Stephen Barr – Review of Why Only Us: Language and Evolution

  • Article (book review)
  • 2300 words
  • Level: high school and above

Stephen Barr, a physicist at the University of Delaware and President (in 2017) of the Society of Catholic Scientists, reviews the 2015 book Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky.

(Click here for a preview of Why Only Us, courtesy of Google Books.)

Writing in the magazine First Things, Barr notes—

Perhaps the most sensitive point of contact between religion and science is the issue of human distinctiveness. Christian teaching affirms that there is an “ontological discontinuity” between humans and other animals. Only humans are made in the image of God and have immortal souls endowed with the spiritual powers of rationality and freedom. This does not admit of degrees: One either has an immortal soul or one does not. The discontinuity must therefore be historical as well as ontological. In our lineage there must have been a first creature or set of creatures who were human in the theological sense, but whose immediate progenitors were not.

Barr concludes his review with—

Is there an ontological discontinuity between humans and other animals? Berwick and Chomsky arrive, on purely empirical grounds, at the conclusion that there is. All animals communicate, but only humans are rational; and for Berwick and Chomsky, human language is primarily an instrument of rationality. They present powerful arguments that this astonishing instrument arose just once and quite suddenly in evolutionary history—indeed, most likely in just one member of Homo sapiens, or at most a few. At the biological level, this involved a sudden upgrade of our mental machinery, and Berwick and Chomsky’s theories of this are both more plausible than competing theories and more consistent with data from a variety of disciplines. But they recognize that more than machinery is involved. The basic contents and meanings, the deep-lying elements of human thought—“word-like but not words”—were somehow there, mysteriously, in the beginning.

Click here for the full review from First Things.