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Mutant Gene Responsible for Speech? 645

An anonymous submitter writes: "A new study published in Nature reports that humans developed speech and language 200,000 years ago as a result of gene mutation. Washington Post story with more background. The mutation in the FOXP2 gene allowed humans greater control over their mouth and throat muscles, and gave them the ability to produce new sounds. It was apparently such an advantageous mutation that it quickly swept through the human population (10,000 - 20,000 years) almost entirely wiping out earlier versions. This development seems to also match up closely with the time period humans began developing culture. Researchers next want to try altering the gene in mice to see what happens, although they suspect there are many other genes involved. So, how long until I can get a talking dog?"
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Mutant Gene Responsible for Speech?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:35AM (#4075642)
    Now those "Would you eat me if I talked?" Greenpeace ads will actually be reality. Goodbye Big Mac :( -
  • by bucklesl ( 73547 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:35AM (#4075646) Homepage

    ...A talking dog..." - Gecko

  • by Kaeru the Frog ( 152611 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:36AM (#4075650)
    ...isn't evolution based on genes mutating? Why is this such a surprise?
    • ...isn't evolution based on genes mutating? Why is this such a surprise?

      Not necessarily. Most evolution happens by survival of the strongest (or fittest). The best individuals survive and pass on their genes.

      Gene mutations are random events. They add something new, something unexpected to the gene pool. Most of the time, the mutation is harmful, the individual dies, and the mutation is not handed on to the next generation. But sometimes, something good will result, making the gene pool stronger.

      Humans might have developed their speech skills just by slow development (the ape that grunts loudest gets to pick its mate or something). This study suggests that there was a great leap in evolution, due to the mutation, and that relatively few genes control a major part of the throat muscles.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:37AM (#4075656)
    [blockquote]The mutation in the FOXP2 gene allowed humans greater control over their mouth and throat muscles, and gave them the ability to produce new sounds.[/blockquote] The scientists added that the spread of this mutation would have been much quicker had oral sex not been discovered in tandem.
  • by i_want_you_to_throw_ ( 559379 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:39AM (#4075659) Journal
    that "Language is a virus"

    Reckon we'll have to rewrite the science books. The BIG science books.
  • Talking Dog (Score:3, Informative)

    by Mike1024 ( 184871 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:41AM (#4075672)

    So, how long until I can get a talking dog?

    Ooh, maybe 10,000 - 20,000 years?

    Well, maybe not that long, but still... quite a while.

  • by jaymzter ( 452402 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:41AM (#4075673) Homepage

    1. What the hell does Mickey Mouse have to do with this?

    2. Didn't they already accomplish this with Stuart Little? Which gene allowed him to drive?

    3. I thought I already saw this on Pinky and the Brain.
    "What are we going to do tonight, Brain?"
    "The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Have our genes altered so we can get a follow up story in Slashdot!"

  • by bsDaemon ( 87307 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:42AM (#4075676)
    They had a show on there about human evolution abouta month ago. The chick said that the reason humans can speak is because we can swim. Being ablt to hold our breath and control our breathing in gerneal allows us to controll the air over the vocal chords. She seems to believe that way back when we were semi-aquatic monkeys or something. Can't say I totaly disagree
  • Behold, the time has come for Dr Rat to lead the revolution.

    (Dr Rat is a novel by William Kotzwinkle about a talking rat in a research lab. Well worth reading)
  • We're ALL X-Men?
  • by YellowSubRoutine ( 230089 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:45AM (#4075690)
    Isn't that exactly evolution at work?
    Aren't we all what we are because of a series of accidental gene mutations?
  • The mutation in the XP2 gene allowed humans greater control over their mouth and throat muscles, and gave them the ability to produce new sounds.

    ..After they signed the EULA
  • Parrots? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Quixote ( 154172 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:46AM (#4075692) Homepage Journal
    Parrots can make most of the sounds that humans can make ( and then some []). Does that mean parrots can "speak" like humans, or develop a culture? I don't think the ability to make sounds has anything to do with culture.
    • Maybe it's forming a culture that needs speech, rather than the other way around?
    • But it's hard to see how a complex culture could develop without speech.

      However, some recent research has claimed that some of the great apes posess the rudiments of culture, in that genetically homogenous groups that are from different regions perform the same task (for instance gathering a particular type of food) in different ways. Another (artificial) example of a rudimentary "culture" was some monkeys (forget where) that were tempted into the water by food thrown into it, and subsequently learned to swim. In addition, they also grew to like the taste of the added salt from the water on their food, and started to take the food they gathered themselves and dip it in the salty water to flavour it - something not seen previously. They have continued to do so long after the original stimulus disappeared.

