Language, Cities, and inference to the best explanation

Part 5 in 20 Atheist answers to questions they supposedly can’t.

7. How do we account for the origin of 116 language families?
8. Why did cities appear all over the world between 3000 and 1000 BC?

Short answer: Science! (and History, linguistics, etc.)

Longer answer: The precise phylogeny of human language is another unanswered question, and there are a cluster of theories drawing circumstantial-but-not-overpowering support from various features. Perhaps all the languages on earth are distantly related to a linguistic common ancestor, but any association has been ablated. Maybe language has been recovered multiple times by multiple groups. Maybe something else entirely.

The catalyst to forming cities is similarly controversial. Maybe they were formed due to a desire to worship. Or maybe they developed as agriculture allowed non-subsistence farming. Or, again, maybe something else.

Fascinating though this is, I want to spend more time talking about the Saunder’s bizarre view on how theories and evidence work. As the argument behind these questions was that a) biblical christianity thanks to the tower of Babel has a far better explanation for languages:

The biblical record attributes the world’s varied languages to a supernatural confusion (multiplication) of languages by God occasioned by the building of the tower of Babel. We are told that originally all the world’s people spoke one language, but that when they began working together in rebellion against God he supernaturally caused them to speak different languages so that they would be unable to understand each other and would be divided from each other and spread all over the world.

Is this plausible? Well if the God in which Christians, Jews or Muslims actually exists then surely he would be able to do such a thing and may wish to. But does it fit the evidence?

In fact, if such an event had occurred, then the very thing we would expect to find is a large number of distinct language families each with its own complex vocabulary and grammar, which is exactly what we do find.

And b) that the relative simultaneity of cities might suggest man isn’t as old as we think.

I should have checked more carefully, but in fact most of the earliest cities were still built over a relatively narrow historical range of 3,000 or so years starting in about 5,000BC.

Why is this important? Well it raises an important question. If, as we are told, ‘anatomically modern’ humans originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, reaching full behavioural modernity around 50,000 years ago then why did it take them so long to get their act together and why did people in very diverse parts of the world suddenly all start building cities in the same narrow time frame?

One might argue that the building of cities requires a certain level of technology, but this just moves the question back one step to ask why it took man in ‘full behavioural modernity’ 45,000 years to develop this technology and why it was suddenly developed all over the world in such a small window of time.

Perhaps modern man is not quite as old as we think.

The Babel account can at least be consistent-ish with a splitting of early languages (maybe it was the event which gave us the 100+ or whatever language families beyond which our linguistic phylogeny gets shaky). But that is basically the only thing the ‘Babel’ account is consistent with.

  1. When was this supposed to happen? Young earth views force babel to have happened after china had a written language (for example). Even if you prefer old earth views and take whatever liberties you like with the timing, none of it makes sense – humans could speak languages and spread far long before had the architecture to make anything like towers. So this is just the wrong way around.
  2. Also, the classical Babel story has it happening after the great flood. We know thanks to science there never was a worldwide flood, and there could never be a worldwide flood. So the idea of humans ganging together to make a giant tower after an event that never happened is a bit inconsistent with the evidence.
  3. Where’s the archeological evidence for the migration, both ‘from the east’ to the tower site, and then everywhere else?
  4. Come to mention it, where’s the archeological evidence for the tower itself? (The suggested cognates are in Babylon both in place and time, which, again, is ‘too late’ in time to be the start of all languages.

Surely, a bit like Sherlock holmes, the Babel hypothesis is one of the impossibilities (at least, rank implausibilities) that can be safely ruled out. Indeed, it is a bit rich to accuse the historical linguistics hypotheses are ‘unfalsifiable’ and ‘unverifiable’ (perhaps not at the moment, but will that always be the case) whilst at the same time backing a theory that not only hasno support, but contradicts swathes of what we know about languages, human early history, etc.

Speaking of which, let’s move on to cities. It seems the right answer is something like Saunders suggests. Cities surely require technological advances as a pre-requisite, and given technological progress is pretty slow when you’re a subsistence farmer/hunter-gatherer, and speeds up exponentially thereafter, the fact we got cities being built independently within a several thousand year span doesn’t seem that implausible. Saunders seems to think it is weird that we all ‘sat around doing nothing’ before getting this technology. Perhaps he should have a chat to all the many different peoples who we discovered who never built cities, and ask them what the spent the last several millenia doing instead.

Across the scales from this at best mildly counter-intuitive result of humans being around for tens and hundreds of thousands of years, we range against it all the modern science that shows it must be so. We know man is this old because we have archeological remains we can date as being that old, and the techniques rely on fundamental (and extremely well established) physics, and the different techniques broadly agree. So pending a really compelling explanation as to how all of this mistaken, atheism completely canes literalist Christianity in providing an account of human history.

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