The language analogy (by Dan Ryder)

In this post, I will expand upon the language analogy I was able to present only briefly during the debate. The main message is this: the very same reasoning applies to both languages and the biological world to provide conclusive evidence for one thing being descended from another. If that reasoning is correct for languages (as everyone including the creationists admit), then it is correct for the biological world as well. By the same token, if a young-earth creationist decides to tilt at windmills and say that this reasoning is incorrect in order to deny the obvious fact of common descent in the biological world, then they are also forced to accept absurd claims about language, e.g. that French is not descended from Latin.

OK, here goes. During the Roman Empire, the territory covering Italy, France, and Spain all spoke Latin. There were local variations, but all these Latin speakers could understand one another. They had to, as there were extensive trade connections among them, requiring successful communication.

When the western Empire fell, however, these trade connections gradually disappeared. Communication was no longer important, and without this pressure to remain the same, the local variations increased in number and size. (Imagine if North Americans, Brits, and Aussies stopped communicating for a few hundred years!) Eventually, they diverged so much that the separate populations could no longer understand one another on the rare occasions they came into contact. They were not speaking Latin anymore; they were speaking its descendent languages: Italian, French, and Spanish. (This is the equivalent of descendent species in biology, which have become isolated and no longer “communicate” – or interbreed – with one another.)

Even if we knew none of this history, we could easily see that Italian, French, and Spanish have a common ancestor just by looking at their vocabulary, grammar, and sound. For example, “cat” is “gato”, “chat”, and “gato”; “tree” is “alberro”, “arbre” and “árbol”; and “tower” is “torre”, “tour”, and “torre”. The similarities are not coincidence: they indicate common ancestry. By contrast, the Swahili words for “cat”, “tree”, and “tower” are “paka”, “mti”, and “mnara”. This difference indicates that Swahili is much more distantly related, if it is related at all. Of course you have to look at the languages as a whole to be sure, and linguists have done just that – reconstructing the evolution of languages often without knowing the slightest thing about the people who spoke them.

In biological organisms, the things that change gradually are of course the genetic codes. These are even richer sources of information than languages – the human genome, for instance, is 3 billion letters long, about three times the length of the Encyclopedia Britannica. When we see that the chimp genome and the human genome are 98% similar, we (of course!) conclude that this isn’t a coincidence: they had a common ancestor. This is exactly the same reasoning as in the language case.

Linguists and biologists have both used this simple reasoning to build massive trees (or webs) of descent for most languages and for most organisms (in varying detail). They’ve been able to trace the geographic travels of both. They’ve been able to reconstruct both extinct languages and extinct genomes. They’ve been able to estimate the dates of these extinct languages and extinct organisms, based on rates of change measured today. They’ve been able to trace instances of “borrowing” terms (like the Swahili for “plow” is “plau”), and the biological equivalent (see Mackay’s “Family Trees” post & comments). In the biological case, this has all received ample confirmation in the fossil evidence. (In the language case, of course, the “fossil” evidence is ancient writing.)

Linguists know that common descent is a proven fact for languages. Biologists have even better evidence for common descent among organisms. Case closed – even we base our conclusions only on modern similarities and differences.

I’ve only lightly touched on this rich analogy, and I haven’t given any specific biological examples beyond the Meredith et al. paper I mentioned in my comment on Mackay’s “Family Trees” post. So I will gradually follow up on this and more in the comments, in the coming week and a half.

6 thoughts on “The language analogy (by Dan Ryder)

  1. LANGUAGE EVOLUTION? Now that my laptop is back online, I notice Dan is using human language families as evidence evolution is possible and logical. But Dan it’s time to admit the words you typed didn’t happen by themselves. You were the creative intelligence behind them. Languages do change and evolve in the real pre Darwinian meaning of the word. i.e to develop out of something that already exists. But again the process never happens by itself. Its neither naturalistic nor random. People evolve language. We create new words, invent new concepts and find a way to say them. We alter spelling and pronunciation and borrow words from other languages. But always and only because we are the Intelligent Design selecting what will survive and even deciding what grammar is acceptable. Besides your argument makes the same mistake as Darwin. He thought that by showing how finches in South America may have become finches in Galapagos, he had proved finches weren’t created. But as eminent evolutionist and Harvard biologist, Ernst Mayr stated , “Darwin never really did discuss the origin of species in his On the Origin of Species.” (1) Darwin and his followers provide many accurate examples of natural selection, but wilfully forget that selection only works on what already exists. Survival of the fittest never explains arrival of the fittest.