      Now, I'm not claiming that this is anything remotely approaching the complexity of human cultures, but it is interesting nonetheless.

      • But it's hard to see how a complex culture could develop without speech.

        Sign Language. Deaf communities often have cultures very different from the Hearing people in the same environment. Culture requires the ability to communicate; not necessarily audibly. Parots can talk. They cannon communicate.

        I suspect that they would find that the ability to communicate, to solve more complex logical problems, to feel emotion, and a concept of right and wrong all started about the same time. The sixth day.
        • And thats ignoring a basic flaw in the monkey analogy. Monkeys learn by imitation. Salt was not a developed taste, but knowing that certain water had salt IN IT required being thrown into it by an outside source.

          I don't know of the exact experiment, but it's clear that what happened is that HUMANS taught them to add salt by dipping it in the water, then they taught this to their infants who learned by imitation. Almost all wild mammals will consume as much salt as they can find.

          Problem solving doesn't denote intelligence. Any creature will use methods that have worked before to achieve similiar results. Intelligence is coming up with methods it has never seen used before and knowing in advance whether or not they are likely to work. Even human children fail many tests of intelligence until they are older, until they learn to communicate.

          Consider Hellen Keller or feral children. They act as beasts until taught to communicate, then they suddenly jump into society with little splash. It isn't just genetics at work here.
          • Sure, monkeys can be tought to do things. But the monkey isn't going to figure it out in the first place. Problem solving is coming up with a solution, not using a learned solution.
    • It's also more difficult for parrots to build tools (although not so tough for crows! :), cars, houses, dishware, sew, and program computers; they can replicate our sounds but do they understand our language?

      Humans had a decided advantage b/c of more obvious phsysiology (hands) as well, speech just made it easier to say "ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US!"

      And who's to say they don't have a culture that's all their own, too.

      But I don't blame anyone for anything.
    • Does that mean parrots can "speak" like humans, or develop a culture?

      I have to agree with this. Culture and "language" were a development of the brain, not speech. After all, sign language provide more than adequate language skills to create and develop culture.

      An interesting note of trivia has to do with the indigenous population of the Canary Islands. They lived on the string of islands, but never built boats and thus never actually met. They communicated between islands using whistles. In fact, their entire language was built on whistles. They are the only group of humans known to have a language built on whistles.

      Unfortunately, upon colonization of the Canaries, the Spanish all but wiped them out. Supposedly there are still a few descendants of these indigenous people who still whistle the native tongue.
    • I don't think the ability to make sounds has anything to do with culture.

      Sound (or some other means of communicaton.. I think of Octopi and thier colour changes here) is necessary but not suficient for culture, and has co-evoilved with the rest of the extraordinary human brain.

      If you have a few days to kill, don't mind complexity and are really interested, go read 'The Symbolic Species' by Terrence deacon for more details.

    • No, this [] is what we are worried about. When your typewriters end up missing, you know something is wrong.
    • At least, according to this [] story. Talks about a crow that can use tools and (briefly) at the bottom about an african grey parrot that had a 100+ word vocabulary and was able to ask questions and make requests (I assume greater than "Polly wanna cracker.") There was also some discussion about replacing the actor who plays "Wil Riker" with an african grey as the bird would be able to deliver its lines with more conviction...

      Perhaps in a few dozen millenia the giant mutant african greys will run the planet...

    • Hypothetically:

      big brain + prehensile digits + warm blood + speech = culture

      and speech is the only thing missing, then, once you get speech you get culture.

      Parrots have pretty good brains, they can be taught basic arithmetic, and they can pick things up with their claws. However, they can't easily manipulate objects to make tools and they've not been shown capable of higher-order thought. Parrots are great mimicers, but I haven't seen anything to make me believe they understand grammars and syntax. So, probably their brains aren't quite big enough. [big == surface area, not volume]
      • A couple years back, I read an interesting article about this parrot point. It can very well go beyond mimicry.

        Couldn't find the original SciAm article, but this looks like an interview with the same researcher. read this. []

        Now, I believe this parrot is pretty old, and has been trained for years by Ms. Pepperberg. But Alex (the parrot) isn't just responding on cue, it is doing some abstract and symbolic thought.
    • The word "culture" doesn't just mean human-type culture; it refers to any passing of information from one generation to the next by behavioral means.

