Evolution and the Sin in Eden
A New Christian Synthesis

Chapter 2: Marvels of Human Speech

Specialists who have researched fossils of the Neanderthals, Homo Erectus and Homo Habilis conclude that these early people could not have spoken a human language as fluently and as richly articulated as we are able to do. Our advanced type of speech organs would not have fit into their skeletal forms. Logic compels us, however, to reason that the people who committed original sin, who had received revelation from God and were aware of their responsibilities, were endowed with advanced linguistic abilities. This chapter treats about the marvels of human speech, aiming to acquaint ourselves more fully with the abilities of the ancestors who committed original sin.

We speak daily with such ease that we pay little attention to the myriad mechanisms which go into its production.

"The motor control patterns that are necessary for production of human speech are probably the most complex maneuvers that a human being can produce," writes Lieberman ("On the Evolution of Human Syntactic Ability," Journal of Human Evolution (1985), p. 659). Somehow we manage to articulate what we are thinking and feeling by means of audible signals which are deciphered meaningfully by the hearer. When we engage in conversation our brains, speech organs, eyes, ears, faces, and our entire bodies get into the act. The 13 billion nerves of the brain become engaged and swing into action, or stand by for service if needed. Both the speaker and the listener keep track of the nuanced words and sentences in their short-term memories and anchor their thoughts on them, or deduce meaning from them.

The meaning of a sentence is usually not known until we hear the end of it. With the short-term memory to hold the entire sentence momentarily in view, we typically scramble the sequential verbiage into an emulsified porridge, swirling together the subject, the predicate, the object, together with modifiers. Only then, with the entire sentence in a bird's eye view, do we grasp its meaning. We mix into the emulsified concept the flavor of whatever emotions may have been expressed in the speech production, love, anger, contempt, admiration, whatever.

When the passage of time that has gone into the production of a sentence exceeds the time limitations of our short term memory, however, we have difficulties. By the time the end of sentence which is too long for the short term memory is reached, the beginning of that discourse may have fallen out of the short term memory. When the short-term memory cannot present to the mind an entire sentence, its beginning, its end, and all that is in between, so that the mind can work on it as one piece, we lose sight of its meaning. We hear or see words, but cannot perceive a projected picture of their meaning. If we speak a complex and long sentence too slowly, therefore, our listener may not comprehend what we are trying to say. To communicate highly developed concepts intelligibly, we need to produce speech in rapid fire sequence, with clearly articulated phonemes, and preferably with a well nuanced mode and flow of expression.

Lieberman and other scientists theorize that speech production by Habilis, Erectus, and Neanderthal must have been slow and elementary in comparison with ours. Handicapped in this manner, they could not have compressed complicated meanings into the short-term memory for what we consider to be standard intellectual communication. Their sentences were presumably short and simple, and enunciated at perhaps one tenth of the speed at which we ordinarily speak. The range of articulation was also less developed than our rich thesaurus of well articulated phonemes. If that is true, then we can reason that the abstract concepts associated with the revelation given to our Adam and Eve would have been beyond the powers of comprehension as well as of communication for hominids other than Homo Sapiens. Presumably these other hominids lacked not only our very highly developed speech organs; the neurological substratum was deficient as well. Lieberman bases this conclusion on the fact that our organs would simply not have fit into the framework of the basi-cranium and the connecting vertebrae of hominids other than Homo Sapiens.

We take it from there to theorize that if their ability to speak was thus underdeveloped, their powers of thinking would be similarly limited. The people who committed original sin, who could understand God's revelation and teach it to their children, indicated by their action that they could speak and think much as adults of today. Therefore we can conclude that our Adam and Eve were not Homo Habilis types of people who lived up to two and a half million years ago, nor were they ancient Homo Erectus or Neanderthals. The speech of these predecessors of Homo Sapiens was too limited in scope to cope with the events narrated in Genesis. God would not have held such people responsible for the commission of original sin if they were unable to speak and think with adult capabilities.

