More Egnorance about Darwin and language in the Washington Post

September 18, 2016 • 9:30 am

Well, given the number of comments on my review in the Washington Post of Tom Wolfe’s abysmal new book on Darwin, Chomsky, and the evolutionary basis of language (Wolfe says there is no such basis), I shouldn’t have been surprised that there would be pushback from readers. But what I didn’t expect was that one of the two letters published would be from a creationist. Yes, like a dog returning to its vomit (Proverbs 26:11), intelligent-design creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, whose obsession with me is regularly on parade at the Discovery Institute website Evolution News and Views, couldn’t resist commenting.

Egnor had no beef with my “defense”—such as it was—of Chomsky, but he sure didn’t like my defense of Darwin. The curious thing is that, contrary to Egnor’s claim, I didn’t defend Darwin’s own views on language, which were rudimentary and fanciful, but rather the proposition that there is some genetic basis for the human use of language. I also called out Wolfe for his ignorant claim that there is no evidence for evolution, and that it neither explains any biological puzzles nor makes any predictions.

Egnor, of course, ignores my own comments in favor of casting doubt on the whole evolutionary enterprise on the basis of speculations that Darwin made about language. (By the way, Dr. Egnor, Darwin was right about evolution, natural selection, and common ancestry of all organisms.) Egnor apparently believes that language is a gift of the Unspecified Designer. And, as you might expect, he doesn’t identify himself as an intelligent-design creationist, which of course would cast doubt on his competence. Here’s his letter:

Jerry A. Coyne’s review of Tom Wolfe’s book “The Kingdom of Speech” [“Tom Wolfe should stop posing as an evolutionary biologist,” Outlook, Sept. 4] was a mixed bag. Coyne was right to defend Noam Chomsky from Wolfe’s attacks. Chomsky’s theories of universal grammar and recursion are supported by massive evidence and landmarks in modern linguistics and neuroscience. Chomsky has earned the respect of the scientific community. [JAC: This isn’t true—there is huge controversy about Chomsky’s theories, which I noted in my review.]

Coyne, however, was wrong to defend Charles Darwin from Wolfe’s scathing critique. As Wolfe pointed out, Darwinian stories about the origin of human language are pitifully inadequate. Human language bears no relation to the crude signals and gestures of animals. Nothing in the animal realm is a precursor to universal grammar or to the semantic subtlety of recursion — the layered meaning packed into clauses-within-clauses used routinely by all human beings.

Human language is sui generis. It is a window into the human soul, and it lacks any credible Darwinian roots. Wolfe is to be commended for bringing this fascinating discussion into the public forum.

Michael Egnor, Stony Brook, N.Y.

Go back to my original review and look again at my defense of Darwin.


But this second letter, from the director of an institute in Massachusetts that specializes in treating autistic children, is in some ways more disturbing, because you expect someone who treats autism to be a bit more rational:

Tom Wolfe is to be applauded for his new book, The Kingdom of Speech,” in which he posits that speech, contrary to Noam Chomsky’s position, did not arise from evolution but rather is a direct human creation. For those teaching children with autism, this truth is evident every day.

A primary diagnosis of autism is lack of speech and social interaction. For this large population, language is neither inherited nor instinctually structured, as Chomsky believes. The key to establishing language for those with autism is teaching functional communication, including alternative methods: sign language, pictures, touch-to-speak technology and mobile apps.

This functional approach is grounded in the science of applied-behavior analysis, proving Chomsky’s structural theory false. For the Chomsky school, nature is weighted over nurture. In our experience, nurture is the path by which those with no speech skills can achieve meaningful communication.

If language were an innate characteristic rather than something that could be acquired, there would be no option for a child who can’t speak. As those who teach children with autism know, this is clearly not the case. Teaching language, regardless of form, is a powerful tool to allow individuals diagnosed with autism to lead richer lives.

Vincent Strully Jr.,
Southborough, Mass.