      Behavioralists have written a fair amount about parrot "culture". Parrots are generally adapted to exploiting a food source that is difficult to exploit. Parrots mostly eat seeds (and sometimes the fruit around them), so to a tree they are predators, and in areas with parrots, trees tend to protect their seeds. Part of the protectin is hard shells, but part is by hiding them so that parrots can't easily find them.

      Part of the explanation of how parrots survive is that they learn to find seeds from the flock's elders. A flock member will remember that at this time of year, over on the east side of that hill, there are these trees that have good seeds about half-way up and 2/3 of the way out from the trunk. That parrot will lead the others there, and they'll learn about the seeds, and remember.

      This is the conventional explanation of their intelligence, memory and longevity. These are needed to remember how to find all those hidden seeds from year to year.

      We have a female cockatiel that we got from a friend with a breeding pair about 5 years ago. She's generally a skittish bird who is very wary of strangers. He moved away about 3 years ago. When he was in town a few months ago, he came by for a visit. After a few seconds of looking at him skeptically, she flew over, landed on his shoulder and nibbled his ear. This illustrates the memory abilities of even a small parrot.

      Anyone who has had a pet parrot knows quite well how effective a "three-fingered hand" their beak and tongue are. If they had managed to spare a few brain cells for more complex language, they would now be the ones running the planet.
    • The article doesn't purport that having the ability to create our human languages led to culture, but a combination of our traits. Without the ability to have complex languages, we wouldn't have ended up with "civilizations." This mutation opened something up for the rest of our population- for our thinking brains and our tool-making hands.

      This gene, integrated into populations of bonobos could most definately lead to cities of humping primates. That talk.
  • by shoemakc ( 448730 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:48AM (#4075704) Homepage

    ...when speech is about to be ruled a DRM circumvention device under the DCMA.

    I mean....uh.....::grunt::::grunt:::

    • imagine a beowolf of genes? whoa..

      geez, does there have to be the pseudo-requisit-stupid-boilerplate-take-down-the-g overnment-that-we-elected-anyways-doh-we-should-fe el-stupid post?

  • The mutation in the FOXP2 gene allowed humans greater control over their mouth and throat muscles..

    Mutation must be how porn stars can take down a 12 inch Kielbasa on Howard Stern. Do you think those researches doing the mice gene implant can take a porn star throat gene and place it in my wifes throat? :)

    • Mutation must be how porn stars can take down a 12 inch Kielbasa on Howard Stern. Do you think those researches doing the mice gene implant can take a porn star throat gene and place it in my wifes throat? :)

      Just make sure your wife doen't get the other porn star genes along with it ... you know, the genes that make them suddenly become obese astrologers when they get too old, or too ugly, to keep their day jobs.
    • Do you think those researches doing the mice gene implant can take a porn star throat gene and place it in my wifes throat? :)
      Hey if she reads slashdot maybe she'll post and tell us all how unnecessary that would be :)
  • I knew it wasn't a cartoon, its actually the lab report after the genetic modification to enable them to speak.

    Of course if you tried the same on Rabbits they'd only ever say one thing..... "grass".
  • Oh no! (Score:3, Funny)

    by yeoua ( 86835 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @07:56AM (#4075743)
    They had better not give this to an ape! Or he'll start talking and become super intelligent and start rallying the Earth's apes under his super power and then take over human kind only to establish a new ape government onto of a nuclear wasted planet so that some astronaut sent up and forgotten can wake up on this new Earth and find the broken statue and fall to his knees a scream...
    • We better destroy all records of those movies quickly then!!!

      And even if the primates doesn't gain control, I am still winning, because I don't like the movies;)
  • Not for certain yet (Score:5, Informative)

    by MiTEG ( 234467 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @08:08AM (#4075787) Homepage Journal
    This gene:

    may have played a central role in the development of modern humans' ability to speak
    could have given them a critical advantage
    may at least partly explain why humans can speak and animals cannot

    The /. headline is misleading. It is suspected that this mutation in the FOXP2 gene is responsible for language development and not necessarily speech. Some birds can "speak" but they do not have language abilities.

