Metro State Atheists

Promoting Science, Reason, and Secular Values

Food for Freethought 2010

What is “Food for Freethought”?

Food for Freethought, inspired by the Center for Inquiry’s Campaign for Free Expression, is a food drive that also encourages freethought, freedom of expression, and free inquiry.  We plan to accomplish this by giving “Banned” and Freethought books away in exchange for non-perishable food donations that will be going to Food Bank of the Rockies, during “Banned Books Week”, September 27 – October 2 (specific dates below).  Our goal is to raise an enormous amount of food for those in need.  Most food drives are done during the holidays and tons of food is raised and distributed.  That is all well and good, but what about the majority of the time that it isn’t the holiday season?  The hungry don’t stop being hungry after the holidays, they are hungry now too!  Given the existing goals of Metro State Atheists, it is only natural that we would attempt to help the hungry by promoting freethought, freedom of expression, and free inquiry.  With the proper support,  we can  have an immeasurable positive community impact!

The event will be taking place at the Auraria Campus (1201 5th St, Denver, CO 80204).   September 28-30th, 9am-4pm (Times Subject to Change)

Metro State Atheists will have SIGNED COPIES available at Food For Freethought 2010 by the following authors:

Hemant MehtaDaniel Dennett , James RandiMichael ShermerDan Barker, and…RICHARD DAWKINS!. If you’d like to obtain any of these signed copies, donate food!

Largest donors receive signed books!

Metro State Atheists would like to formally thank the above and the following groups  for their support:

The James Randi Educational Foundation

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

The Center for Inquiry

Secular Student Alliance

Skeptic Magazine

Freedom From Religion Foundation

How can I help?

AMAZON.COM Wishlist

Click here and check out the Food for Freethought 2009 wishlist.  From there you can buy the books directly and they will be sent to us!

A special thanks to Tanya J. Higgins of Boulder, CO for setting this up.

Donate Books:

If you have any of the books on the banned book list (http://banned-books.com/bblist.html) and would like to donate it to the cause, please email Joel Guttormson at metroatheists@hotmail.com to set up pick up/delievery of your donation.


July 28, 2009 Posted by | Art, Astrology, Astronomy, atheism, Awards, Bacteriology, Bible, biology, Blurb, Books, Calculus, Censorship, Center For Inquiry, Charity, Chemistry, Christianity, Chromatography, creationism, Differential Equations, Epistemology, Events, evolution, First Century, god, Group Theory, Guest Bloggers, Humor, Interview, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Jesus is Lord, Language, Lecture, Mathematics, Medicine, Metro State Atheists, Microbiology, Morality, Movies, New Testament, News, Newsletter, Noah Mann-Engel, Old Testament, Organic Chemistry, Party, philosophy, Pictures, Poetry, Politics, Poll, Press Release, Pseudomedicine, Pseudoscience, Qoutes, religion, Resume, Rome, Sam Singleton, Sarah Schoonmaker, Satire, science, Scientology, Sirius, Skepticism, splendid elles, The Holy Bible, The Reed Secular Alliance, The Trickster, Troy Conrad, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Joel on MetRadio June 8, 2009

President of  Metro State Atheists, Joel Guttormson, will be on the MetRadio show, “Take Issue”, on June 8, 2009 from 2pm-3pm .  Joel will be on for 45 mins, the first 15 mins are for news.  You may listen to the show on the Auraria Campus on 91.7; best reception is in the Tivoli.  Metro State Atheists is a Center for Inquiry affiliate.  MetRadio is the radio station of Metropolitan State College of Denver.

If you are not on the Auraria Campus you must listen to the show online.

LISTEN TO THE SHOW: (You will need Real Player, get it here)

IN YOUR BROWSER

ON YOUR COMP W/ REAL PLAYER

-SUBSCRIBE TO THE METRADIO PODCAST HERE

June 2, 2009 Posted by | Astrology, atheism, Bible, Blurb, Books, Censorship, Center For Inquiry, Chemistry, Christianity, creationism, Epistemology, Events, evolution, First Century, god, Interview, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Jesus is Lord, Language, Lecture, Metro State Atheists, Morality, New Testament, News, Newsletter, Old Testament, philosophy, Politics, Press Release, religion, Scientology, Skepticism, The Holy Bible, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Joel’s Commentary on appearance on Bob Enyart Live 1/7/09

