Noam Chomsky once wrote:
“As far as we know, possession of human language is associated with a specific type of mental organization, not simply a higher degree of intelligence. There seems to be no substance to the view that human language is simply a more complex instance of something to be found elsewhere in the animal world.”
Human language and its precursors seem to have developed by natural selection, an ever-advancing form of communication based on natural selection and brain size. Are there parts of our DNA that could code for language abilities? A language gene?
Years ago, scientists studied a British family that seemed to have a genetic speech impediment. This peculiar family led to the discovery of the gene FOXP2. Since then, other individuals with varying mutations in this gene have been found, and they all have language impediments.
All land-dwelling vertebrate animals carry this gene, but what does it do? Since it entered animal genomes, it has remained surprisingly unchanged, even after tens of millions of years. Until humans, that is. There’s been a recent acceleration in the evolution of FOXP2 since humans came to be, particularly in two amino acids.
Recent work with fMRI and biochemistry showed that the protein is important to controlling the fine neuron-to-muscle connections that lead to our ability to make advanced sounds and phonetics. Mice and birds also showed particular vocal changes when their FOXP2 proteins were changed.
It appears that the human FOXP2 gene allowed our ancestors to grow more advanced neuromuscular connections in the areas that control vocalization. Because of this, we were able to develop more advanced forms of communication to go along with our increased brain size. Our language is far more than just a gene, but we may have found a key ingredient in how it came to be.
High-end biology being done in garages across the country. Dangerous hobby or a sign of progress? Nice #longread from Discover:
Hugh Rienhoff climbs the stairs into his attic and ascends into a universe of genes, a space dominated by printouts and digital displays of his daughter’s DNA. It is a ritual he has followed regularly for the past five years, retreating here or to a makeshift basement lab in his San Francisco–area home, on the hunt for an error hidden somewhere within Beatrice Rienhoff’s genetic code. A mutation for which there are no data anywhere in medicine has depleted her muscle mass and weakened her joints. As an infant, Beatrice could not hold up her head at a time when most other babies her age were long past that milestone. Today, at age 7, she is heartbreakingly thin and wears braces in her shoes to support her fragile ankles. Finding the cause could point the way to a meaningful treatment.
Even though Rienhoff is the founder of two biotechnology companies and holds a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, he has conducted his hunt not as an expert in human genomics but as a do-it-yourself biologist, teaching himself the tricks of the trade as he moves along and doing his research at home.
(via DISCOVER Magazine)