    You rightly show what happens to words after they are here Dan but extending it as proof the human speaker of those words evolved, when you haven’t even proved from fossils or genetics (which is the topic of the debate), where language came from, let alone the Human Speaker, you show a serious lack of logic. Of course if it could be shown that Latin inscriptions written in Roman time changed by themselves into French or Italian inscriptions by chance random processes then Dan’s argument would demand a hearing. But the only thing that happens to ancient Latin inscriptions is that they fade or are eroded away, and the information in them is lost. So how about proving where finches originally come from, or maybe you should concede that claiming finches in South America evolved into Finches on the Galapagos means they too have produced their own kind as Genesis states the Creator made all life to do.

    (1) Mayr’s book Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942), cited by Niles Eldredge, in Time Frames:The Rethinking of Darwinian Evolution and the Theory of Punctuated

    Equilibria (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), p. 33.

    -John Mackay

  2. Wow! Apparently John is conceding the central plank of biological evolution, namely common descent. It’s just that he thinks 1) the process was partly guided by intelligence, like it is with language and dog breeds and, 2) it happened very quickly. By contrast, I (along with virtually all the experts) think that 1) it was almost never guided by intelligence (except in rare instances like dog breeds), and 2) it happened very slowly. The reason I say John appears to be conceding the point is this: the nifty thing about the reasoning I’ve described is that it demonstrates common descent, whatever the mechanism. It works for languages (where we agree there’s a role for intelligence), and it works for organisms (where we differ on whether there’s a role for intelligence.)

    John: what you’ve said implies that your view goes like this. God initially created the first life (something very simple). Then He copied this first life, introducing some new variations. Some of those variations He kept; perhaps others he discarded. Then He copied those variations, yielding yet more variety of life, etc., etc. following the pattern that the DNA analyses demonstrate, and exactly matching the pattern of descent that evolutionary theory is describing with increasing detail and accuracy – He just did it really, really fast. Rather than mutation and natural selection, you claim the genetic changes were intelligently targeted, and the selection (if any) was artificial (i.e. intelligent). Do I have that right? If not, where does your view depart from that picture?

    To summarize the question: do you think that God designed all life by way of (really, really fast) common descent? I predict you’ll say “no”. But then you run smack dab into the same problem again (among many, many others): why does the language-type reasoning work in some cases, but not other exactly similar cases?

    You were very clear, however, that you accepted common descent for Darwin’s finches. Another example would be the rock wallabies on your own continent, which are described in Potter et al., Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 62 (2012) 640–652. (There are hundreds if not thousands of similar examples.) You accept that the variation within these kinds was generated by common descent – from the original breeding pairs that came off the Ark, according to you. But there’s a serious problem for you there. The biology dictates that this must have taken roughly a million years for the finches, and 10 million years for the wallabies! For the wallabies, you’re shrinking a process of gradual change that took 4 to 5 million generations – which fits nicely with today’s observed mutation rates – into a couple thousand generations.

    For one thing, the astronomical mutation rate required would have killed the poor things from cancer right at the beginning. (You could solve that by saying God targeted the changes, i.e. within “kind” evolution is by intelligent design too.) But here’s the kicker: the rate of evolution that you need (even if it’s guided) is such that we should now be able to literally watch it happening before our very eyes! Just go out into your back yard, folks, and watch those ants evolve. John, you think that there hasn’t been enough time for all these enormously rapid little changes to add up to big changes, which is how evolutionary theory says you get the things you’re calling new “kinds”. At that rate of change, though, even you have to admit it won’t be long before the process gives us new “kinds”!

    I’ve ignored some major mistakes in your comment: about Darwin “wilfully forgetting” that selection works only on what already exists, your use of the Mayr quote, and about the single Latin inscription transforming into French, as though evolution claims a single chimp gradually turned into a human. (That’s rubbish and you know it.) Maybe I’ll deal with those in a separate comment – unless you’re kind enough to clarify for the non-expert folks out there.

