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Is there a language gene that other species do not have?

Language appears to be unique in the natural world, a defining feature of the human condition. Although other species have complex communication systems of their own, even our closest living primate relatives do not speak, in part because they lack sufficient voluntary control of their vocalizations. After years of intensive tuition, some chimpanzees and bonobos have been able to acquire a rudimentary sign language. But still the skills of these exceptional cases have not come close to those of a typical human toddler, who will spontaneously use the generative power of language to express thoughts and ideas about present, past and future.


It is certain that genes are important for explaining this enigma. But, there is actually no such thing as a "language gene" or "gene for language", as in a special gene with the designated job of providing us with the unique skills in question. Genes do not specify cognitive or behavioural outputs; they contain the information for building proteins which carry out functions inside cells of the body. Some of these proteins have significant effects on the properties of brain cells, for example by influencing how they divide, grow and make connections with other brain cells that in turn are responsible for how the brain operates, including producing and understanding language. So, it is feasible that evolutionary changes in certain genes had impacts on the wiring of human brain circuits, and thereby played roles in the emergence of spoken language. Crucially, this might have depended on alterations in multiple genes, not just a single magic bullet, and there is no reason to think that the genes themselves should have appeared "out of the blue" in our species.

There is strong biological evidence that human linguistic capacities rely on modifications of genetic pathways that have a much deeper evolutionary history. A compelling argument comes from studies of FOXP2 (a gene that has often been misrepresented in the media as the mythical "language gene"). It is true that FOXP2 is relevant for language – its role in human language was originally discovered because rare mutations that disrupt it cause a severe speech and language disorder. But FOXP2 is not unique to humans. Quite the opposite, versions of this gene are found in remarkably similar forms in a great many vertebrate species (including primates, rodents, birds, reptiles and fish) and it seems to be active in corresponding parts of the brain in these different animals. For example, songbirds have their own version of FOXP2 which helps them learn to sing. In-depth studies of versions of the gene in multiple species indicate it plays roles in the ways that brain cells wire together. Intriguingly, while it has been around for many millions of years in evolutionary history, without changing very much, there have been at least two small but interesting alterations of FOXP2 that occurred on the branch that led to humans, after we split off from chimpanzees and bonobos. Scientists are now studying those changes to find out how they might have impacted the development of human brain circuits, as one piece of the jigsaw of our language origins.

by Simon Fisher, Katerina Kucera & Katherine Cronin

Further readings:

Revisiting Fox and the Origins of Language (link)

Fisher S.E. & Marcus G.F. (2006) The eloquent ape: genes, brains and the evolution of language. Nature Reviews Genetics, 7, 9-20. (link)

Fisher, S.E. & Ridley, M. (2013). Culture, genes, and the human revolution. Science, 340, 929-930.(link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos