Speech evolved from fish, according to reports in BBC News and ScienceNOW, 17 July 2008 and Science, vol. 321, p 417, 18 July 2008.

A group of American researchers have been studying the brain activity of the fish that communicate with sound. The midshipman fish makes a nest hole under rocks and makes humming sounds to attract females to come and lay their eggs in it. They also watch over their nests and fend off other males with grunts and growls.

To find out how the sounds were controlled, Andrew Bass of Cornell University and colleagues studied brain development in baby fish. They found the circuits in the fish’s brain that control the pitch and duration of the sounds, called pattern generators, in the bases of brain, where it connects with the spinal cord. They then looked at where similar circuits for sound production were in frogs, birds and primates – all of which use sound for communication.

Bass told BBC News: “It was astonishing how similar it was.” He went on to say: “You could see that was a very ancient part of the nervous system shared by all vertebrates. We came to the conclusion that it must have evolved early in time before these different groups emerged from the evolutionary family tree – around the time when bony fishes evolved about 400 million years ago.”

Bass and his colleagues are now researching the genes involved in sound production and are hoping to find “even more evidence for commonality.” In their report in Science the researchers noted that Darwin was aware of sounds made by fish, and in his book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex he speculated, “when the primeval members of this class [Vertebrata] were strongly excited and their muscles violently contracted, purposeless sounds would almost certainly have been produced; and these, if they proved in any way serviceable, might readily have been modified or intensified by the preservation of properly adapted variations.”

The ScienceNOW article begins with: “Next time you tell someone ‘I love you’ or ‘Hey, that’s my parking space,’ thank a fish.”


Editorial Comment: The research described above does not explain how these circuits came into existence – just that they exist in many kinds of animals, and therefore it does not explain how they evolved from an animal that did not have them. The conclusion that they evolved 400 million years ago is not a scientific one – it is a belief based on a pre-existing evolutionary timetable.

There is nothing astonishing in these findings. Just because fish, frog, birds and primates all have circuits that control sound production in similar places in their brains does not prove one changed into the other. It just means this is where these circuits work in any creature that needs them.

Furthermore the ability to make controlled sounds does not mean that these animals are on their way to evolving human speech. Although many animals communicate with sounds (and gestures) only humans have speech language. Speech takes more than just the ability to make different kinds of sounds. This is because we are made in the image of God, who speaks, and it is He whom we must thank for the ability to communicate with our fellow human beings and with God.

Evidence News 4 February 2009

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