Introduction

As many of you know, I was a guest on the KGOV program, Bob Enyart Live.  Bob is the pastor at Denver Bible Church and host of the show bearing his name.  If you missed the show you can listen to it here.  Since the show is only half an hour, there were things I didn’t get to explain or talk about in the detail I would have liked.  Further, since Bob is the host, he is obviously going to control the speaking time and thus I was left with less than he had, further added to the lack of time I had to explain and expand on my points.  However, this is not way a swipe at Bob or the way he conducts the show, it’s the way it is with any radio show regardless of topic.  The topics I wanted to address are: the discussion towards the end relating to my statement that design and beauty are subjective, that “Bob and Joel agreed that Christians do not assert that God came into existence with the writing of the Bible. Thus inconsistencies, even if they were shown to exist in Scripture, would not disprove God’s existence.”(Source: http://www.kgov.com), and that “being a person has more to do with the non-physical realm of ideas, logic, relationships, and reason, than it does with chemistry and physics.” (Source: http://www.kgov.com).  I was going to tackle the Einstein quotation, but a comment left on a previous blog addresses the topic/point well enough that I don’t not feel that further elaboration is necessary.

1. Beauty and Design are subjective

“The eye may be useful, and apparently well adapted for vision, however it could also serve as a moderately good tetherball for some appropriately sized people or sophisticated mice.”

As previously stated, this discussion occurred toward the end of the show and left neither I nor Bob the sufficient amount of time necessary to address each other’s point to the extent they deserved.  In an effort to state this correctly I will quote directly, both myself and Bob.  Bob begins by claiming “there is a universe of extraordinary beauty and sophistication and obvious design”.  To which I responded “…everything you just said, design and beauty, those are subjective claims”, to which Bob said “design is not subjective”.  Here is where the discussion prematurely ended due to time constraints.  Thus, this is where I’d like to begin my expansion of my claims and a refutation of Bob’s.

Bob and I agreed that beauty is subjective but disagreed with me about my assertion that design is.  When it comes to object of human manufacture, this is true.  However, to reverse the ‘watchmaker’ example, suppose one does in fact come upon a watch.  One who is ignorant of clocks and watches and possibly the idea of time itself may derive a alternative idea of what the device, that we call a watch, is designed for.  This may be stretching a bit, given we must assume the person finding the watch is more or less an idiot.  Therefore, let us examine my claim only using examples to drive the point home.  When I say design is subjective, I obviously do not mean it literally.  What I mean when I say that is observations of some structure or object cannot lead one to infer design automatically or because something “looks complicated”, which is what Bob and most creationists mean when they say something is designed.  Further, if design isn’t subjective then creationists should stop using the term as in the following sentence: “the eye looks designed”.  The word “looks” has a contextual sense of subjectivity; its a word that, used in this context, implies that the viewer/speaker is offering his/her opinion of the observation, not stating a fact of any kind.  However, one need not include the work “looks” in the statement;  such is the case with Bob’s statement “there is a universe of extraordinary beauty and sophistication and obvious design”.  He means design in the way I described above.  This is, in fact, a subjective use of the word design.  Bob used the eye example, like most creationists do.  He says that the eye is designed for vision.  That’s a subjective claim, because evolution wasn’t trying for an eye that has vision, per say.  Vision is an incidental by product of the arrangement of the different “parts” of the eye working together.  I will now attempt to drive home my point using my own example.  Let us suppose we have an ordinary hammer.  There are those that would say that a hammer is “designed” to drive nails into wood, or some other equally pliable material.  Now, suppose further that we happen to find this same hammer used as an axle for a toy truck.  Now, although the hammer works as an axle for the toy truck, it wasn’t designed for this purpose; or was it?  The fact that it works as the axle for the toy truck might be used as evidence that the hammer was, in fact, designed for this purpose.  However, this assumption is baseless and is flawed because it is fraught with the bias of seeing it work this way in this particular, specialized instance.  To bring this back to the famous eye example brought up by Bob; the eye may be useful, and apparently well adapted for vision, however it could also serve as a moderately good tether ball for some appropriately sized people or sophisticated mice.  So, to wrap up my point.  The appearance of design can be and is, most of the time, quite deceiving.  This is precisely because the human brain is wired such that it seeks out patterns and logically systems in things that may not have them at all, such as clouds.  Therefore, it will also seek out a “reason” for something being the way it is; its design.

