthal much more interesting.

So if Neanderthals could talk — perhaps not quite as well as our species, but reasonably well nevertheless — why didn't they create civilizations and cultures to the same extend as we did? To be fair, our species didn't do it for quite a while after Neanderthals died out so perhaps they didn't have a chance and maybe they would have done very well if they had and more time. We can wonder, though, what the driving force behind the construction of civilization, culture, and religion might have been if the key ingredient might not have been language.

November 11, 2007 at 1:08 pm
(1) Eric says:

I always suspected that it was language that gave us the advantage over Neanderthals and allowed us to thrive while they went extinct. Maybe I was wrong. Still, it’s a bit much to assume Neanderthals didn’t have culture. If they lived in social groupings, they probably had culture. It may simply not have been a culture that generated agriculture and urbanization – much like many cultures today.

November 11, 2007 at 2:22 pm
(2) A Different Eric says:

I can think of at least one semi-valid Christian response. There’s still a bit of debate in the world of biological anthropology concerning whether or not Neandertals were a seperate species from Homo sapiens. The Neandertal genome sequencing project has found no evidence that modern humans and Neandertals interbred, but that certainly does not close the book on that question.

So, if I were a Christian who believed that only Homo sapiens have souls, I could simply assert that Neandertals were a population of Homo sapien, and there would be a chance that I’m right.

November 11, 2007 at 2:35 pm
(3) Ned B says:

One theory concerning why civilization happened when it did is that hunting and gathering or foraging is actually a pretty comfortable life in many environments. But when groups, perhaps 10 or 12 thousand years ago started farming and were able to develop larger permanent settlements, pressure was on surrounding foraging groups to follow suit to protect themselves from encroachment by the larger ‘civilized’ groups. Hence the requirements for early civilization were a certain population density with early agricultural knowledge.

Right now, of course, we don’t have enough evidence to settle the question. But it is a viable theory about why Neanderthals didn’t develop civilization and why it took modern humans a while to get around to it. Also, modern humans probably had some evolutionary advantages, some of them probably had to do with language and the social abilities needed to form and maintain larger groups. Unfortunately, the kind of information needed to determine these details is nearly impossible to get from the fossil record.

November 11, 2007 at 3:14 pm
(4) Ron says:

There is a train of thouhgt that says agriculture was triggered by world climate change. A survival strategy

November 11, 2007 at 3:18 pm
(5) Ron says:

Question: Did the neanderthals really go extinct? I know a guy who looks exactly like the image that Austin posted here!

November 12, 2007 at 12:00 am
(6) ChuckA says:

I think a lot of us guys have known that…erm…’gentleman’, at some stage of our lives.
For many of us…it was when we had a full head of hair?…
and maybe even a morning hangover? :Shock:

November 12, 2007 at 2:13 am
(7) Patrick Quigley says:

“This is hardly surprising because traditional Christian theology was created with knowledge of Neanderthals — it is, after all, a human creation without any divine or supernatural influence.”

I think you meant for that with to be without, Austin.

November 12, 2007 at 9:15 pm
(8) Gotweirdness says:

“Question: Did the neanderthals really go extinct? I know a guy who looks exactly like the image that Austin posted here!”

Was this guy a creationist?

I wonder if we could gather enough information on the Neanderthals’ linguistic abilities then compare to that the typical ID proponent(s). I’m under the impression that the Neanderthal would be easier to understand than the ID proponent.

November 13, 2007 at 5:17 pm
(9) Ron says:

No, as far as I know, he was not a creationist. But he WAS a two fisted, carousin, boozin, womanizer. Whenever I was talking with him, I always found it difficult to keep my eyes off his prominent bony eyebrow ridges and receding forehead. However, on the same subject, there was another guy I worked with at another factory who WAS a fundamentalist creationist. The odd thing about him, was that he was bald, and you could see he had a very prominent saggitall crest that was about one half inch high. It was so obvious.

November 13, 2007 at 9:54 pm
(10) Gotweirdness says:

A sagital crest? Hmm…sounds like an robust Australopithecine. Well we know how far fundamentalists have reached on the evolutionary tree. But I’m probably insulting the Australopithecine.

November 17, 2007 at 2:15 pm
(11) Bob says:

Perhaps Neanderthals were capable of making intricate sounds but not the intellectual capability of developing language as sophisticated as ours. It could be a case of chicken and egg. Which came first a high degree of mental conception or a well developed sound apparatus? For example babies have voices but are 3 years of age before they can speak with fluency. With Neanderthals I suspect the voice came first to give a reason for more brain development.

July 22, 2008 at 10:44 pm
(12) Bob Helm says:

Many evangelical theologians are suggesting that the whole idea of humans having souls is unbiblical. Rather, they argue that humans and animals alike are souls. In other words, a soul is simply a living being, not a spirit within the being. Furthermore, those who believe in a literal, six-day creation argue that Neandertals descended from Adam. There-
fore, the author of this article may not suc-ceed as well as he hopes in undermining bib- lical views.

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