Our basis for this reasoning is what scientists deduce from the evidence found in the fossil record. Lieberman reasons that Neanderthals, Erectus, and Habilis spoke with far less sophistication than we do, and at a speed of perhaps only one tenth of our fluent flow of words:

The presence of a fully encoded speech system in recent hominids may also have more directly contributed to the development of complex syntactic organization in human languages. The rapid data rate of human speech allows us to transmit a long sequence of words within a short interval. We can take the words that constitute a complex sentence into short-term memory and can effect a syntactic and semantic analysis. We have to keep track of the group of words that constitute a sentence in order to comprehend its meaning. Deficits like dyslexia, which interfere with a reader's ability to take in strings of words in a short time, thus often result in syntactic deficits. Dyslexic readers have difficulty in decoding the complex syntactic structures that occur in written material because they read words so slowly that they forget the words that started the sentence before they can analyze the sentence.

Because it took so much time for them to produce the words of their already limited vocabulary, continues Lieberman, they would have been unable to concatenate complex sentences:

The effects of a characteristically low rate of speech communication throughout the entire hominid population thus would probably limit syntactic complexity. Given the same constraints on short-term memory that are evident in modern Homo sapiens, a speech rate that was one-tenth of modern speech would limit vocal communication to very simple syntactic structures (Lieberman 1984, 325).

He suggests, in this context, that we make an experiment: that we read a long sentence at one-tenth of the speed of the normal reading rate. By the time we reach the end of such a slowly read sentence, we forget what its beginning was, and so we lose track of its meaning. Further interaction or repetition then becomes necessary.

Lieberman measured the basi-cranium of various hominids, including Neanderthal, and found that our speech organs would not fit into their framework:

The long palates of Australopithecine, homo erectus, and classic Neanderthal fossils instead must support nonhuman standard-plan supralaryngeal vocal tracts, in which the tongue is long and thin and is positioned almost entirely within the oral cavity" (Lieberman 1984, 296).

Consequently these non-Homo Sapiens hominids were unable to pronounce distinctly our vowels of [a] and [I] and [u], and the [k] and [g] stops which are essential for rapid speech calibration (Lieberman 1984, 318).

The three vowel sounds mentioned above are produced when we format our speaking tubes to produce and resonate the vowel sound within them. We do this instinctively, with the help of the automatisms we have partially inherited and partially developed through practice. The formatting of the speaking tubes may be compared to sliding the tubes of a trombone up and down, or pressing the keys of trumpet and flute to resonate the desired pitch. Or, we might think of a pipe organ with many pipes of different size and configuration, each measured to resonate a pitch at its calibrated frequency with total response. Our speaking tubes shape themselves continually into changed forms, which might be compared with hundreds of pipe organ units. We change the "speech pipes" swiftly and constantly to formulate and resonate our words. The tubes are in constant motion to re-adjust themselves to resonate the desired sound and to give it additional articulation.

Our clever Homo Sapiens speech tubes can shape themselves almost instantly to resonate the designated vowel sounds as we desire, and with a smoothness and efficiency which leaves us unaware of the masterful performances. Our air tube, being in a vertical position as it leaves the lungs, proceeds through the larynx (Adam's apple) and upwards; then it makes a sharp turn to the horizontal when issued through the mouth. We call it a two-tube system, with modifications of formatting taking place in the vertical section as one tube, and in the horizontal section as the second tube, with a sharp turn between which is also adjustable like a valve. This is in contrast to the single tube system of animals as well as of non-Homo Sapiens hominids. Their single tube routes the flow of air in a comparatively straight passage from lung to mouth and nose, without making that sharp turn from vertical to horizontal, without a possibility of different resonances in two tubes, and sophisticated modification maneuvers within them and in the connecting valve.