2. Biblical/Scriptural inconsistencies do not disprove God’s existence

“God is then, at best, reduced to a highly intelligent extraterrestrial capable of creating life on a planet and futilely attempting to affect that life by writing a book.”

This, on the surface, appears to be true.  In fact, on some level it is.  This is useful for getting out of the circular logic of “God wrote the bible, the bible asserts that God exists, therefore God exists”; for if God didn’t write the bible, then what it says about God’s existence is irrelevant to some degree  and since it’s the not the foundation of the argument for his existence, one has broken free of the circle.  However, Bob asserts that the bible is “the infallible word of the living God”.  Starting with this premise, the following are also true (written in order of implication): God exists, God is perfect and thus infallible, God wrote the bible, the bible then is perfect and infallible as a prefect being cannot beget imperfection.  Therefore, any imperfection, however slight, would ,at minimum, call God’s perfection into question.  But, following the implications of this, we see that the following would then be true if any imperfection were discovered in the bible: God exists, God isn’t perfect or infallible, God wrote the bible, the bible isn’t perfect or infallible.  Thus, we’re left with an imperfect, fallible God.  What good is this?  God is then, at best, reduced to a highly intelligent extraterrestrial capable of creating life on a planet and futilely attempting to affect that life by writing a book.  In other words, God would be a super intelligent cosmic mad scientist bent on power, self satisfaction and the cessation of boredom.  Of course, this doesn’t disprove God exists but it sure lends quite a bit of doubt.  In fact, it creates enough doubt to make it more reasonable not to believe in such a deity.  (Notice that this line of reasoning can be applied to all three monotheisms, not just Christianity.)

3. Being a person has more to do with the non-physical realm…than it does with chemistry and physics

“Then with this 60% of soul and spirit, shouldn’t all dogs go to heaven? “

This is hefty claim, even by theological standards.  I’ll start by taking a tally of those things “about us” that are physical, aka comprised of tangible matter and energy.  Our DNA, made of amino acids, which are molecules composed of atoms; our nervous system is made of nerves and energy in the form of electrical impulses which are generated by internal and external stimuli which are themselves are physical; lastly, and most importantly, our brain, composed of tissue, fluid and neurons which are themselves are physical matter. Further, these neurons “communicate” with one another via chemical and electrical signals, which are also physical.  The brain receives information about the world via stimuli provided by the aforementioned nervous system and its various specific subparts (ie eyes, ears).  So far, we’re looking like pretty material beings.  However, Bob asserts that things like memories, personality, consciousness and ideas are non-physical and thus are proof of, at least, a realm beyond the purely material.  I attempted to point out on the show that memories are stored in the brain via the chemical and electrical impulses that the neurons use to communicate with each other.  Personality can be seen in what is commonly referred to the “animal kingdom” (though I don’t care too much for this distinction as it implies that we’re higher than animals when we clearly are animals).  For instance, any individual of our closest evolutionary cousin the chimpanzee exhibits what we recognize as personality.  To “move down” , so to speak, the “animal hierarchy” (again these terms are misleading) to our more distant relatives; dogs are said to have personalities of their own.  Their owners tend to use words and emotional descriptors usually and generally reserved for humans.  Some dogs also have a uncanny memory that we humans have attempted to harness via artificial selection.  So if dogs have memories and personalities, shouldn’t they have, at least 2/3 of soul and spirit, as Bob claims we do because we have these properties.  Then with this 60% of soul and spirit, shouldn’t all dogs go to heaven?  No.  They don’t because they haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.  Poor dogs.   But I digress. The only property, as far as science can tell thusfar, that we have attained that is different from the rest of the animals that cohabit this planet, is consciousness.  What is consciousness exactly?  Its not easily defined, is it?  Let us examine what it means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Consciousness is “The state or faculty of being conscious, as a condition and concomitant of all thought, feeling, and volition; ‘the recognition by the thinking subject of its own acts or affections’” and “The state of being conscious, regarded as the normal condition of healthy waking life”.  What is conscious, you might ask?  It is “having internal perception or consciousness: a. of a fact. b. of one’s sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc.”  However, as far as science can tell us to this point, this is also a manifestation of the matter and energy of the brain;  similar to memories and personality, described earlier.  This leads to an interesting thought concerning the story of Adam in the bible.  In the traditional bible story, Adam and Eve are walking around naked without a care in the world.  That is until, according to the story Eve eats the apple and all the sudden they become “aware” of themselves.  So one could in a sense posit that Adam and Eve weren’t conscious until this point.  According to Bob consciousness is an important, if not the most important part of what he called the soul and spirit.  So, Adam and Eve weren’t conscious human beings until they ate from the tree of knowledge.  The last of the non-physical things Bob brings up is ideas.  It is true that ideas are nebulous.  However, what can be said is that not all ideas are 100% original.  Ideas stem from combining, sometimes consciously and subconsciously, memories, stimuli, and logic.  Thus, like the other things our brain does ideas are also is a manifestation of physical matter.