  3. Ryder¹s Fatal Errors (by John Mackay)

    Dan, why are you still playing around with languages to prove evolution? We agree languages do change over time and they do descend from a parent language. The bible describes exactly that. One common created language for all people which was first changed at Babel. But you abuse the analogy when you claim changing languages are a picture for the biological world where ‘one thing descended from another’. Are you kidding? Your language analogy has nothing to do with how simple chemicals formed the first cell, how naturalistic processes produced a genetic language from no language and then continued without intelligent input to generate increasing information. Language analogies also have nothing to do with whether fossils show how one type of organism evolved into a totally different organism. Could we stick to the debate question about fossil/genetic evidence and stop equivocating. You compare languages (invented by intelligent designers) to the genetic code which you describe as being much more complicated than languages. So let¹s think that one through. Languages come from intelligence but a far more complicated genetic program happened by itself. Care to backtrack on that? Shouldn¹t you conclude that since languages have come from intelligence therefore a much more complicated and efficient genetic code came from a much more competent and superior intelligence? That¹s logical. You mention chimps and humans have 98% similar DNA. You¹re out of date. Recent studies now show quite a difference between chimp and humans on chromosome 22. I quote: ‘The results reported this week showed that “83% of the genes have changed between the human and the chimpanzee only 17% are identical so that means that the impression that comes from the 1.2% [sequence] difference is [misleading]. In the case of protein structures, it has a big effect,” Sakaki said.’ Furthermore, chimp and human Y chromosomes differ by more than 30% in a recent study. And you accused me of not researching things! You make the statement that biologists have even better evidence for common descent among organisms. But the only common descent through time that could be demonstrated must come from fossils which do go all the way back to the original and separate kinds – but no further. Biologists have no evidence for a common ancestor of all life, no matter how insistently they point out gene similarities. Explanations are not evidence. We actually have evidence that kinds reproduce their same kinds in the present and all through observed history which is thoroughly supported by the fossil record. Besides as I stated during the debate ­ genetic mechanisms for replication prevent organisms from evolving.

    My punch line? Museums are estimated to contain 100 billion invertebrate fossils plus another 500,000 fossilized fish. Evolutionists claim invertebrates gave rise to fishes. Surely 100 billion fossil invertebrates might contain one example showing how an ancestor evolved a backbone and ultimately became a fish. But there is ***absolutely no evidence*** for this supposed transition! Given the plethora of fossils and the inadequacies of the fossil record to support evolution…evolution has become the god of the gaps. The huge number of fossils is more than a lack of evidence for invertebrates evolving to fish. It¹s damning evidence against evolution, and wonderful evidence that Genesis is accurate about how life was created to function ­it really does produce after its kind! As you might say: case closed!

  4. I’ll respond to what seems to be your answer to my question about what the relevant difference is between language and biology later. (Short version: it’s no answer.) In the meantime, please answer two of the other direct questions I posed:

    1) You accept common descent for Darwin’s finches. Do you accept common descent for the rock wallabies? The evidence is the same for both, after all.
    2) Was the common descent in finches (and rock wallabies, if you accept that) achieved through God targeting the genetic changes, and choosing what variations survived? Or was it achieved through the operation of physical laws (a “naturalistic” process of mutation and natural selection)?

    My theory is on the table. You have not yet described yours beyond saying there is only descent “after an organism’s own kind” (which is spectacularly vague), and that God created the original kinds. Let’s have some details, please. Or do you not have any more details?

  5. I’ll separate this post into two. This one is the more important one, as I deal with the (few) points that John made that were on topic. In the next one, I’ll go through all the stuff where he threw out red herrings in order to try to avoid answering my questions. (In an oral debate, he can usually manage to dodge questions. I won’t let him get away with it here, however.)

    John: First, you suggested that common descent can only be demonstrated by fossils. Well, I do think common descent is demonstrated by fossils (that’s for a separate post, soon to appear). But to say that common descent in biology can only be demonstrated by fossils is exactly the same as saying common descent in languages can only be demonstrated when we have written texts. This is simply false. Here, for example, linguists traced the history of the Bantu languages of Sub-Saharan Africa back to about 3000 BC, without the use of any texts. Texts help, but they’re not needed. (Fossils helped in the Meredith et al. study of mammals and the Potter et al. study of rock wallabies, but they’re not needed.)

    John’s next sort of on-topic point: “Biologists have no evidence of a common ancestor for all life, no matter how loud they yell about evolutionist explanation of gene similarities. Explanations are not evidence.” So inference to common descent for the Bantu languages isn’t evidence? Or the inference to the existence of the atom? These are all inferences to the best explanation, which is what virtually all of science is. “Explanations are not evidence” is one of the more ridiculous things you’ve come out with.

    Even if biologists didn’t have evidence for a common ancestor to all life, you would still have to explain why we shouldn’t follow the basic common descent logic and infer a common ancestor for chimps and humans (among thousands of other examples). In any case, there is evidence for a universal common ancestor: for example, the genetic code. Triplets of DNA letters are translated into amino acids (the constituents of proteins) by a particular arbitrary formula: here it is. All life on earth uses this code, or a tiny variation on it (e.g. in mitochondria and some yeasts). Why? The only explanation is that all life on earth descended from a common ancestor. (It’s like finding out that all written languages on Earth share the same alphabet! Not true, of course, but if it were true, we’d obviously conclude that they inherited that alphabet via common descent.)

