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Wednesday, 14 August, 2002, 18:09 GMT 19:09 UK
First language gene discovered
Chimp (BBC)
A few changes in a gene explains why chimps can't talk

Scientists think they have found the first of many genes that gave humans speech.

Without it, language and human culture may never have developed.

Key changes to a gene in the last 200,000 years of human evolution appear to be the driving force.


Language could have been the decisive event that made human culture possible

Wolfgang Enard, Max Planck Institute
The gene, FOXP2, was the first definitively linked with human language.

A "mistake" in the letters of the DNA code causes a rare disorder in humans marked by severe language and grammar difficulties.

The gene was discovered last year but now scientists have studied the DNA of apes to see what sets us apart from our closest animal cousins.

Mice to men

German and British researchers looked at the chimp, gorilla, orang-utan, rhesus macaque monkey and mouse.

They wanted to see how the gene differed in mice, monkeys and man.

Baby girl (BBC)
Learning to speak: An instinct with genetic roots
They found slight but crucial changes to the chemical sequence of the gene that happened during the passage of time.

"This is hopefully the first of many language genes to be discovered," says Wolfgang Enard of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

"It happened in the same time frame when modern humans evolved," he told BBC News Online.

"It is compatible with the hypothesis that language could have been the decisive event that made human culture possible."

Genetic roots

Changes to two single letters of the DNA code arose in the last 200,000 years of human evolution.

They eventually spread throughout the human population along with our unique capacity for speech.

"The idea is that these changes gave some people an advantage because they were able to communicate more clearly," says co-author Simon Fisher of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, UK.

"This variation in the gene expanded in the population and became fixed so everybody had what is now the human version of the gene."

The possibility that language has genetic roots was first raised in the 1960s.

Scientists argue that there must be a genetic basis to speech and language.

It is universal, complex and acquired almost instinctively by children at a young age.

'Hard to digest'

The sequence change identified by the German and British team is thought to be linked to an ability to control facial movements - a faculty crucial to language.

John Haught, Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, Washington DC, is not surprised by the finding, reported in the online edition of the journal Nature.

"What may be harder to digest is that such a momentous outcome as language and culture seems to be so exquisitely dependent on a physically infinitesimal genetic difference that allowed for a certain kind of facial movement in our ancestors," he says.

The researchers stress that other speech and language genes are likely to be discovered.

According to Wolfgang Enard there could be anywhere between 10 and 1,000 such genes.

"We don't think this is THE speech gene," Dr Fisher told BBC News Online.

"It influences the ability to speak clearly. The mutation doesn't remove the capacity for speech completely."

See also:

03 Oct 01 | Science/Nature
28 Mar 00 | Science/Nature
24 May 02 | Science/Nature
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