Conclusion

I hope this has helped clarify some of my points and my refutations of Bob’s points.  This isn’t in anyway intended to be an attack on Bob Enyart, his show or anyone close to him.  I don’t want this to be misconstrued as me “getting back at him” nor is it saying that I was shortchanged during the show in terms of time.  This was simply an expansion of my views and thoughts on certain topics of the show I didn’t feel got enough explanation or attention.

January 11, 2009 Posted by | atheism, Bible, Center For Inquiry, Christianity, creationism, Events, First Century, god, Interview, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Jesus is Lord, Language, Metro State Atheists, Morality, New Testament, Newsletter, Old Testament, philosophy, Politics, religion, Rome, science, The Holy Bible, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Joel Guttormson debates radio show host Bob Enyart (AM 670)

From Theology Online:

“Atheist Billboard spokesman, Joel Guttormson, (“Don’t Believe in God, You’re Not Alone”) will debate Radio talk show host Bob Enyart this Wednesday on Bob’s radio and Internet show (AM 670, Internet www.KGOV.com) .

Both sides have been sent information on the other (Bob’s show with his interview of Dan Barker was sent to Joel, and Joel’s website https://metrostateatheists.wordpress.com/ was sent to Bob).”

The show will at 3pm MT, Wednesday January 7th.

Here is the  link to Bob’s interview with our friend Dan Barker.

Commentary on the show can be viewed by using the links below:

Joel’s Commentary

Chalmer’s Commentary

Metro State Atheists

January 6, 2009 Posted by | Art, Astrology, Astronomy, atheism, Bacteriology, Bible, biology, Blurb, Calculus, Censorship, Center For Inquiry, Chemistry, Christianity, creationism, Differential Equations, Events, First Century, god, Humor, Interview, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Jesus is Lord, Language, Lecture, Mathematics, Medicine, Metro State Atheists, Microbiology, Morality, Movies, New Testament, News, Newsletter, Old Testament, Organic Chemistry, Party, philosophy, Pictures, Poetry, Politics, Poll, Press Release, Pseudomedicine, Pseudoscience, Qoutes, religion, Rome, Satire, science, Scientology, Sirius, splendid elles, The Holy Bible, The Trickster | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Adam And Eve…And Lilith

A Contradiction in Terms.

Genesis 1:27- “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” You will notice that god creates man and woman AT THE SAME TIME and this woman’s name in never mentioned.

Let us now examine and consider the second verse, which is the contradictory and yet most well known story of the creation of man and woman.

Genesis 2:21-23-“21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’, for she was taken out of man.”

This is the story most are familiar with known as “the rib story”. This woman is then named Eve, however she is NOT the FIRST woman and not the first wife of Adam.

Midrash Explained.

To find this out the name, Jewish scholars engaged in something called Midrash. Midrash, according to the Online Encarta Dictionary/Encyclopedia, is “commentary on Hebrew Bible: a body of Rabbinic literature consisting of commentary on and clarification of biblical texts, first compiled before 500 ad”. If that is not “authoritative” enough for you, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Midrash is, “A Rabbinic homiletic commentary on a text from the Hebrew Scriptures, characterized by non-literal ..nterpretation and legendary illustration.”

Why did they use Midrash?

Jewish Rabbis were not stupid. They understood that these two stories contradict each other. Since, Genesis is contained in the first five books of the bible known as “The Torah” and “The Five Books of Moses” and considered the most direct revelation from god to humans; the Rabbis decided this contradiction had an explanation that could get rid of the apparent contradiction. They did this by looking through the Bible (Old Testament) and looking for clues as to name of the first unnamed woman of creation. The reason, ironically enough, why the name of the woman is missing is because earlier Rabbis, those responsible for putting the Torah together didn’t like the story of the first woman, so they left the minimal amount of the story there, namely Gen 1:27. Why didn’t they like this first woman of creation? That will be explained later. First, let us look at what the Rabbis looked at during this Midrash.

