22 September 2011

Why chimps can't talk

Scientists have long since wondered why it is that humans developed the ability to express themselves through speech whereas other animals haven’t.  In the past, most research focused on the circumstances of human evolution, implying that speech developed as a result of the need for more advanced communication.  But more recently, scientists have begun to look at the generic makeup of humans to see if there is a more fundamental reason.

A recent article in the journal ‘Nature’ considered research being undertaken by the University of California where they are comparing a gene called ‘FOX2P’ to the same gene in chimpanzees, our nearest relative in the animal kingdom.

During their experiments they applied FOX2P genes from humans and chimps to cells in the laboratory to see which circuits they activated.  To their surprise, they found that the human and chimpanzee versions of the gene triggered different reactions.  Despite the crude similarities between chimpanzee and early human brains, it appears that the human version of the FOX2P gene ‘switches on’ the circuits in the brain that are associated with language and speech, the so called Broca and Wernicke regions, whereas the chimpanzee version didn’t.

The FOX2P gene had previously been known to be implicated in speech, as defects in the gene were known to cause speech and language impairment, but the extent of its involvement is a new discovery that paves the way for new avenues of research.  For example, by identifying the genes that are influenced by FOX2P it may be possible to develop cures for a variety of speech related problems and conditions.

The implication this research has for furthering our understanding of the development of the human brain, is that it appears language may have developed as a result of a genetic mutation, rather than as the result of environmental requirements and Darwinian evolution.

1 comment:

  1. Presumably, if they injected human FOX2P into a sufficiently large number of chimp's brains one of them would eventually recite the words of Shakespeare.

    Oh to be a scientist!


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