The two tube system of Homo Sapiens capacitates us to format and articulate an immense repertoire of phonemes and to produce them in rapid succession. The pharynx and the oral cavity, segmented at the turn, enable us to be extremely versatile in producing speech. The tongue of Homo Sapiens, its vertical section in the throat, its adaptable muscle in the mouth, is specifically capacitated to format the different sections for vowels. To produce an [a] (AAAH) vowel sound, we format the mouth into a spacious hollow tube to boom the vowel while we compress the vertical tube into a pressurized constricted narrow passage. To produce an [I] (EEEE) vowel, we command the tongue to do just the opposite, to open wide the vertical and constrict the horizontal to compress outward this high pitch vowel. To produce a [u] (MOOO) we constrict the gateway between the vertical and horizontal tubes, sounding the vowel with both tubes open.

How our spiritual free will gives the commands for the two tubes to format themselves in relation to each other in order to resonate the desired sounds remains a mystery. Animals do this by instinct. We likewise perform speech of a far more sophisticated and complex nature by way of instinct and acquired automatisms. But we remain aware of being in control of our speech actions so that we speak as intellect and will decide. This is one of the great mysteries of life, namely how immaterial commands of the soul operate the material instruments of vocalization.

In the meantime lips and epiglottis, various shaping appendages, and the hyoid anchorage for the muscles move in coordination to calibrate the consonants distinctly and to cut the [g] and [k] stops. We shape the sounds by motor command, and the entire tube obeys to produce the distinguishable phonemes which carry our thoughts thus encoded upon modifications of air currents. Our speaking efforts are usually pleasant exercises for speaker and listener alike, rendering us prone to speak for mere aesthetic pleasure even at times when we have little thought to convey.

We observe that children, when first learning to speak, mount their thoughts on words and sounds which they themselves comprehend, but which are not yet sculptured well enough to enable their parents and siblings to understand immediately. Children have a drive which makes them want to be understood. Consequently they keep trying until the listeners understand -- to the delight of both parties. The child is thus building its speech automatisms which settle into place quite rapidly, being shaped specifically to reproduce the mother tongue. Each new success brings delight to the child, who loves to repeat resonant vowels and calibrated consonants for sheer pleasure.

A mother cannot imprint her speech patterns upon the brain of her child, but she can stimulate the child to invent its own language. With her smile and approval she can encourage the child to imitate what it hears, and so stimulate its brain, nerves and muscles to learn the speech patterns of its native language.

I suspect - this is not science - that children, when testing their speech and learning to format vowels which resonate well when the speaking tube is set right, may come by accident or practice upon that formatting of the speech tube which best resonates the vowels like a trombone or base tuba. They love to repeat this pleasant and musical reverberation in the hollow of their properly shaped speaking tubes because they resonate well in the formatted pharynx and oral cavity. By repeating often what they love to hear, they build and adjust the neural pathways and musculature to "tune" their throats to produce sounds "in tune" at conscious command. Soon they are rewarded with a self-adjusting vowel formatting automatism which is in perfect tune. Similarly for the consonants and stops. They are helped in this process of developing automatisms specific to the native language by doting parents and siblings who share the delight of the little one when it hits the vowel tone perfectly, and cuts the consonants and stops intelligibly. As the child grows, the powers to invent ever new automatisms for foreign languages gradually decrease in range and elasticity. For example, try as they might, many Japanese adults have an enormous difficulty with distinguishing both the pronunciation and perception of our American English pronunciation of "R" and "L." To many, the sounds remain almost exactly the same, being indistinguishable even after many efforts of trying to learn a difference.

The Production of Speech

How we perform our speech on the two-tube system is a marvel that overshadows the apparently simple mechanics of the tubal maneuvers as described above. With scarcely perceptible effort we set into action the 13 billion nerves to orchestrate the encoding upon air currents of the thoughts of our hearts and minds. The brain is indeed a marvel, about which geneticist Jerome Lejeune (now departed) records his amazement:

Take first of all the macro and micro structure of the brain, for the most complex connecting network that we presently know on earth [measuring two hundred thousand kilometers in length, if one calculates in neuro-tubules] to that extraordinary play of synapses which causes a flow of particles to be engulfed by the receptive membrane when a small vessel bursts and emits a chemical mediator (Lejeune 1989, 24).

When speaking, we maneuver our tubes and send a pressured airstream through them which originates in the lungs and is issued under pressure generated by the diaphragm bellows and surrounding musculature. By varying the tension of our drawn vocal cords we set the pitch of the tone. When we qualify and format these tonal frequencies of intermittent air jets by shaping and resonating them within the supralaryngeal tract, and exit this speech-calibrated stream of air, our neighbor can comprehend the thought which is in our mind; that thought which the nerves of the brain have translated into electro-chemical signals, which our speech organs have released into the air as articulated air pressure variance signals. If the recipient knows the language of the speaker, these air pressure signals carry a semantic code for the listener. The people who know us even recognize the individual resonance and clipped articulation of our voice, which has our personal trademark.

What we do by speaking is nothing short of the phenomenal. Eric H. Lennenberg, when recording three radio newscasters, found that they spoke an average of 5.7, 5.9, and 6.0 syllables per second. For each syllable there are about 2.4 phonemes, distinguishable sound-coded identities; that totals about fourteen phonemes per second (6 X 2.4). All the while we form and reform our air passage to resonate and articulate the sound. The passage from one phoneme into another -- its onset, the phone itself, and then the subsequent transition -- depends ultimately upon the differences in muscle adjustments. The brain gives the muscles their proper orders to contract, to relax, or to hold their tonus. At least one hundred muscles are engaged simultaneously. The brain therefore sends these fourteen hundred orders per second to produce the phonemes in rapid succession to the targeted 100 engaged muscles (see Lennenberg, 91-92). If we admire piano players who can play 16-20 notes per second, all the more do we marvel our speech automatisms with which may be doing up to 1400 articulations per second with perfect ease - 70 times faster than the flying fingers of the piano virtuoso.

The brain does not just fire off the fourteen hundred orders per second at random. It issues the electro-chemical neural transmissions in that magnitude of power and that order of sequence at which we are giving command. The arrival of the nerve's electro-chemical transmission at the target muscle must be in proper sequence, and its strength must stimulate the correct amplitude of the twitch of that muscle. The brain fires the signals from its motor strip terminal in a flurry of activity, subject to our conscious will to speak. Because some muscles are more distant from the source than others, the sequence of firing may need to be timed in reverse. Moreover, some of the nerves are thick and blitz the signal to the target muscle at about three hundred miles per hour, whereas other extremely fine nerves send the signal at a leisurely walking pace of 1.5 miles per hour. The brain must compute for distance and speed by firing the signals to coordinate the pull of the muscles to be exactly on split-second schedule to produce speech in proper order. Sometimes things get mixed up or go awry, and the ear, which monitors what is happening, admonishes us to correct ourselves and repeat, this time correctly. The short term memory keeps constant tabs on the on-going conversation and keeps our thoughts connected.

We can do all this with apparent ease and embellish what we say with added elegance of sparkling eyes, smiling face, and lilting voice when we deliver pleasant thoughts. Or, we can express displeasure by making the voice grate and rasp, by curling the lips, tweaking the nose, arching the eyebrows, clenching the fists, bulging the neck, erecting the hair, flushing the face scarlet, and flashing bolts of lightning from the eyes. Whether we speak with cooing love or with a towering rage, we can authenticate our intended meaning with these additional signs of communication.

Of course the brain doesn't pioneer all this every time we initiate verbal conversation. The brain is not an amateur but a seasoned professional, performing well after much practice. Our speech capabilities began to develop early, taking off at high speed around the age of two. The wiring of the brain for language ability is perfected only gradually:

Recent experimental data indicate that the acquisition of speech by children also involves genetically transmitted innate neural mechanisms that structure the production and perception of speech. Linguistic ability, particularly phonetic ability, appears to involve a `critical period' in which a child must be exposed to a language in a productive manner (Lieberman 1984, 332).

The primary language learning season lasts into the early teens, after which time new languages appear to be wired into the existing apparatus, as secondary circuits are plugged into primary circuits already in place. We ask next what the fossil record may reveal about the time when human speech began on earth; not just rudimentary speech, but the full ability to support thought and responsible human action.

Next Page: Chapter 3: Pre-Homo Sapiens People Not in Eden
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18