    C’mon, John, you need to say what’s supposedly wrong with this pattern of reasoning. But you can’t, of course, because it’s just basic logic: the principle of the common cause. Massive correlations that could not have occurred by chance, and that could not have caused one another (like the similarity between your genes and Koko the gorilla’s) must have a common cause. You could have dealt with the problem by saying that God did his designing by common descent. (Just like we do – you could trace the history of computer design by common descent too – earlier designs copied with modifications.) But you now deny that. What explains the pattern of similarities and differences, then? You have no answer.

    You find the language analogy troubling because you can see how the reasoning goes. Then when you contemplate the exact same reasoning concerning genetic codes, it just doesn’t compute, because your blinders go up. I know you won’t be taking off the blinders, but hopefully a few folks reading this will be able to.

    In summary: you still haven’t explained what the difference is between cases where you accept the common descent reasoning (languages, dogs, finches, and rock wallabies[?]), and cases where you don’t (chordates, mammals, primates). Also, please answer my two questions above, on the finches, rock wallabies, and the nature of common descent in those cases.

  6. And now here are the red herrings from John’s last comment. If you thought he made some good points there that I haven’t addressed, this is the post for you. Otherwise you can skip it.


    • We’re talking about the origins of languages from earlier languages, and the origins of biological types from earlier types. There’s nothing in my argument concerning the origin of language in general, or the origin of life. So your points about those are entirely irrelevant. (If you want to discuss those, you’ll need to post them as a new main topic.)

    • Suppose I accost a student concerning plagiarism, and they reply: but only 17% of my paragraphs are the same as that website! However, each paragraph is different by a only a few words; and only a few paragraphs are significantly different. (In a three hundred million word essay!) The student is just playing around with numbers, as are you with the chimp-human comparison.

    • You argued as follows:
    1) Language is intelligently designed by humans.
    2) Anything more complex must be designed by an even greater intelligence.
    3) Organisms’ genetic codes are more complex than languages.
    Therefore organisms’ genetic codes must be designed by a greater intelligence than humans. OK, we can pursue that (bad) argument in a separate post if you like. (Premise 2 is false, and even premise 1 is questionable.) But I repeat: the evidence for common descent we’re talking about applies equally to products of intelligent design and those that aren’t. I asked if you wanted to say that God designed organisms via common descent (targeted change and intelligent selection). You are apparently rejecting this view. Why?

    • On those mechanisms that work to prevent mutation, and therefore (according to you) “prevent organisms from evolving”: They’d only stop evolution if they prevented all mutation, and they don’t, not even close. (If you disagree with this simple answer, take it up in a new main post.)

    • You say: “We actually have evidence that kinds reproduce their same kinds in the present, through all observed history, and from the fossil record.” Well, if you mean parents produce offspring of the same kind, you’re right of course. The differences are so tiny that it would be silly to say they were “of a different kind.” But small differences add up over a long time. So in the short term, organisms reproduce after their own kind, but not in the long term. Eventually the differences are so large in the great-great- -great…[say a million generations]-grandchildren that even you would call them a different “kind”. Do you not admit this? If not, then move this issue to a main post.

    • On your demand for an early chordate fossil: Given the understandable scarcity (by comparison) of very early fossils, the lack here is far from “damning”; it is no problem at all. (As you know, those 100 billion [wow!] invertebrate fossils are much newer than the hypothesized development of chordates, which would have been early Cambrian or Pre-Cambrian, over 500 million years ago.) In fact, though, there are examples of just what you’re asking for – fish-like animals with bilateral symmetry containing primitive notochords. See for example Yunnanozoon, Haikouella, Haikouichthys, and Pikaia. Whether these are actual ancestors of current chordates is anyone’s guess, but they’re likely related. (You said “backbone”, which would be a later, rather small change – but see Myllokunmingia for the probable presence of cartilage.)

    • You say that I’m talking about “just” an analogy. Maybe I shouldn’t have used that word. Language and biology provide different cases of inferring common descent from patterns of similarity and difference. It’s the exact same reasoning; it’s not an analogy in any wimpy sense. Again: why do you get to pick and choose about where that reasoning is correctly applied?

    Still waiting for an answer, just like I’m waiting for an answer on the “challenge” thread….

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