Explore how six college students use the language of physical anthropology to study the human origins of language.

01 March 2011

Language Genes: A Look at FOXP2, ASPM and Microcephalin

From National Geographic: “Neanderthals Had Same ‘Language Gene’ as Modern Humans”
From the point of this gene, there is no reason to think that Neanderthals did not have language as we do. - Johannes Krause, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

Many believe that early beings did not have the ability to communicate verbally. While we don’t exactly know if this is true or not, European researchers have found that Neanderthals and humans share a common gene that has been coined as the “language gene,” or FOXP2, which stands for forkhead box protein P2. There are many language genes, but this gene has been speculated to be one of the only genes that are inclusive to humans and Neanderthals. It has also been said that chimpanzees and some apes share a modified version of this gene. While the original mutated form of the gene caused those who had it to have severe speech problems, it is believed that modern human beings have a mutated version of that last gene. Evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo states, “Sometime after the human and chimp lineages split off from each other about six million years ago, the gene may have accumulated two changes.” This justifies the reasoning of the different mutated forms of this gene and why the earlier carriers had speech problems, while modern humans are able to speak freely and, in our terms, normally. This finding reveals a possible evolutionary history of our ability to speak and provides further insight into discovering how we developed our language.

From The New York Times: "A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks"
Identified in 1998, the FOXP2 gene effectively switches on other genes in addition to its active role in "...constructing many tissues, including the lungs, stomach and brain" (Wade). However, the DNA sequence that makes up the human version of this gene is much different from those of mice and chimpanzees. In 2009, while at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, a large team of researchers studied 300 different features of mice "humanized" with the human version of the FOXP2 gene. This resulted in nerve cells developing a more complex structure within the mouse's basal ganglia, which may further explain why baby mice elicited ultrasonic whistles when removed from their mothers. In addition, the humanized mouse's whistles had a slightly lowered pitch. Consequentially, Dr. Wolfgang Enard of the Leipzig institute argues that "...putting significant human genes into mice is the only feasible way of exploring the essential differences between people and chimps, our closest living relatives" (Wade). While this may seem discouraging to some of us interested in discovering the origins of language, we like to see this particular study as an initial step in exploring the potentially vast capabilities of human-mouse gene transferral.


From Scientific American: "A Genetic Basis for Language Tones?"
Exactly what makes people speak the way they do? Linguists Robert Ladd and Dan Dediu have recently conducted studies that may help answer this question. Their research involves why certain languages are tonal, meaning the pitch of words spoken affect their meaning, or non-tonal, meaning the pitch of the words does not matter. This difference in language can be attributed to two genes: ASPM and Microcephalin. The populations who speak non-tonally have a mutation in these genes, and those who speak tonally have no mutation. The mutation in the genes of the non-tonal speakers affects the cerebral cortex, which controls the way the brain processes language. Of course, geographic and historical differences are a factor in the way languages develop, but the researchers found that the genetic mutations were always a stronger factor. This research sheds light on the question of whether language is determined by experience or genetics. Apparently, genetics may be the strongest factor.

From YouTube: "FOXP2, the Mutation that Turbo-Charged Human Consciousness"
In this short video, psychologist Keith Witt discusses a case study in which a family with only a single copy of the FOXP2 gene was functionally retarded, lacking creativity as well as good organizational skills. He goes on to say that this particular gene “up-leveled human consciousness” (Witt), and that major technological advancements, such as jewelry, weapons and musical instruments, arose as a result. Throughout the video, Dr. Witt repeats three times: “I, you, we, it. Past, present, future” (Witt). In essence, the mutation has given humans self-aware consciousness, allowing us to “functionally identify with animals” (Witt) and to time travel through our minds, to the beginning and the end of the universe. Interesting is the fact that this new “capacity for conscious, focused intent” (Witt) has ensured that we, as humans, direct how our brains develop.

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