The writer is founder and chief executive of the New England Center for Children.

Here Mr. Strully argues that because you can help autistic children learn to communicate through sign language and other non-speech-related techniques, language cannot have a genetic basis. This fallacy, that cultural intervention can’t change a trait if it has a genetic/evolutionary basis, is as old as modern biology.

Autism causes problems with communication and social interaction, and, as Strully notes, there are environmental interventions that can promote communication. Further, although we don’t understand the precise neural or physiological basis of autism, the condition is not only biologically based, probably representing some neural malfunction, but also has some genetic basis (it’s passed on) as well as some environmental influences, and this complex nexus of genes and environment, as well as difficulties with diagnosis, results in a highly variable condition—the “autism spectrum”.

Deafness, too, which also impedes communication, often has a genetic basis, but deaf people can use (and even invent) sign language without even being taught. But the existence of that language has no bearing on the biological basis of deafness.  Maybe Mr. Strully finds that easier to grasp.

But as biologists (and rational folks) have long realized, the fact that a biological “malfunction” (like diabetes) can be cured or ameliorated does not mean that the “normal” condition (language, in the case of autism) is not based on genes and evolution. Strully’s argument—that autistic children learning to communicate shows that language has no basis in “nature” (genetics/evolution)—is equivalent to saying this: the fact that we can correct defective vision with eyeglasses is evidence that the eye did not evolve. Or, as Strully might say:

A primary diagnosis of myopia is an inability to focus the eye properly. For this large population, the eye itself is not inherited. . . In our experience, nurture (wearing glasses) is the path by which those with poor vision can achieve better sight.

Frankly, I’m appalled that Strully fell victim to a fallacy like this.

Egnor (l.) and Strully

42 thoughts on “More Egnorance about Darwin and language in the Washington Post

  1. “Nothing in the animal realm is a precursor to universal grammar…”
    I suppose he means that there is nothing like human language in the animal kingdom, but of course he has completely Egnored the mountains of research showing that language pervades the animal kingdom.
    If he means that there are no specific dialects of human language found in animals, again he is essentially wrong. No, animals don’t use words in Urdu or Cantonese, but one only has to look to the gestures and expressions and vocal tone of primates to make a monkey out of that argument.

    1. Here’s a contrary view I ain’t no linguist or evolutionary biologist, but even if dolphins don’t “speak” language as we humans know it, I don’t think that it constitutes any kind of proof to substantiate Wolfe’s contention, which I contend is the unstated foundation of his complete rejection of human evolution.

      And how come others who post comments can use italics? I can’t, even when I paste in from Word or my email template. This is rank typeface discrimination!

      1. So what is the difference between dolphins “communicating”, which no-one denies, and “speaking”? The article to which I linked simply seemed to show subtler ramifications to their communication than hitherto realised. Just because we cannot (yet?) understand their grammar does not mean that they have none. The report does not disprove Wolfe’s contention, but does undermine it.

        1. I agree with your statement: “Just because we cannot (yet?) understand their grammar does not mean that they have none.” I’m simply offering a cautionary perspective on the matter, hopefully to broaden the discussion — in particular because so far, in every report other than this one, the uncritical assumption, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, is that it’s prima facie evidence that dolphins exhibit the ability to engage in conversation the way we humans define it, when there can be other explanations for what seems to be human-like activity.

        2. The Chomskyian school holds that human communication systems are unique because of embedding, facilitating what is called the “creative aspect of language use” (and its reception).

  2. I did some googling to look for additional, obscure, and as yet unremarked upon critiques of “His White Suit Unsullied…” and find that there’s now a Wiki specifically dealing with the controversy surrounding The Kingdom of Speech, a paragraph of which is devoted to Jerry Coyne’s NYP review.

    I’m appreciative of the rebuttal to Vincent Strully in light of autism and other “biological malfunctions.”

  3. … you expect someone who treats autism to be a bit more rational….

