Language: An Evolutionary Development for Human Survival

Scott Schroeder

All living organisms with developed brains exhibit communication in some form. Language, either verbal or written, is only one method in which thoughts can be transmitted to others. The pervasive question which universally plagues sociologists, paleontologists, and scientists of numerous disciplines is why humans are the only species which are capable of communicating in an intricate language. Several intriguing theories exist on the subject.  The Noam Chomsky position that a built-in language organ was plugged into the human brain in a single accident of prehistory, possibly through some sort of divine intervention, is a novel idea, but does not follow the logical progression of evolution as has occurred with all species on the planet.

The fascinating and mysterious phenomenon of evolution is not fully understood in terms of a mechanism which alters a species’ genetic makeup, modifying the appearance and physical traits of the species. All we know is that evolution occurs out of survival necessity to enable a species to adapt to its environments. If evolution is a natural process which enables a species to survive and adapt to its environment, why is spoken language a development of evolution?

By nature, humans have an innate instinct to congregate in social orders. This does not necessarily distinguish humans from other species. Other animals are social and congregate in packs, herds, schools, and flocks, but those species never developed the skills of language. What distinguishes humans from these other social species is the ability of humans to create artefacts. The ability to create artefacts created a need to communicate this technology to other humans so that technology could be passed along and built upon by others in the social order and to subsequent generations.

The sharing of technology led to more cooperative communal living arrangements of increasing complexity which involved collective hunting and foraging activities. This also created a need for increased sophistication in communication. In early environments in which humans were physically at a disadvantage to larger, quicker, and more powerful prey, the ability to build artefacts and the need to collaborate on multifaceted efforts was essential to the survival of the species. Spoken language was the most effective means of early humans to communicate these complex tasks, and therefore became a necessity of survival.

Animals may lack the physical or cognitive ability to communicate thoughts in spoken words, but they may still verbally communicate in tones. Some languages, such as Thai, are characterized as tonal because similar words take on different meanings based on the tone they are spoken. Dog owners are able to determine the mood of their pets based on the tone of their barks.  Anyone who has ever lived with more than one dog in the house can attest that dogs can seemingly have a conversation between each other. These isolated signals could possibly be one-­to-one correlational in nature.  We as humans may not be able to decode what is being communicated, but the responses of the dogs clearly indicate that communication is taking place.

Though unable to verbalize, evidence has proven that dogs can recognize symbolic  reference to human language. Psychologists Alliston Reid and John Pilley of Wofford College methodically taught Chaser, their border collie, the names of hundreds of toys over a three year period as part of a research experiment in animal psychology. In total, Chaser was able to selectively identify 1,022 individual toys based off of name recognition.

All species on earth have undergone evolution to some degree. These evolutions are a function of adapting species to their respective environments. In the case of the dog, a social animal which has been domesticated for thousands of years and congregates in packs in the wild, language was not a survival skill which necessitated evolutionary intervention. The dog’s tongue may not conform to speech, but it is an ideal instrument for the essential life functions of regulating the dog’s body temperature, drinking water, cleaning and grooming itself and others, and applying healing enzymes to wounds. These functions are far more essential to the dog than the ability to converse with other canine about the origin of their species or contemplate whether all dogs go to heaven.

Spoken and written language was the result of evolutionary necessity in humans. In order to communicate technology and interact in complex social architectures, humans required the ability to communicate complex thoughts which is accomplished most effectively through language. The mechanism which conceives evolutionary change remains a mystery. Another great question of relevance may be whether the inception of language itself further evolved the development of the human brain. These are questions which will likely be debated without ever being unequivocally proven. It could be that the phenomenon of evolution which provided humans the gift of language is simply one of the universe’s mysteries which man is not meant to understand.