    The confusing part to me is the fact that gorillas obviously have language ability, as seen in Koko [], a gorilla that is able sign. So the mutation in this gene does not determine whether a species has the capacity for language or not, perhaps it only determines the proficiency in language.
    • Herb Terrace's research with "Nim Chimpsky" in the 1970s blew away the "animals can sign" theories. Some people cling to this, but in general nobody claims that chimps can talk (with their hands).
      • by Luyseyal ( 3154 ) <> on Thursday August 15, 2002 @10:48AM (#4076821) Homepage
        I wrote a paper on this year before last. There are quite a few PhD's in cognitive science and cognitive ethology who think chimps, dogs, and others are communicating quite well. They'll tell you it's simply a matter of degree of language skills, not "yes these animals have it" or "no they don't".

        No primate has signed a sentence longer than 3 signs, it is true. But hand signs aren't the only thing they're testing. There's another group of chimp researchers who use a button pushing mechanism.

        Anyhow, the point is, one dumb chimp doesn't collapse the theory. It's far more compelling to me that these high level animals could understand some basic emotions and drives and assign a label for those concepts than to accept that they are complete automata, lacking comprehension of any ability.

        So, I demand more proof than a one-off experiment with one chimp to prove the research is off-base.

        For reference, you can read my paper here:

  • Genes do not sweep (Score:2, Insightful)

    by johnbr ( 559529 )
    I'm sorry, but mutations don't "sweep" through anything (and I seriously doubt that it took only 10k-20k years to do a total population replacement).

    Genetic varation occurs because one group outcompetes another group for food or geography, or because two groups interbreed. It is possible, although unlikely given the way we primates reject strangeness, that the gene was interbred. It is much more likely that a long, _sloooooooooooooooow_ process of population replacement was responsible.

    My bet is that in a few years, they'll recant the 10-20k year "sweep", and acknowledge that it was more like 50-100k years to swap out everyone on Earth.

  • According to a recent CNN story I was reading, dogs can do math. They mumbled something about a stack of treats and concealing them to either add, remove or leave the same the number of treats, and how the dog looked at the stack longer when treats were added or removed...

    A little genetic engineering and Lassie will not only be able to save Timmy from the well, she'll also be able to help him with his calculus homework and do the farm's taxes.

  • Talking dog (Score:4, Funny)

    by PhoenxHwk ( 254106 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @08:22AM (#4075848) Homepage
    So, how long until I can get a talking dog?

    The D&D rules specifically state that creatures must have an int of over 3 to be able to speak. You need to find a really smart dog and put the gene in that one. :)
  • by WillWare ( 11935 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @08:23AM (#4075853) Homepage Journal
    It's no surprise that a particular mutation of a specific gene was the last bit of enabling geneology needed for human speech. What's interesting (if true) is that they've been able to identify which one. It's a remarkable piece of genetic archeology.

    Another poster mentioned that parrots can articulate speech about as well as humans can, and yet there's no thriving parrot culture. One wonders about whales and elephants whose brains handily outmass our own; if given the faculty of speech, would they develop cultures? Do they already have cultures of which we are unaware because of communication methods we don't know about? Both whales and elephants use sound in complex ways to communicate over long distances, but we haven't yet deciphered the language of either.

    It would be interesting to give elephants better manipulators, and see if they build anything interesting. It would also be interesting to invent an elephant-friendly weapon that gave them fairer odds against poachers.

  • So after 200,000 years of evolution, training and experience we have finally reached this [] level of communication?

    What did we do wrong?
  • NPR (Score:3, Informative)

    by oyenstikker ( 536040 ) < minus punct> on Thursday August 15, 2002 @08:30AM (#4075880) Homepage Journal
    NPR has a bit about this on Morning Edition. Go to and choose your stream format at the top left.
  • It was apparently such an advantageous mutation that it quickly swept through the human population (10,000 - 20,000 years) almost entirely wiping out earlier versions

    Realize that what we're saying here is that the individuals who had this mutation had a reproductive advantage over others. Since making new sounds doesn't increase the number of live births per "litter", this finding inevitably means that smooth-talking cavemen got all the girls.

    Clearly, it must be that this mutation allowed the creation of the earliest dating technology: the pick up line.

    Doubtless, such old pick up lines as "Hey, baby! Want to come back to my cave and see my bison paintings?" date back to this early period and have been passed down to us through the ages.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Language problems run in the 'KE' family. Members of several generations speak "as if each sound is costing them their soul", one researcher has said.

