Tuesday, 17 June 2014
Language In Our Genes
“an essential component of the human mind, a crucial element of the human essence.” - Noam Chomsky on language.
Two amino acids. That's it? Just this one random mutation in our genetic make-up hundreds of thousands of years ago is what gave us the gift of speech, our most defining attribute, and perhaps the most integral part of human evolution. It set us apart from every other species on earth; it gave us art and music and literature, it made us human. For me, that's pretty huge to think about.
It was in 2002 that a group of German researches discovered subtle differences in a protein known as FOXP2 between humans and chimps. All mammals have this protein, but in humans, two of its component amino acids are different (I'm not entirely sure what that means either). But this was the clue which helped scientists to see why humans are able to speak, but apes, genetically similar in so many other ways, are not.
Ask any geneticist or linguist about the 'KE Family', and they'll tell you just how significant this London-born family were in fitting together the missing pieces of the human evolution jigsaw puzzle. In a nutshell, all of this family's members suffered from an inherited speech disorder, and here's where the link is: every single one of them possessed genetic mutations that affected the function of FOXP2.
Now don't worry, I'll leave the protein and the DNA and the chromosome stuff up to those who know what they're talking about. What fascinates me isn't so much the statistics or the science, but rather how this science affects everything else.
Language is in our genes. And we can see evidence of this everyday. Where? Well one example is speech disorders; if a specific part of the human brain is damaged, or its development interrupted, language production and sometimes even understanding is affected. Where else? Babies. The human language, unlike any other skill which we acquire growing up, is instinctive; it is an innate ability, rather than something which is learned. A small child will pick up an average of 10 new words everyday without making any kind of conscious effort. Steven Pinker perfectly likened our ability to speak to a spider's ability to spin webs. We don't have to think about it, we just do it.
Maybe becuase it is so second nature to us, we tend to forget just what a miracle the human language is.