Midrash Evidence

Isaiah 34:15 “…The night-demon Lilith, evil and rapacious, will establish permanent quarters. Scavenging carrion birds will breed and brood, infestations of ominous evil.” Here is mentioned Lilith, a woman-demon. They link this name up with a woman in Jewish lore known to them at the time but coming down to us through a medieval text known as The Alphabet of Ben Sira, in full text and explained later.

Why is this important?

According to ancient Jewish lore, known from a medieval text, based on lost texts of the same stories, known as The Alphabet of Ben Sira, Lilith is the unnamed wife in Gen 1:27. The story explains why the book was left out of the Pentateuch/Torah, how and why Lilith goes away, and is supposed to explain why babies die early, why men have wet dreams and as a way to demonize women.

The Alphabet of Ben Sira

The Story of Lilith

“The angels who are in charge of medicine: Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof. After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while am to be in the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: ‘Sovereign of the universe!’ he said, ‘the woman you gave me has run away.’ At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels to bring her back.

“Said the Holy One to Adam, ‘If she agrees to come back, fine. If not she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.’ The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God’s word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, ‘We shall drown you in the sea.’

“‘Leave me!’ she said. ‘I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.’

“When the angels heard Lilith’s words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: ‘Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.’ She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels’ names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers.”

Explanation for why Lilith is left out of the Torah

Lilith wanted to be equal with Adam, and gives good reason, according to the story. Adam did not want this and would not allow it, so she left him. This is quite feministic. She says, “I will not lie below”, during sex presumably and “We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.” She is actually correct, in the sense that they are equals. This is disturbing to the early Rabbis of the Judaism. In the culture of the day, men we seen as superior to women and so having this idea in the bible was unacceptable, so it was discarded. She then leaves him by uttering the name of god (in Hebrew) and then she magically flies away and never seen again. Oddly, neither god nor his angels can bring her back to Earth. She then becomes a demon of night and roams the Earth causing havoc.

The Aftermath and Conclusion

Then we have the rib story, only after Lilith leaves, and Eve is purposely made out of something less than what Adam and was done so to insure that she would be subservient to Adam, and men in general. Eve is then the second wife of Adam and Lilith the first. Lilith’s story brings up one additional problem, one that may actually be worse than having two contradictory stories of creation that is; god- the omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-perfect, creator of the universe- is NOT perfect because he made a mistake. Not only did god make a mistake, he also did not see it coming (therefore not all knowing) and could not stop Lilith or control her (therefore not all-powerful). This is what one would expect from a “quick fix” explanation of a man-made myth touted by believers as the perfect word of the creator of the universe.

by Joel

October 26, 2008 Posted by | Bible, Christianity, god, Language, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

On the Origins of Language: By Means of Natural Selection


Where did language come from? Why do we talk? Why does there exist such a mosaic of languages around the world? These questions may be the most central and awe-inspiring in all of linguistics. They are also the most important, because without some general understanding of these fundamental questions all other endeavors to understand the complexity of language will ultimately fail. Thus, we should courageously ask the tough questions, regardless of where the answers may take us. In other words, we must look at language scientifically, shedding ourselves of all prejudice, bias and desire for a specific outcome. With this view, it shall be noted that the origin of language is as yet still a mystery which beckons to be answered, however, a strong theory, known in biology, called Evolution, by means of Natural Selection, seems to answer and explain the aforementioned questions with, in the words of Carl Sagan, “systematic grace”.

Where Language Came From

There exists a myth, arising out of superstition, about the origin of language. This is known as “The Myth of the Mother Language”, as Dessalles puts it. This idea simply put; is there was once a single language that was the “mother” of all languages. All other languages came from vulgarization and degeneration of the mother language. The first languages used to support this myth were of course, Latin and Greek. “…similarities between Latin and Greek were traditionally interpreted as meaning that Latin had grown out of Greek.” (Dessalles 34) This is not evidence of anything in particular except that the two languages show particular similarities; also, no evidence of a sound or group of sounds, lexicon or syntax from Latin has been shown to have somehow made its way to Greek. “The evidence for these links was anecdotal; and there was no serious attempt to ground them in a coherent body of knowledge” (Dessalles 34) and from a scientific perspective, purely anecdotal evidence is not viable evidence. The other explanation, being that a god or gods created language, among everything else, violates logic and science to such an immense degree that discussing or considering it any further would be a waste of time. Thus we are left with one, and only one, rational and scientifically verifiable explanation, Evolution by Means of Natural Selection.