    Is... that... you... ?
    Hurray it's William Shatner's lost family! I'm so glad. Maybe now they can fix 'em up.
    You... keep... missing the... target... If... you want... me... you'll have to... come... ... down here... ... ...Kahn! KaAaAaAaAhn! KaAAAAaaaaaaHn!
  • Three race horses are standing around in the stable talking. The first horse says to the others, "I've been in 10 races and won 6 of them." The other two horses said, "That's pretty good." The second horse says, "Well, I've been in 15 races and won 11 of them." The other two horses were impressed and said, "That's really good!" Then the third horse says, "Well, I've been in 20 races and won 16 of them!" The other horses were very impressed and said, "Wow! That's great!"

    A greyhound dog walks up and says, "I couldn't help overhearing you guys and just wanted you to know I've been in 26 races and won 21 of them." The horses all look at each other and said, "Holy crap! A talking dog!"

  • In other news, researchers from the Bethesda Institute for Genetic Research report that chin dimples, which have done so much to endear stars such as Robert Mitchum to women, are also the result of a mutated gene.
  • I don't know Davey, that doesn't sound like such a good idea.
  • Biolofical reductionism tries to explain living things with single causes. This has been mostly done with disease, but now they are trying to explain human behaviors. Too simple.
  • How did these geneticists come up with their estimates for the time to replace the previous gene in the population, and when the replacement occurred?

    It sounds to me like they completely pulled these numbers out of their hats, especially the estimate of the time it took this allele to replace the previously dominant one(s). How could they possibly know what this number would be?

    They talk about this gene as if there are no other alleles other than those possessed by the non-talking family etc. Are there? This would help me believe (or not) their estimate of when the beneficial mutation occurred. But if there is only one very (completely) dominant form of this gene, how would they measure the age of it? How can these scientists realisticly weigh its genetic advantage? The family in England with the mutant copy; do they have the same version of this gene that is possessed by chimps? (This is the unlikely case, and the interesting one. The chimp version may have been the previously dominant version.) Or do they just have some random, harmful mutation of it? (This is the likely case, and less interesting in gauging the importance of this gene.)

    Details, I want details.
  • This is all just part of the Mice's experiments on us... They wanted the cavemen to be able to tell them the answer, not just grunt it or spell it out on the scrabble board!
  • I've often wondered, with this research and an earlier article about scientists creating mice with larger, crenellated brains. If we created a race of intelligent, articulate mice, could we ethically keep them as pets? Wouldn't they be entitled to rights, like self determination?

    How could it be acceptable to kill them for research, or hold them against their wills?
  • Simpsons.. (Score:3, Funny)

    by al3x ( 74745 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:48AM (#4076348) Homepage
    Talking dog: "Homer, find your soul mate!"
    Homer: "Wait, there's no such thing as a talking dog!"
    Talking dog: "Arf arf!"
    Homer: "Damn straight!"
  • Speech != language (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mrogers ( 85392 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @09:52AM (#4076388)
    What kind of competitive advantage would speech have offered for early humans, if language did not already exist? Language consists of much more than the production of words. You also need to be able to parse sentences, to "reverse-engineer" the grammar of your parents' language before you can start producing sentences of your own. This raises the question of whether parts of the brain have evolved "for" grammar (a hypothesis supported by Noam Chomsky [] and argued by Steven Pinker in his excellent book The Language Instinct [] ), or whether existing pattern-recognition and planning mechanisms turned out to be useful for language, influencing the form and scope of all subsequent languages (suggested by Mark Steedman [] among others).

    It's even possible that complete languages existed before humans were able to speak. American Sign Language is an example of a language with its own complete, unique grammar and morphology, which does not make use of speech. (See Pinker's book again.) Its existence supports the hypothesis that the parts of the brain responsible for language can operate independently of the parts that co-ordinate speech. In summary, there is a lot more to language than co-ordinating the muscles of the mouth and throat.

  • mutant genes are responsible for everything - it's what genes do.
  • "If an infinite number of rednecks driving an infinite number of pickup trucks fired an infinite number of shotguns at an infinite number of road signs, they would eventually write all the great books braille."
  • by Louis Savain ( 65843 ) on Thursday August 15, 2002 @12:17PM (#4077593) Homepage
    Evolved speech is one thing but how about music? Here is a few little questions for the evolutionary crowd.

    What is it about appreciating music that is evolutionary important? Does loving music make one more fit for survival? If not, where are the music-insensitive humanoid species? Why were they wiped out if they ever existed? Was it war? Di the music lovers kill off the others? Is there something about a mutated music-loving gene that makes some of us violent and want to kill off non-music lovers?

Money can't buy love, but it improves your bargaining position. -- Christopher Marlowe