language makes us unique chimpanzees

The question of what makes us “human” has occupied philosophers since Aristotle. And the well-worn, but profound statement of 17th century French philosopher Descartes “I think, therefore I am” or in Latin “cogito ergo sum” (he actually wrote it if French: “Je pense, donc je suis”) has formed the basis for modern Western philosophy to this day. Today, thinking is one of the basic traits attributed to being human. And one of the pillars of thinking is language and speech, the ability to express our thoughts. From here, it is only a logical skip and hop to the assumption that Homo sapiens’ uniqueness resides in its acquisition of the capacity for speech. In fact, molecular biologists discovered that a gene responsible for speech, FOXP2, has undergone mutations in two areas. And it is these mutations that endowed us with the capacity for speech while the chimpanzee, which does not have this mutation, has no capacity for complex speech and by extension, for expressing ideas.

This finding is really mind-boggling. Just stop and think about it for a minute: A couple of completely random mutations in a specific gene have such profound effects so as to transform a non-thinking species into a thinking species—one which, in time, would grow to dominate not only the world, but also the genetic processes that brought about the critical mutations in the first place. It is nothing short of amazing. No wonder some people would see the hand of an “intelligent designer” in accomplishing this simple, yet elegant, feat.


But wait, things are not that simple

According to a story in the New York Times on October 19, 2007:

“Neanderthals, an archaic human species that dominated Europe until the arrival of modern humans some 45,000 years ago, possessed a critical gene known to underlie speech, according to DNA evidence retrieved from two individuals excavated from El Sidron, a cave in northern Spain. The new evidence stems from an analysis of a gene, called FOXP2, which is associated with language. The human version of the gene differs at two critical points from the chimpanzee version, suggesting that these two changes have something to do with the fact that people can speak and chimps cannot.

The genes of Neanderthals seemed to have passed into oblivion when they vanished from their last refuges in Spain and Portugal some 30,000 years ago, almost certainly driven to extinction by modern humans. But recent work by Svante Paabo, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has made it clear that some Neanderthal DNA can be extracted from fossils.

Dr. Paabo, Dr. Johannes Krause, and Spanish colleagues who excavated the new bones say they have now extracted the Neanderthal version of the relevant part of the FOXP2 gene. It is the same as the human version, they report in today’s issue of Current Biology.”


What’s the big deal?

We used to think of our cousins, the Neanderthals, as primitive, cultureless cave dwellers, who became extinct because they were just too dumb to compete with us, the intelligent creatures who were chosen to inherit the earth.

Bit by bit evidence is emerging that they were not primitive at all, compared with contemporary Homo sapiens. They made tools, just like us. They even made jewelry, similar to ours. What that implies is not only artistic capacity, but also the capacity to think abstractly; jewelry is fundamentally a symbolic expression of feelings, of desire to attract the opposite sex, and of social status. So not only were our “poor cousins” quite sophisticated, they must have had some kind of social hierarchy—just like us.

Now, we know that they could communicate using language. FOXP2 is critical for the capacity to speak, but it would be an oversimplification to assume that it is the only gene involved in speech. Nevertheless, what we know today is that speech did not make us unique, and that we were not exclusively endowed with intelligence, with abstract thinking, or with a sense of community and society.


FOXP2: What does it do?

When we talk about the endowment of the capacity for language, don’t you think about some complex neurological circuits in the brain, somehow miraculously transformed into the substrate on which grammar and syntax grow? I have always felt that there is something really abstract, almost magical about the acquisition of the capacity to express ourselves through speech.


Puff, the magic dragon

Like all other magical things, when we learn the mechanics of the “trick”, the awe is replaced with a feeling of being let down; is that all there was to it? I thought about it today, as my wife and I toured the Johnson Space Center in Houston, saw Mission Control in its true dimensions (much smaller and drabber than we saw on “Appolo 13” or on TV), and the Astronaut Training Center. The latter was especially deflating. I always had a sense of wonder about those competent, knowledgeable, daring, cool guys who seemingly could do anything under the most extreme circumstances. They were bigger than life, they were superhuman. Until we saw the mundane mechanics of their training. It was nothing more sophisticated than mastering certain skills in handling all kinds of hardware, not much more complicated than operating a crane or learning to drive. Of course, some of the operations are complex, some require extreme eye-hand coordination but basically, given the 10-year training period, any school teacher could do it. Astonishingly, you don’t even have to be a pilot.


What does all this have to do with FOXP2?

Unlike the magical powers I was ready to attribute to this gene, it probably is involved in the control of rapid motor movement, and the mutations that allowed us to speak simply enabled us to utter words, which require extremely rapid and delicately controlled muscle action. When a chimp sees something breathtaking he may sit, watching in awe, silently (or maybe a grunt or two). We, on the other hand, may wax poetic about it. But the somewhat disappointing difference is not abstract or magical at all, but purely mechanical—we have the mechanical capacity to give immediate expression to our thoughts. And so did our Neanderthal cousins.

What about dolphins, and whales? We still don’t know, but I am sure that their FOXP2 gene is being looked at.

Are there other species that have the mutations in FOXP2? Yes. Echolocating bats have it, and it makes sense: The bat has to rapidly respond to a continuous stream of sensations (sonar pulses) and respond appropriately. Bats that are not echolocating do not have these enabling mutations.

Confused? Don’t feel bad about it—so is everybody else. The story of language is still unfolding. What we are witnessing is the uncovering of the mysterious magic of language, and when the details come to light, inevitably, some of the mystery and its magical quality will dissipate.