Evolution of Language by means of Natural Selection

This section will include and rely on two analogies. The first: Evolution being similar to that of children’s acquisition of language, which for our purposes will focus mainly on the Evolution side taking advantage of the smaller time scales involved in a human child’s ability to acquire language. The second: Languages are similar to species/organisms in biology. By using these analogies, we can get a better sense of the vast time scales involved and the journey language has taken over millennia.

We humans share much of our DNA with the rest of the animal kingdom. In fact, we do not have many significant differences until we get down to plants and bacteria, and even at that, we still have much in common. (Judge). To quote a chemist friend of mine, Chalmer Wren, “it’s not how many genes we have, rather, how they are expressed that makes us physically and biochemically different from all other species”. In other words, we humans aren’t so different from everything else that lives on this planet, that’s because we are a part of it. Like humans share DNA with a myriad of creatures on this planet, so too do we share language with them. If not for their early evolutionary accomplishments, we very well may not have language as we know it today, in fact, it could be quite different or not exist at all. Languages, in all their many forms, are like species of different animals inhabiting a world of thought and reaction to ensure its survival and that of its speakers. We can see two types of language evolution when taking this analogous view; the first and easiest to see is microevolution, for our purposes that of the evolution of lexical and, perhaps, phonetic items. The second, and far more difficult to see, is that of macroevolution, in language it is the evolution of languages from one to another. For instance, how Low German evolved into Modern English. However, before we can investigate such questions, we must first look at their origins, from where did the pieces come from? The answer lays with our animals relatives, both ancient and living today.

It was long believed, that our closest animal cousins, monkeys, had an emotive and reactionary language system that could hardly be called a language at all. Also, that because they were inferior, it was impossible for them to have any communication system that showed any signs of complexity, planning or thought. (Dessalles 5-7) However, in careful experiments, performed by Cheney and Seyfarth in their 1988 study, published in Animal Behavior, entitled ‘Assessment of meaning and the detection of unreliable singles by vervet monkeys’, they found that monkeys could engage in higher thought. They did this experiment by subjecting the monkeys to recordings of two distinct calls. The first call, wrr, is a trill sound, used when an individual notices the presence of another troop. The second call, chutter, is used when two troops either are threatening each other or start to fight. In the experiment, they found that those monkeys subjected to hearing the first call every 20 minutes hardly reacted to hearing the recording of the second call made by the same individual. (Dessalles 7) This is contrary to what one would expect to find with pure habituation, that is, one would expect them simply to react to the call as if the situation warranted, every time they heard the call. However, since this is not the case, one can only conclude that, like humans, they are engaging in a form of mental representation. Thus, Cheney and Seyfarth showed, “that the association between the acoustical forms and the behavioural responses was not direct but that I must mediated by a form of mental representation.” (Dessalles 6) This is similar to what we see in children early in their development. They too employ a crude form of mental representation when using calls or hearing them. Furthermore, the advantage of doing this, whether it is a baby human or vervet monkey is “the possibility of taking account of the context.” In other words, being able to assess the situation at hand, rather than simply reacting to specific calls, helps the animal in question to avoid manipulation, either by another troop of monkeys or a dubious member of their own. We share this property with monkeys, but admittedly at a different level. Our ability to employ this “representational mechanism”, as Dessalles calls it, is a mere improvement on a system and adaptation that has existed, presumably, for hundreds of thousands of years. Our genetic link to monkeys is analogous to that of our linguistic heritage to them, and as we will see, to others of the animal kingdom as well.

The bee dance holds the key to another of our seemingly unique human abilities, displacement. Displacement is “the ability to talk about referents that are removed from time or space” (Hickerson 33)(Emphasis added) The bee dance is how bees communicate: using motions, and the variable speed of these motions, to indicate the location of food. However, they do not do these dances in any close proximity to the food in question, rather they perform these dances in their hives, far removed from the food to which they are referring. Thus, one can also conclude that bees have a crude form of the concept of referents in mind, to what degree is yet unknown. We, as humans, also possess this amazing ability. However, as is the case with the monkeys, we employ this ability at a seemingly high level in that we are able not only to talk about things that are not immediately present in front of but that exist currently, we can talk about things that previously existed or may exist in the future. Again, we see an improvement upon a preexisting structure or system.