    You can treat anything with anything but it doesn’t mean that you know what you’re doing.
    It seems to me that autism would be the exception that proves the rule. The likeliest reason for it is that some evolved mechanism has failed rather than some mysterious factor has singled out some innocents for abuse.

    1. It has been my personal experience that families with children with autism are quite religious. I’ve never done a proper survey;I wouldn’t be allowed, but I’ve yet to meet a single person with a child who has autism, or any number of severe developmental disabilities who did not slip god into their conversations with me. I admit I was a bit shocked at first. I had expected a far less religious mindset, especially when quite a few are very medically and scientifically literate on the issue that affects their child, but then end result seems to be that they always fell back on God as the source of strength, healing, and ultimate cause. I stay silent when this happens, quietly confused but still considerate.

    2. As someone mildly on the autistic spectrum, I can confirm this. A significant minority of people involved in the treatment of autism have no idea what they’re doing, or for that matter, what they’re treating.

  4. I know Egnor writes for the Discovery Institute occasionally, but he isn’t an ID-er himself, he’s a Catholic. Since ID tends to be a front for Creationism despite its pretense at being scientific, the friendliness between the two is understandable.

    1. Michael Behe is a biochemist, a Catholic, and an intelligent design proponent. There are different flavors of ID, and though all leave a bad taste in the mouths of the rational, not all are incompatible with catholicism.

  5. Strully’s strange irrationality made me wonder what kind of church he attends. Dogma leads logic like Alice down the rabbit hole.

  6. Even quite “severely autistic” people can *understand* language quite well. Autistic children I’ve worked with (as a social worker) would sometimes manage the occasional word, line from a song, and or sing a highly complex melody*.

    Autism is so complex and distinctive, yet hard to pin down, that it serves perfectly as a screen for projecting one’s ideology and unconscious assumptions about human nature onto it. People training autists with cards and other simplified communication systems have a tendency sometimes to grossly underestimate the linguistic (and mental) abilities of autists.

    To say that “no speech” equates with “no innate language capabilities” is pure blank-slateism.

    (*One 9 year old once sang the whole melody of Neil Young’s Powderfinger while I played it on guitar — that he’d learned the melody entirely from my atrocious singing possibly counts as a miracle!)

    1. I believe that NPR’s Ron Suskind’s book and movie about his son, Owen, is in this similar vein. I believe the movie (maybe the book too) is called Life, Animated and is about the connection Suskind made with his son through the use of Disney movie dialogues. I’ve only heard interviews, haven’t seen the movie yet, but just because people with autism don’t communicate the same way the rest of us do does not imply that they do not and cannot communicate.

  7. The language centres of the brain might have adapted for spoken language but that doesn’t mean, in the absence of hearing, or the ability to vocalise, those language centres are absent. Even children who are deaf, dumb and blind can be taught to ‘speak’ by touch.

    If there is no innate capacity for language how can they do this? It’s not like they witness other people doing this?

    As to language difficulties among autistics, that’s not universal for those of us on the spectrum. The difference between high-functioning autism and Aspergers is that the former have delayed language acquisition and the latter do not.

    HFA and Aspies might (stereotypically) have problems with figurative language or irony but this is down to difficulties interpreting intent, not deficits in grammar or vocabulary.

    Autistic humour is often based on wordplay and a tendency to neologise (invent new words) is often a diagnostic indicator of autism.

  8. Complex forms of communication among humans likely involved multiple exaptations that were modulated and refined via increasingly complex societies. I’d like to think that I can communicate more effectively now than when I was 2 years old. Nonetheless, many toddlers make more sense than Egnor.

  9. Despite receiving some deserved flak about atheism bashing, I think Frans de Waal has shown conclusively that basically *all* human behaviours, including language, have ‘precursors’ in extant apes and monkeys.

  10. Most of what I wanted to say already has been said here, and better than I could have.

    Much as it is my preferred form of communication, the spoken or written word is not the end-all, be-all of communication, as there is music, dance, mime, art, etc. The whole body and all outputs of the brain can communicate. And, communication is not the sole property of humanity as has been shown by many scientists about numerous species (don’t these people read?!) As Strully himself points out, alternative forms of communication other than speech are possible.

    In addition, just because certain autistic (or other) human beings choose not to communicate verbally, does not mean they can’t. When someone says something that resonates enough with them to want to communicate with that someone “outside”, they may then choose to respond. I can’t tell you how many exceptionally bright children I’ve known who didn’t talk in their early years. Sometimes it was because they didn’t have to; they could get what they wanted without speaking. Sometimes it was because they were totally engrossed with their own mental processes. Also, if we want to communicate with others who for whatever reason do not speak, it might behoove us to learn their preferred methods of communication.

    I hadn’t noticed that Autism seems more prevalent in religionist families. Maybe it’s because I intentionally don’t socialize with many believers any more. But, I am more inclined to think that autism has developed in response to our highly processed and chemical infested foods, as well as the farming practices in use that require tons of chemicals. There’s a ton of literature on the ills afflicting human beings as a result of our ghastly diet.(Read Taubes, Sinatra, Bowden, Eades and others.) I’m sure we’re not the only life forms being adversely affected.

    1. I haven’t read any studies indicating a link between autism and religious upbringing. I have read a number of studies showing a correlation between autism and atheism.

      I post occasionally on Wrong Planet, an autism forum, and most posters there seem to be atheists. Which makes sense since autism is a deficit in ‘theory of mind’ (or intentionality) and religion is an extension of intentionality to inanimate objects (including dead people) and natural phenomena such as the weather or crop failure.

      Religiosity correlates more with schizophrenia (which induces a sense of intent pretty much everywhere) and temporal lobe epilepsy.

      As to the causes of autism, wild guesses aren’t helpful, whether you are blaming food additives, vaccines or ‘refrigerator mothers’. That’s not how science works.

    2. I should point out that in my post about religion, I meant that the families tended to be very religious. I can recall one situation where a child (not autistic, but used here as an example) who was so extremely disabled to not be able to respond to much of any stimuli whatsoever but was put into a shirt that said “Jesus Loves Me”. This really made me sick. If jebus really loved this child, and we’re pretending jebus actually exists and does the things the goodies claim he does, then why the hell did he “make” this poor child so severely disabled as to be, as one might say in less PC terms, a vegetable?

      The one thing I can say is that many of these parents do get much comfort and support from their churches, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing up my lack of religion unless I knew them very well, and I certainly wouldn’t attack them over their belief, no matter how much it bothered me.

  11. Sure, we can criticize the confusion of Egnor and Strully, but can we say anything nice about them?

    I know! They are masters of the non sequitur. That’s a kind of a compliment, isn’t it?

  12. I don’t understand what Mr. Strully’s beef is. Did he wake up on the wrong side of the bed or something? Take a chill pill Vincent.

  13. I miss a lot of things but for me one, the hardware, the biological bases to actually communicate has evolved via natural selection and two, that language itself has evolved by environmental pressure. It even has a DNA quality about it… bases and mutation.
    Even if you can’t stomach the former the latter has been shown by scholars, academics and well documented.
    Universal facial expressions is a bedrock of communication, no grunts required, never the less the observer will process something and react. The point being is the pressure to communicate in an ever more sophisticated manner would have been immense.
    I read a book about a guy (the writer) years ago, who boxed his way around Australia in the late 40 – 50’s he was an angry man. Turns out he was dyslectic and this was the bases of his anger and frustration. He could not read.
    We take our abilities for granted was what I learned.
    So, to me the ability to communicate has survival and a fitness benefits that natural selection would have ‘recognized’ and selected for. The environment did the rest.
    NS is smarter than these two pokes and not a word was spoken, just take a look around.

    “why do you look so depressed?”
    I read the Prof(E) post today on language.

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