The Human Journey
The Evolution of Language

The Evolution of Language

Book Review of The First Word

The Search for the Origins of Language

Penguin Books, 2008

Pages 12

To better understand the potential that animals have for language comprehension, efforts have been underway for several decades to teach human communication to animals in captivity, with startling results. Numerous chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas have acquired a facility with American sign language to a degree that allows them to converse at the level of a young child. (Kenneally states their achievements are on a par with children as old as four, which is significantly older than the consensus estimate of age two and a half years. Much cognitive development occurs in children between these ages.)


Sue Savage-Rumbaugh began teaching language to bonobos in the 1970s. She maintains that the best method is to teach them indirectly, much as young children learn language, by having them hear it all around them. Young bonobos are raised in a language-rich environment by regularly being spoken to during feeding, playing, and grooming, rather than being drilled in repetitions of a word while pointing to the sign for it on a picture board. The result, Kenneally writes, is that the bonobos can, in addition to making simple declarations, converse about intensions and states of mind.

These bonobos demonstrate creativity in their use of words. For instance, some of them spontaneously combine single words that they have already learned to create new words, such as linking “water” and “bird” to form “waterbird,” meaning a duck. Savage-Rumbaugh’s star pupil, a young male named Kanzi, could combine symbols to instruct¬† what he wanted her to do. Savage-Rumbaugh has written that Kanzi’s immersion into a language-rich environment enabled him to acquire all of the mental components necessary for language acquisition and production.

The last common ancestor of humans and bonobos lived six million years ago. When Kanzii demonstrates the ability to produce or comprehend language at the level of a young human child, it suggests that humans and their closest relatives were bequeathed a common set of skills that enabled them to produce something like language as we know it. It makes sense to assume that our common ancestor evolved the trick of combining sounds – even in a limited way – to create meaning. Thus the foundations of language existed long before the genus Homo arrived on the scene.

Broca's and Wernicke's areas of the brain
Location of two brain areas that play a critical role
in language, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area

A generation ago, it was commonly accepted that language ability is located almost entirely in Broca’s and Wernickes’s areas on the left side of the brain. This view was based upon research into the study of language dysfunction in individuals whose brains had been damaged by trauma or disease. But according to Kenneally, this belief that the left brain is responsible for language is now superseded by the present understanding that language and other higher mental abilities are distributed throughout the brain.

To be sure, once the human brain has matured, the way language function is distributed across the brain is not random. Particular areas take on distinct parts of the overall task of perceiving, understanding, and producing language. But when the parts of the brain that are best suited for language acquisition fail in young children, other parts can sometimes assume the tasks of the damaged regions, restoring a child’s language facility to normal levels. This property of how brain tissue can be re-purposed is called plasticity.

The plasticity of brain organization is not just a human property. The brains of apes change when the creatures have been moved from a standard laboratory setting to a more stimulating environment. An autopsy of a language-trained ape revealed it possessed a brain much larger than average size for its species, and Savage-Rumbaugh maintains that this growth in size was the result of its learning experience. Her research has concluded that primate brains are just as sensitive as humans to small increases in environmental complexity.

While apes in the wild do not sign to one another, and wild parrots do not talk, Kenneally suggests that brain plasticity accounts for their more sophisticated language abilities in captivity, that is, the captive brains grow in response to the increased stimulation provided by constant human contact. In this view, wild animals would derive no benefit from the greatly increased expenditure of mental effort that language requires. There is an enormous difference, Kenneally writes, between being able to speak or not, but this difference may result from circumstance and not from large differences in brain physiology.

FOXP2 location
FOXP2 gene is located on the long arm of chromosome 7 at position 31.

She likewise dismisses differences in genetics that purport to account for an innate grammar facility in humans. Much attention has been focused on the discovery that a specific gene, called FOXP2, has a profound effect on language ability. This has prompted speculation, along lines suggested by Chomsky, that the evolution of this gene accounts for the development of language as a mutation that arose without adaptive precedent. Since the emergence of language is synonymous with the appearance of cognitively modern humans between perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, presumably FOXP2 developed in its present form at that time.

Kenneally rejects this view for several reasons. For example, the human version of FOXP2 is unique to H. sapiens, but biologists have found that the gene is 98 percent the same in humans and songbirds. The avian version of the gene seems to play a significant role in the learning and production of bird song, with the expression of the gene increasing in certain brain areas at the developmental stage when the birds are learning to sing. Mature birds with a greater expression of the gene tend to vary their songs more than others. This indicates that human communication depends on the same genetic foundations as does communication by other animals.

As to the sudden appearance of FOXP2 as a gene for grammar, Kenneally states that Neanderthals, whose last common ancestor with H. sapiens lived at least 400,000 years ago, possessed a version of FOXP2 that was essentially identical to that found in modern humans. Whether Neanderthals could speak or not is unknown, but this is evidence that language ability evolved gradually in the same manner as other cognitive abilities. While some researchers maintain that some genes may exist for the purpose of encoding grammar, Kenneally believes that this idea has been proven false.

Further investigation into the role of FOXP2 may shed light on the evolution of language in an unexpected way. FOXP2 also affects various motor skills, and research has shown that when children acquire language there is an important connection between speaking words and using gestures to add meaning. A consensus appears to be forming among a number of researchers that human language evolved from the volitional use of gestures by great apes for communication. 

The work on gesture has demonstrated both a continuum that connects human and ape communication and significant differences between them. In our evolutionary history some individuals must have been born with a greater inclination and ability to collaborate. These individuals were more successful and bred more offspring. Chimpanzees are goal oriented, they cooperate when it is beneficial or expedient to do so. Humans prefer and enjoy collaboration and it is in our desire to connect with others that the symbolic communication of language is found.