The existence of a vocabulary, or a digital code, is also an evolved feature that we can observe in other organisms. The fifth step Hickerson describes as an “essential step” in our evolutionary acquirement of language is the “growth of lexicon, from a limited set of signs to a vocabulary at least 10,000 words in fully evolved language.” (Hickerson 45) This digital code, once thought to be “proof positive of the originality of the system of human communication”, is actually not unique in nature. Birds, specifically male nightingales, have this feature in their communications. The “male nightingales…have about 200 different types of song which are in part learned.” (Hauser 286) This fact, discovered via an experiment performed by M.D. Hauser entitled The Evolution of Communication with baby nightingales “established that their singing is structured into their memory in four hierarchical levels: song-sections, songs, packages, and context.” (Dessalles 19) The order was found to be more complex than once thought, resembling, to some degree, the complexity of human communication. The experiment found “the bird produces sequences (contexts) during which it will go from one ‘package’ to another, the package being memorized combinations of elements sung, which are themselves built out of simpler elements, the sections.” (Hauser 286) This indicates that these birds have even more features, specifically Charles Hockett’s Design Features, thought only exclusive to humans, although these birds express it in a more simplistic form. It appears their communication system is both “productive”, which is “a system that can grow” and “transmissible”, the ability to pass on knowledge, be it language or culture, down to one’s young. (Hickerson 33-34) One can think of the “sections” as morphemes of a sort, like those a child learns early on when learning to speak. Similarly, the “packages” can be seen as phonemes and the sequences, or contexts, seen as words or simple sentences and phrases. With this astonishing fact, it is not remarkable in the least that humans as a species were able to build on this innate ability built into us via Evolution. Though far removed from the birds, their use of a digital code has permeated down through the ages to be with us to this day.

Additionally, some features, which have been the cornerstone of language evolution for some time, must be considered critically. The first is a biological question; one that humans have thought to be true for at least the past one hundred years. The question is, whether or not the human brain as a whole or any part of the human brain is excessively larger than that of monkeys, specifically chimpanzees. Some believe they have already answered the question, proposing, as in Deacon’s theory, “that our cognitive and linguistic ability derives from our prefrontal cortex working in concert with our cerebellum.” (Lieberman 232) Although on the surface, it sounds true based solely on what one could call ‘common sense’, the proposition does not stand up to a shred of scientific evidence. In fact, all the scientific evidence actually points in the opposite direction. This is an astonishing and, above all, humbling discovery. Studies found that “Deacon’s theory is not consistent with MRI studies that have determined the volumes of different part of the brain in living monkey, apes, and humans.” (Lieberman 234) This is not the end of the evidence, however. Using MRI volumetric studies, they found “that the cerebellum is disproportionately smaller in humans” (Lieberman 234) than in monkeys or apes. Deacon’s theory by now is on the rocks and the following information from the same study eliminates it as viable. “Moreover, the frontal regions of the brain are disproportionately larger in humans than in apes.” (Lieberman 234) This is the opposite of Deacon’s theory. In addition, “if human prefrontal regions were disproportionately larger, other frontal regions would have to be disproportionately smaller, and this is not evident.” (Lieberman 234) Thus, it is obvious that the human brain, though a remarkable result of evolution, does not differ much from the primate brain to any ‘disproportionate’ degree. Furthermore, it should not be surprising that primate language and behavior is so similar to our own.

Additionally there exists another feature, which has been popular in supporting the notion that human language is unique to nature. Brain lateralization, championed as being the single feature that distinguishes us from all the “lower animals”, is the next feature examined. Lateralization, “the localization of the control center for a specific function, e.g. speech, on the right or left side of the brain” (Dictionary/MSN) , refers to, in this case, the left hemisphere of the human brain. Extensive research has shown that “the left hemisphere in about 90 percent of the present human population has a dominant role in regulating both motor control and language.” (Lieberman 235) This fact helps us understand why the high percentage of right-handedness exists in our species. However, this fact does not mean that brain lateralization is anyway the “key to human language” (Lieberman 236). Studies have found that the reality is quite the contrary, citing that “the left hemisphere of the brains of species of frogs regulates their vocalizations.” (Lieberman 236) This lends a great deal of credibility to the theory that language evolved, to its present state in humans, through a slow gradual process analogous to that of other traits that evolved. Our earliest ancestors, the hominids, were most likely predominately right-handed. This is evident from the 2 million year old tools they made and left behind. (Lieberman 236). Although, at this point, it may seem like the evidence points to language being centralized in the left hemisphere, it is not the case. In fact, “language capacities are not isolated in the dominant hemisphere of the human brain.” (Lieberman 236) This means that, although one hemisphere may be more active during speech and language activities, the activity, or “the work” involved in producing language is distributed, unevenly, throughout the brain like many of our neural processes. This is in line with what we observe in other animals as well. The brain is efficient in terms of delegating tasks to specific areas of the brain in ways that we are still attempting to understand. These are uncomfortable facts that, thanks to science, we must live and grapple with. Science does not sugarcoat things that may be too harsh it simply dispenses facts impersonally and leaves the overall interpretation to us. Before we look at the evidence, it should be noted that this information does not demean us, but speaks to a deeper connection to the living beings around us.

Assembling the Puzzle

What does all this mean? The assortment of disparate facts is in no way complete, however, it does begin to show us how ancient human language really is, and how it connects us to nature in general. Language, as with every other trait humans have come to express, is a conglomeration of several different beneficial features. In our closest relatives, the primates, we have acquired the ability of metal representation, or the ability to analyze linguistic messages in relation the surrounding environment and current situation. This was advantageous for two reasons. One, it gave us the ability to not be deceived, either by dubious members of the group or by sounds that occurred naturally that bore some resemblance to a sound in the language of the group. Two, arguably the most important consequence, it may have given rise to our human ability of critical thinking and analysis of complex abstract ideas and concepts, like language. The humble and hard-working bees gave us the ability to talk about referents removed from the immediate time and place, displacement. This was advantageous to us mainly because it allowed us to engage in more complex planning and gave a particular group more cohesion. Coupled with mental representation, it allowed early humans not only to plan for the present, but possibly for the future, in a semi-abstract manner. The birds, nightingales in particular, gave us two indispensable language features; the foundations of vocabulary and a primitive form of traditional transmission. Adding these particular features were advantageous, both in their primitive and modern forms. It allowed for a set of words, ideas, and concepts to be assembled, and then taught to the young, who would add to and improve upon the existing language. Brain size and lateralization, the features of the brain that were ever-present during the formation of these, were crucial to developing these features into more complex and useful forms of themselves and to melding them together to create a seamless and streamlined mechanism, we call language. It is because of the fact that our language, built upon pre-existing structures and features that we cannot claim our human language to be unique in the animal kingdom or in nature in general.

Conclusion

We need not conclude that our language has no uniqueness to it however. Although mainly built upon the language features of our fellow inhabiting creatures, it does have at least two unique features, which we humans as a species have contributed to the long process of evolution. The first of these is duality of patterning, hypothesized by Charles Hockett. This feature, linguistically, may be the most important trait that our language has. It allows our language to be rich and complex in ways that the other animals cannot match. The second is writing. Humans can, if they wish, write down their language, and pass down their acquired knowledge, not only to their own young but also to future generations to which they may not be related. In addition, since these generations will be able to read the knowledge, they too can build upon it and the language will persist and evolve on its own, branching off into a great unknown. Like in species evolution, language evolution comes down to the young. Any simple change in the language may be added to a vast accumulation some years in the future, becoming utterly unintelligible to the original language from which it came; this is the origin of new languages. And with all these features put together, and observed over the vast and incomprehensible span of evolutionary and geological time, we see the origins of language.

Bibliography

Dessalles, Jean-Louis. Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language. Trans. James Grieve. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Dictionary/MSN, Encarta. Encarta Dictionary. Englewood, 8 May 2008.

Hauser, M. D. “The Evolution of Communication.” MIT Press (1996): 286.

Hickerson, Nancy Parrott. Linguistic Anthropology. Belmont: Earl McPeek, 2000.

Lieberman, Philip. Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Understanding: Evolution. By Ned Judge. Dir. N/A. The Science Channel. Prod. Ned Judge. 2004.
Written by Joel

September 25, 2008 Posted by | Language, science | , , , , , , | 1 Comment